Interview: star chef Chanthy Yen
Canadian-Cambodian chef Chanthy Yen’s challenger spirit, which has taken him into some of the world’s finest restaurant kitchens, is a perfect match for the Mazda MX-5.
3 minute read
Chanthy Yen trained under some of the best chefs in Europe such as el Bulli’s Ferran Adrià and Magnus Nilsson of Fäviken and went on to win the coveted Readers‘ Choice Chef of the Year by Eater Montreal for his sumptuous delicacies at Fieldstone. After the pandemic saw all restaurants close in 2020, Chanthy went back to his culinary roots and set up pop-up kitchen Touk, serving Cambodian street food. It was Chanthy‘s innovative get-up-and-go spirit that attracted Mazda‘s attention and they invited him to cook a special at-home fine-dining experience to celebrate Mazda‘s 100th anniversary.
Here Mazda Stories talks to Chanthy about how his grandmother‘s kitchen inspired his love of food, and we follow him in a Mazda MX-5 as he forages for ingredients.
Your love of cooking is down to your grandmother. What was it like growing up in her kitchen?
I grew up next to her cooking in the kitchen. Every single day we would cook and I would have a role somehow, whether it was separating the young rice greens from the older ones, or using the mortar and pestle and grinding the curry. It was a kitchen full of love. I would always be holding her hand going into the garden picking these greens, or taking crab apples and turning them into something beautiful. She taught me how to ferment, and she taught me how to cook my first pot of rice at the age of five. She basically taught me how to nourish a family.
Your career has taken you around the world, and seen you open your own restaurants. You have a real challenger spirit. Tell us about your professional journey, the path you’ve taken, and the inspiration that drives you forward.
I started cooking in restaurants at the age of 14. I was in high school in Windsor, Ontario, and I joined a cooking club. I started doing events for teachers, making lunchboxes and helping out with meal programs at the school. After that I was hired at a family-owned Italian restaurant, where I trained under a Syrian chef and an Italian chef. I worked there for about three years and later on I was hired at a hotel. I had a lot of drive, so I wanted to do as many things as possible. I worked in a few different restaurants and hotels, then I started culinary school in Vancouver. I went on to Spain, where I cooked for chefs like Massimo Bottura and Anthony Bourdain, and that was such an inspiration.
I came back to Canada, and, after working in Vancouver, here I am in Montreal, at Parliament, where I opened my Cambodian street kitchen, Touk, during lockdown. I had five days to build the concept and team, create the marketing, and everything. It was really tough, but I did it. Within a month I was gracing the papers!
My biggest idol is my grandmother. She left a war-torn country and had to drag children from country to country because she was in fear for her life during the Khmer Rouge regime. In moments of doubt, and moments of insecurities, I always think of her and how strong she was and how strong my family were. Now I get to cook Cambodian food, which honours her memory.
You’re working on your first cookbook, so you’ll be sharing your grandmother’s dishes with the world. Which are your favourites?
One of my favourites, as a child, was her fermented rice.
Foraging plays a big part in your cooking. Why is that important to you and what is it that you’re looking for?
In Cambodia, foraging is all you have when you’re walking through the forest. Whatever you can find for the day is the only thing you can eat. It teaches you about sustainability as well—you see where the food comes from, the seeds, the earth and the ecosystem. That’s what I love about foraging. Plus it gave me a great opportunity to get out of town in the Mazda MX-5!
Next, we hear you’re hoping to cook for the king of Cambodia.
I’m working on a cookbook which will be out in 2023 and I’ll be taking two trips to Cambodia. The first trip is to have my recipes validated by the Cambodian people and to raise funds for the children of Cambodia, to make sure that they have a full year of education paid for through my cooking. Then I’m going to set up a food stall in front of the royal palace, and I’m going to make a lot of noise until they open the gates for me. And at that point, I’m going to have a meeting with the king, so I can obtain his royal stamp of approval for the cookbook.
Foraging in Canada
“There are ingredients that are rarely used in cuisine today but they’ve been used by the First Nations people since forever,” says Chanthy. “The things that you can find in Canada, especially the East Coast, are stinging nettles and lemon balm. You can find cilantro flowers or even garlic. You can find so many different mushrooms, chanterelles, morels, and tons of flowers as well.”
Words Nik Berg / Images Sylvie Li
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