Chanthy Yen is unlike any chef I know. “I don’t drink very much and I don’t swear,” he says sweetly of his style of kitchen management. He doesn’t reek of machismo and bravado the way many Old Port chefs do — he’s gentle and unassuming.
I first heard of Chanthy Yen when he ran a restaurant in Mile End called Fieldstone. I never ate there and to be honest I always thought of it as a try-hard. The restaurant was structured by a format that offered 3- to 15-course tasting menus for a room that seated 30 people. At that time I was cooking at Larry’s and fussy tasting menus was the antithesis of everything I was into.
My opinion, which I admit is flawed, was that tasting menus should be reserved for the great chefs in prestigious restaurants in New York, Paris and Tokyo that bought their Michelin stars and charged accordingly. I went to university with a guy who wore an ill-fitting suit every day — bear with me, there’s an analogy coming — because he thought it made him look sophisticated and intellectual, but everyone thought he looked like a pretentious asshole. That’s how I felt about small restaurants doing affordable tasting menus — like they were putting on airs trying to be something they weren’t which was grand and opulent and prohibitively expensive. To me, they looked like imposters.
Chanthy Yen is a Cambodian chef who was raised by his grandmother in Windsor, Ontario, and trained at Mugaritz (currently ranked as the #7 best restaurant in the world). Behind the scenes at Fieldstone, he was running the show single-handedly. Take that in, because it’s astonishing. Yen was cooking up to 15 courses per person, in a room where all the courses were staggered, alone. Fieldstone eventually fell off my radar, and so, too, did Yen. I now consider my ill-conceived bias to be responsible for a sorely missed dining opportunity because it was at Fieldstone that the chef started developing the recipes, techniques and confidence to launch his current project: Touk.
I went to eat at Touk on June 25th –– the day of the National Dragon Boat races –– an auspicious day if there ever was one as Touk derives its name from those very boats. Currently, Touk is the kitchen of Parliament Pub and Parlour, the latest endeavour from the team behind Cold Room, but the project has been simmering away beneath the surface for some time. Initially, Touk was going to be Yen’s chef-run stall in the Time Out Market, but the project fell through due to timing. The concept ended up being tucked away.
Yen is currently the chef at Parliament, a position which ranked him #2 on our list of Montreal’s best chefs. He used the recent closure of restaurants to resurrect a concept he’d been developing for years; that project became Touk. “Especially during COVID, why not dig into your roots?” he reflected as we sat down on Parliament’s outdoor terrasse. “I have a feeling that street food and culturally significant foods are starting to come forward with all the changes going on in the world right now.”
As a chef, however, Yen’s career has been defined by working with some of the world’s most celebrated chefs. Elaborate, multi-course fine-dining has been a hallmark of his style, so it struck me as odd to see him transition to the seemingly simple street food of Cambodia. When I asked about his pivot from fine-dining to casual food, he put it like this: “It’s crazy to work with the guy who created the first sphere, to work with the guys who created culinary techniques, but there’s more –– there’s more to explore. If I can be an ambassador and introduce people to food from my country, why not do that? For me it’s not a pivot at all.” Yen’s words echo sincere and there’s humility in his candor, but also a maturity and confidence reinforced by a wealth of experience that he’s channelling into something deeply meaningful.
Our first course arrived, packaged in take-out boxes. It’s cliché, perhaps, but here I was Bún chả in Hanoi on little plastic chairs cheek to jowl with other hungry diners. You get the sense that it was meant to be this way. If this had been a stall at the Time Out Market, the food would have been good, but Touk is and has always been a concerted effort to be as authentic as possible. Serving street food on the third floor of an enormous shopping mall is probably not the authentic setting for what Yen calls “curbside Cambodian.”
The first two dishes are familiar. Jungle rolls (Nam Chow), which closely resemble Gỏi cuốn, the rice-paper spring rolls of Vietnam, and Bok Lahong, a green papaya salad that most will associate closely with Thailand’s Som Tam. He’s easing me into it, but cleverly, presenting me with the dishes I expect to understand, and then challenging me when I taste them because I’m immediately confronted by how different each dish is from what I expected. The Nam Chow are packed with vegetables, in particular carrot and purple cabbage, which gives the roll a much more substantial feel. Those two julienned vegetables also stand in place of the vermicelli typically found in Gỏi cuốn. Yen’s Nam Chow features lettuce, mint and Matane shrimp but the flavours are mild, and less punchy in their use of herbs than their Vietnamese counterparts. The same can be said for the papaya salad. Most noticeably for me was that Yen’s Bok Lahong is vibrant but not overt. In Thailand, Som Tam varies regionally, but in North America we typically eat what’s known as Som Tam Thai, a version that uses a powerful combination of lime juice, fish sauce, dried shrimp, chillies and palm sugar. The result is an extremely vibrant combination of sweet, spicy and acidic. Yen’s Bok Lahong, however, manages to create harmony within that diversity of flavours in a way that is subtle. It strikes me that his personal nature comes through in his food –– gentle yet confident. My preconceptions of both him and his food are challenged and what I’m left to reflect on is the power of subtlety when used in combination with expert flavour integration. I never once find myself missing the strong flavours of Som Tam because I was being reintroduced to those same flavours in a new way.
