Author note: The following story was pitched to the LA Weekly’s food section and was slated to run this week as a preview for chef Visoth Tarak Ouk’s Dec. 8 pop-up dinner. However, since there are no editors left at the LA Weekly and the paper itself is now in the hands of the OC Register opinion section, I am submitting the piece here, where it will be appreciated.
Like so many other young Cambodian-American chefs, Andy Eap’s first kitchen job was making doughnuts. Every summer for four years, Eap ran Jane’s Corn Dogs on the Newport Peninsula, one of a handful of bakeries and snack shops owned by his aunt, a Cambodian refugee, who like so many others, used that segment of the food industry to make a new life in the U.S.
While Cambodians’ longtime connection to doughnut shops is a well-documented trend (more than 80 percent of doughnut shops in California are Khmer-owned), what is less known are the culinary exploits of the next generation, the ones who grew up baking with their aunties, but have since traded glazes and sprinkles for pop-up dinners and cottage licenses.
“I knew how to make 500 croissants a day, but the artistic side of food is what I learned from these guys,” Eap says, referring to the more experienced members of Chefs Off the Boat, a new collective of young Cambodian-Americans using their cooking skills to bring awareness to the complex cuisine of their motherland. Eap is the owner of Big Juicy’s Wings, a 3-year-old Long Beach catering company centered around his own chicken-wing marinades and sauces, which appears at beer festivals and special events several times a year.
Chefs Off the Boat was founded by Eap along with a dozen or so other (mostly) Long Beach-based community organizers and culinary creatives earlier this year. The list of active members includes: Federal Bar executive chef Visoth Tarak Ouk (aka Chef T); James Republic cook and Le Awe Catering owner Maurice Yim (who we profiled earlier this year); Cajun-loving Cambodian-sauce maker Chad Phuong; the Tan brothers from Phnom Penh Noodle Shack and more.
“I learned how to fry at Jane’s, but they [Chefs Off the Boat members] taught me how to plate food better, how to make it fancy,” Eap says.
In early October, Eap had the chance to put these new skills to use, working long days alongside Ouk, Yim and other Chefs off the Boat members in an industrial kitchen at the Pacific Ballroom at the Long Beach Arena. Together, they crafted a multi-course fine-dining modern Cambodian dinner for 600 people.
That night, as plates of seafood curry with Louisiana-style crawfish and hangar steak with thuk prahok aoli rolled out to the tables of donors at the United Cambodian Community’s 40th anniversary gala, Ouk called the meal historic. It marked not only the first time Cambodian fusion food had been served at a Cambodian-centered event like this, he said, but it was also the most number of people to ever feast on a fine-dining-style Cambodian dinner of this kind.
“This is a new revolution, a new way of putting our food out there,” Ouk said to the crowd. “We’re taking plays from Western techniques but we’re not taking away from the [traditional Cambodian lemongrass paste] kreung. I hope the trend keeps going and we can put our people on the map through more culinary events like this.”
Ouk, the most visible member of the Chefs Off the Boat crew, is leading the outreach charge. Since August, he’s been doing a series of themed Cambodian pop-up dinners, collaborating with Dine LBC and other locally focused groups to bring the tangy, fishy, spicy, sweet and fermented flavors of Cambodia to new audiences (think: Cambodian beef stick sliders and tacos filled with Khmer longanisa sausage — a twa koh taco). The next one, on Dec. 8 at Legend Seafood Restaurant, is titled “A Stroll Through Phnom Penh” and (in Ouk’s typical community-focused fashion) is also a combination holiday toy drive.
The goal, says Ouk, is to expose more non-Cambodians to Khmer food, which though related to Thai, Laotian and Vietnamese is actually much older and uses many flavors not found in other neighboring cuisines.
“Cambodians know what the food tastes like, so the main focus is to put this food worldwide and in order to do that I have to play accordingly what’s happening in the modern culinary world,” Ouk says. “Cambodia is very ancient and we’ve been following same recipe for 3000 years and it’s gone nowhere. I’m trying to do something different using the same 3000-year-old ingredients. I’m trying to give it something different and see if it works out.”
Inspired by the success of the modern Mexican and Filipino chefs over the last few years, Chefs off the Boat members are feeling empowered to branch out of their own comfort zones. Chad Phoung — who travels to other Cambodian enclaves around the country with his Long Beach Crawfish catering company and also sells jars of his Cambodian sauces and cooking supplies online — is considering doing a burger event where he’ll serve the classic American dish styled with flavors from certain regions of Cambodia.
Van and Molino Tan plan to use the daytime soup restaurant their aunt started 30 years ago to host more Chefs Off the Boat events. Yim is planning to do more pop-ups with his company Le Awe as well. But Ouk, who started out baking doughnuts at a family friend’s shop in Long Beach and later graduated from Long Beach City College’s culinary arts program, has the biggest plans. He recently took over a space on Pine Avenue in downtown Long Beach and will be turning it into the world’s first Cambodian Gastropub as early as February. Called The Phoenix Den, the restaurant will be an ode to Ouk’s own experiences, how he used his culinary skills to rise above gang life and is now giving back to his community by sharing Cambodia’s powerful cuisine.
“Even if the Khmer Rouge killed most of the artists, entertainers and doctors, the new generation has found a way to rise back up and bring this culture back to where it used to be, but in a modern way,” Ouk says. “After 40 years we’re finally emerging from where we once were, and this is only a little preview of where we can go.”
Sarah Bennett is a freelance journalist who has spent nearly a decade covering food, music, craft beer, arts, culture and all sorts of bizarro things that interest her for local, regional and national publications.