Khmer noodles, curry, and other traditional street food have delighted foodies in Montreal, Canada, thanks to Cambodian-Canadian chef Yen Chanthy’s latest project called Touk.
Chanthy, 32, tells The Post: “Touk means boat in Khmer and a metaphor for my cooking. For me, Touk is a vessel that I can take people on to experience a Cambodian-flavoured journey into a vast unknown world as Cambodian cuisine is not commonly found in Canada.
“I ask my customers to get on board, and I captain them through a new cultural food experience.”
Being one of the rare eateries that serve authentic Khmer dishes in Canada, Touk is a pop-up restaurant based on family recipes passed down to Chanthy by his Cambodian grandparents.
Born and raised in Windsor, in Ontario, Canada, after his parents landed there in 1985, Chanthy was predominantly looked after by his grandparents who taught him how to cook Khmer food and the history of his distant ancestral homeland.
“The Khmer street food that I serve at Touk is authentic and accessible. Since I was born in Canada, I learned everything from my grandmother as well as my travels back to Cambodia.
“The food always smells good with essences of Kroeung [spices], citrus, and fresh and pickled vegetables to accompany each dish,” he says.
The young chef moved from Ontario to Vancouver for culinary studies at 15. After graduating from the Northwest Culinary Academy, he started his journey as a chef in many well-known restaurants around the world.
He is probably the first Cambodian to get an opportunity to cook at one of the world’s best restaurants – Mugaritz in San Sebastian, Spain, which was selected as number five in global rankings.
After living in Spain for a year, Chanthy was the first Cambodian-Canadian chosen to work with arguably the best chef in the world, Ferran Adria, in Barcelona, at his legendary El Bulli restaurant.
For over 16 years Chanthy continued to explore his talents, working in restaurants ranging from Italian to American BBQ, Lebanese and Thai.
After years working in someone else’s kitchen, Chanthy finally decided to move back to Montreal and opened his first restaurant called Fieldstone where he started becoming a household name.
The two most popular dishes at Fieldstone led Chanthy to be the first Cambodian to win the Readers’ Choice Chef of the Year 2018 award.
Following this success, Chanthy joined Parliament Pub and Parlour as executive chef. Later he was also the runner up for the Best Chef Montreal 2020 award and was featured in several media in Canada.
In May, while the country was still locked down due to Covid-19, Chanthy started his pop-up restaurant which is open from Thursday to Sunday between 2pm and 8pm at the entrance of Parliament Pub.
He named the restaurant in Khmer because he has fond memories of his ancestral land.
Touk opened on May 24, and the chef was surprised so many people showed up. It was then he knew that it was going to be something really exciting and humbling.
“Having my own restaurant allows me to be more experimental with my food. I test myself and reacquaint with my Cambodian roots making Kroeung [spices] and Sgnor [soup]” says Chanthy.
Touk is attractive with a few tables, benches and plants. Every table is decorated with fabric from Cambodia and beautiful menus. Wines are displayed to the general public as well as snacks that people can pick up along the way to a picnic.
He serves Cambodian dishes like Nom Banh Chok (Cambodian noodles), Sach Changkak (grilled meat skewers), Nom Pang Sach (French baguette stuffed with grilled pork, pickled vegetables, cilantro), Kari Sach Moan (curry with chicken), Slap Moan Chean (fried chicken wings), Bay Chha (stir-fried rice), Sach Ko Ngiet (dried beef), Phlea Sach Ko (beef salad), Bok Lahong (papaya salad) and much more.
There are also some more approachable dishes like Mee Katang, Summer Rolls, Chha Kuyteav (stir-fried noodles), and Mee Kola.
His signature dish so far at Touk is Nom Banh Chok (Khmer noodles) and costs C$14 (US$10).
Despite the energetic start and positive feedback from his patrons, it is quite challenging for Chanthy to find local Khmer ingredients in Montreal. It often takes him half a day to do the shopping for his complete list.
“When I shop, I usually have to walk to many different stores that sell some of the ingredients, but not all that I need,” says Chanthy.
The chef believes that Cambodian food has rich ingredients and great flavours that grab attention.
However, not many people in Montreal have tried Khmer food although they are used to Thai and Vietnamese influences.
“I think people around the world will be open to Khmer food as long as there is someone to offer it. I would love to see Cambodian people support each other so that we can make Khmer food a permanent fixture on menus internationally. Touk is just the beginning,” he says.
Chanthy says he loves showcasing the strength of Khmer food and seeing people relive nostalgic memories of how they once ate these dishes when they were in their ancestral land.
“I would be happy to return to Cambodia and showcase a menu from Canada. It would be a great way to tie in our worlds and I will continue to work my hardest to try and do so,” Chanthy says.