Chanthy Yen reminds me that Cambodia is a deeply gastronomic country, one that, like other South-East-Asian countries, has a lot of regionality when it comes to cuisine. “Cambodian food is very aromatic and fragrant. We use a lot of edible flowers –– lotus, lilac, jasmine flowers, things like that. We also use a lot of preserved fish paste, which is known as Prahok. Depending on which region you go to, there’s a lot of gastronomy. There’s a huge rainforest in the Mondulkiri where a lot of the tribes eat insects.”
Our next course is Prahok Ktiss, a dish Yen lovingly compares to Bagna Cauda or Cambodian crudité. Mango, cabbage, cucumber, tomato, jasmine blossoms and asparagus overflow from the takeout box each ingredient tightly organized around the Prahok Ktiss, a spreadable fermented fish paste flavoured with galangal-heavy yellow curry and minced pork. Yen tells me this is a quintessential Cambodian dish, one that speaks directly to his upbringing. He grew up in Windsor, Ontario and started farming in nearby Leamington at the early age of nine. As a dish, it’s easy to simply call this Cambodian Bagna Cauda, but it’s more than that. It’s a celebration of fresh produce, which has symbolic resonance. Fruits and vegetables served as both nourishment and a source of gainful employment for a family who arrived in Canada as refugees. It is also, of course, a celebration of ancestral heritage. The dish is as simple as you might imagine, but it perfectly encapsulates Yen’s description of Cambodian cuisine –– the gently transformed fruit, vegetables and flowers speak for themselves and are only gently accentuated by the fragrant spread.
Alongside the Prahok Ktiss is another dish inspired by Yen’s rural upbringing, but one that has little to no roots in Cambodian culture. A risky dish to say the least, one that could be easily perceived as culturally tone-deaf, was Khey (which translates to Bird) FC, a dish of fried chicken and pickled watermelon. While the dish, on its surface, appears to reinforce an age-old anti-Black stereotype, Yen’s story behind this dish is one of cultural blending, assimilation and financial emancipation, “When I started working on farms, we didn’t speak a lick of English and we saw a lot of people either from Rwanda or Mexico. We all sat around a table at the farm and we ate KFC –– my first fried chicken. We were working on a watermelon farm and so I walked over and picked up a fresh watermelon, cracked it open, and ate it with our meal.” It’s a dish that pays homage to a version of becoming Canadian, reflects on a Cambodian tradition of eating fruit with a meal and references a time in Yen’s life where farming watermelons was a way to create a better life. For freed Black slaves, watermelon farming was a way to become financially autonomous; it became a symbol of freedom. In my opinion, Yen’s dish aligns itself more closely with that narrative than one of racial insensitivity. The chicken, to no one’s surprise, is excellent and is served with a 10-day fermented habanero mayo and a tamarind and star-anise ketchup.
The last dish served was a noodle soup called Khuy Tiev and it was a revelatory dish. The soup is very similar in style to Phở but omits all of the characteristic spices found in Phở broth. Instead, Khuy Tiev is characterized by the flavour of beef, which is pure and unctuous. Beef bones are blanched and simmered with tendon, tripe and brisket for 30 hours, creating beautifully tender meat and a honey-brown coloured broth that is perhaps the purest essence of beef that I have tasted. When I worked at Lawrence, the restaurant would use the scraps of things that weren’t sold at the butcher shop — one such thing was beef fat, which we would render and clarify for eventual use as cooking fat. The first time I saw the fat used was to fry potatoes –– it was revolutionary. In western cooking, beef fat is maybe the closest thing we have to pure umami flavour. Its flavour is deep and powerful, and when used correctly it elevates other flavours and creates a richness in a way that few other things can. It’s that flavour that steak purists crave; it’s why we dry-age beef, it’s why we roast bone marrow and spread it on toast. The broth of Yen’s Khuy Tiev is a liquid form of that flavour and I will think of it often. The soup is garnished with beautiful red prawns, springy meatballs, tender brisket and tripe atop perfectly slurpable rice noodles, but had the whole bowl been nothing but broth, I wouldn’t have missed a thing.
Chanthy Yen has made it a mission to share Cambodian cuisine with Montreal. Along with his sous-chefs McHale Whitehouse and Jasmine Hamel (who are both vegetarian and have been learning to cook Cambodian food via smell and salt percentages), the message is being articulated in a poignant and delicious way. But for Yen it’s the response from the Cambodian community that has the most impact.
“I’ve had Cambodian families who were war-torn who came [to Touk] to eat one of the national dishes and were moved to tears. That’s what makes me happy — Cambodian parents never eat out, they always cook at home. So to see a family come here — I was screaming with joy, and they’ve come back every week. Now families are hearing about it everywhere and saying they want to come and eat this food, they want to spend their money –– immigrant parents don’t do that.” It’s an experience that hits close to home.
Touk is open from Friday to Sunday from 5 p.m. until late. Currently plans are to establish Touk as a standalone restaurant, but for now (and in my opinion forever) the best way to experience it is to find a sunny spot on the sidewalk and enjoy your Cambodian, curbside. ■
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