Great chefs come from all walks of life. Some are taught in schools, others teach themselves, while many have just veered into the culinary field after a series of experiences in other industries.
Then there are those who had the seed planted in their childhood by someone near and dear to them. Chanthy Yen may have trained under the best chefs in Europe, but he will always take his story back to his grandmother.
“My grandmother introduced me to this world with the kindest eyes, and it was she who revealed how beautiful it was to feel safe, not to worry about the Khmer Rouge and war. She showed me love beyond the moon and back, and I gained her intuitive talent for cooking.
“I grew up next to her cooking in the kitchen. Every day we would cook, and I would have a role somehow, whether 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 taught me how to nourish a family.”
A Childhood Rich in Flavours
Growing up, Chanthy and his family lived in subsidized housing neighbourhoods populated with families that had fled traumatic events in their homelands. Everyone was learning to navigate a new world in Canada. Communicating with language was difficult, but cooking and eating together knocked down barriers.
“The sharing of meals from one household to another was beautiful, allowing me to draw on those memories today when I prepare a special meal or menu.”
Chanthy began cooking in restaurants at 14-years-old. As a high school student, he joined a cooking club, which led to opportunities for events with teachers, making lunchboxes, and helping out with meal programs after school.
A string of positions at restaurants and training under Syrian and Italian chefs followed. He continued this path at culinary school in Vancouver before moving to Spain, where he cooked for chefs like Massimo Bottura and Anthony Bourdain.
“When I lived in San Sebastian/Donostia, I was stagier at Mugaritz, at the time it was ranked 7th Best Restaurant in the World. It was around 2015. Chefs would come into Mugaritz and eat the coursed menu of the moment. To be there and be a part of this was an incredible inspiration.”
Chanthy also trained under some of the top chefs in Europe, such as el Bulli’s Ferran Adrià and Magnus Nilsson of Fäviken, winning the coveted Readers’ Choice Chef of the Year by Eater Montreal for his sumptuous delicacies at Fieldstone restaurant.
A Member of Parliament
While in Montreal, as the executive chef of Parliament, a British pub-inspired restaurant, the pandemic hit and forced the restaurant to close temporarily. Chanthy saw another opportunity, and within 5-days, he opened Touk, a Cambodian street food pop-up inside Parliament. Success was immediate, as evidenced by block-long line-ups and sold-out seatings. With Touk, Chanthy’s voice resonated, and soon the international press, from as far away as Phnom Penh, was writing about this Canadian pop-up!
From Nightshade to a New Parliament
Relatively new (January 2022) but already a staple, Nightshade is a globally inspired vegan restaurant in an elegant yet comfortable setting in the middle of Yaletown, Vancouver’s faux-Soho. The menu provides a diversity of dishes and flavours which take their inspiration from around the world. The bar program offers an elevated experience of both proof and zero-proof beverages. Cocktails are crafted with intricate syrups, spirits, and liqueurs, and the naturally focused wine program provides some of the province’s best on the organic front.
Owned by Alberta-based Sattva Hospitality, Chanthy led their team to develop the concept, menu, and a culture of inclusivity. Although his current position as the personal chef for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his family in Ottawa keeps him away, Chanthy recently returned to host an incredible evening as part of Planted Expo.
Nightshade and the Quest for Good
The evening consisted of two seatings, the first with a custom menu highlighting local ingredients, including Aki Kaltenbach’s Save Da Sea smoked salmon (carrot-based) and Blue Heron cheeses. The second seating featured the same menu with an added element of Ali Tabrizi, documentary filmmaker of Netflix’s Seaspiracy and A Little More Good podcast recording with hosts Dean Morris and Zach Berman.
As each dish was presented, Chanthy described every delicious morsel in detail, much to the delight of our tablemates. Such attention to detail and humble approach impressed. Unfortunately, halfway through the second seating, Chanthy had to say goodbye as the following morning he was to prepare breakfast in Ottawa. The evening continued smoothly with Chef Kaide Tighe stepping in and providing the table-side narration!
We had a moment with Chanthy to ask about cooking for the Prime Minister and his family during the seating. He shared that it has been an amazing experience, especially to be part of the children’s lives. He recounted how they had recently been to the forest foraging—to nourish their understanding of food, as he did in his childhood.
“In Cambodia, foraging is all you have when walking through the forest. Whatever you can find for the day is the only thing you can eat. It also teaches you about sustainability—you see where the food comes from, the seeds, the earth and the ecosystem.”
What is next for Chef Chanthy Yen? A little bird shared that when his contract with the Trudeau family ends, he will return to Vancouver to formally launch Touk in a restaurant space and not as a pop-up. We hope that there are many plant-based dishes on that menu!
- Helen Siwak is the founder of EcoLuxLuv Marketing & Communications Inc and publisher of Folio.YVR Luxury Lifestyle Magazine, PORTFOLIOY.YVR Business & Entrepreneurs Magazine, and digital women's lifestyle magazine EcoLuxLifestyle.co. She is a prolific content creator, consultant, and marketing and media strategist within the ecoluxury lifestyle niche. Post-pandemic, she has worked with many small to mid-sized plant-based/vegan brands to build their digital foundations and strategize content creation and business development. Helen is the west coast correspondent to Canada’s top-read industry magazine Retail-Insider, holds a vast freelance portfolio, and consults with many of the world’s luxury heritage brands. Always seeking new opportunities and challenges, you can email her at [email protected].
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