Chef Chanthy Yen’s cooking is an exploration of identity

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      Chef Chanthy Yen is, in no uncertain terms, a rising star—even if he’s not quite ready for that label yet. Though modest and soft-spoken, the Ontario native with Cambodian heritage has trained under some of the best chefs in Europe, including Ferran Adrià and Magnus Nilsson. In Canada, he was voted Eater Montreal’s Chef of the Year. More recently, Nightshade, the Vancouver vegan restaurant where he’s executive chef, was the only plant-based concept that Michelin put on its Bib Gourmand list. What’s more, he just wrapped up a yearlong stint in Ottawa as Justin Trudeau’s personal chef.

      Understandably, when the Straight caught up with Yen last week, the chef admitted that he’s “still trying to navigate it all.” Now, with a revamp of the Nightshade menu and a cookbook on the way, he’s not making it easy for himself. But as he maneuvers increasing expectations, and perhaps ambitions, Yen has a rich and diverse collection of experiences to lean on—for both belief and inspiration.

      Yen grew up in Windsor, Ont. after his family fled the Civil War in Cambodia. His culinary journey began in his grandma’s kitchen. “Every morning, I would wake up to either karaoke or my grandmother's mortar and pestle,” Yen recalls. He’d work with her all day, cleaning chickens, picking lemongrass, or grinding powders for curries. But what Yen’s grandma taught him went beyond food, he says. She gave him a passion for using food to nurture.

      Yen’s earliest restaurant job was at a humble Italian joint. But from there, he found himself in a slipstream of culinary opportunities—working with chefs like Ned Bell and Jefferson Alvarez, studying at Vancouver’s NorthWest Culinary Academy, and making his way to multiple Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe.

      Back in Canada, Yen opened Fieldstone in Montreal in 2017, which eventually earned him that Eater award. By 2020, he was elevating British classics at the city’s iconic Parliament Pub & Parlour. But then, right as Yen’s culinary passion had now moved from simmering to a rolling boil, COVID hit. The world shut down. “I had no kitchen to call my own and I couldn’t call myself a chef anymore,” Yen has said about the situation. So he pitched Parliament’s owners on opening up a small Cambodian pop-up. They obliged. He called it Touk. 

      It became an outlet for him to connect with his roots. In Spain, Yen says, he was always cooking other people’s food. At Fieldstone, he was expressing himself creatively, but it still “didn’t really hone in my passion for food,” he adds. “So, then Touk happened, and I was able to relate with multiple generations. I had people crying at the table because [the food] reminded them of their mother's cooking.”

      Fast-forward to 2021, and having moved back to Vancouver, Yen was set to open up Nightshade. But 4,300 kilometres away, Justin Trudeau had just been re-elected, and soon after, offered Yen an opportunity to become his executive chef.

      Yen says plating food for the PM was very personal. His family were refugees in the 1980s. “Justin's father was the one who opened the borders to Canada,” Yen says. “And I was the very first BIPOC person and queer person to be able to stand in that role of executive chef.” Yen left the position last month, but says it was a privilege to “feed the son and the family members of the person who allowed my family to come to this country.”

      Still, there’s another world leader Yen would like to nourish: the King of Cambodia. As part of that goal, he’s been working on a Cambodian cookbook—which, to be official, must get royal assent in Cambodia. It will be called Recipes From Yey. The idea for the cookbook stemmed from Yen’s desire to, as he explains it, tell the stories of Cambodian Canadians who fled the country’s wars but are now fighting for acceptance from people within Cambodia. “I travelled there, and they’re like, ‘Oh, no, you left us. You are not a real Cambodian.’ 

      “And I just want to prove that we are still Khmer [ethnic Cambodians]… We are just living different paths and lives.” For Yen, there are community-focused aspects to creating the book, but there are personal elements too. “Writing the book and cooking Cambodian food is a showcase of navigating my identity,” he shares.

      When asked what he’s still navigating, Yen holds nothing back. “I'm still working on myself. I'm still working on all of my insecurities and my imposter syndrome,” he admits.

      Thinking back on his vast bank of experiences, Yen says, “It's not the end for me. I have a plethora of books here and I'm looking at them right now while talking to you. I see a lot of my biggest mentors and inspirations there. I still have way more to learn.”