Chef Nite Yun Reimagines Cambodian Cooking, Even During a Pandemic

Nite Yun CAAM40 Storyteller
“The food we ate growing up was so good. It’s more about sharing our culture and storytelling, versus, ‘I’ve got to survive.’”

Nite Yun is the chef and owner of Nyum Bai, a Cambodian restaurant in Oakland’s Fruitvale district, a neighborhood known for its vibrant Latinx community and a significant Southeast Asian American community. Yun was born in a refugee camp in Thailand. She arrived in the U.S. at two years-old with her family, never imagining that she would open a restaurant.

“There’s this idea that being a chef or restaurateur isn’t even an option,” Yun tells me via phone. “[This idea that] ‘I didn’t survive a genocide for you to open a restaurant.’”

But with some imagination and will, Yun has become one of the young star chefs, bringing Cambodian cooking to the forefront in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2018, she was Eater’s Breakout Star of the Year. Preceding that, she received much national food media attention, including landing on Bon Appetit’s Hot 10 list.

At the time I am interviewing Yun, she is having to reimagine once again. Yun is sitting in her empty restaurant. It is week two of shelter-in-place during the coronavirus pandemic. While restaurants are essential businesses and can stay open—so long as the food is for pickup or delivery—restaurants across the country are either shuttering or have seen a significant drop in orders. It is bittersweet that Nyum Bai recently celebrated its two-year anniversary.

She is trying to imagine what her restaurant will be like now. She has laid off all but a few of her employees, the most vulnerable ones. She is also grateful for the community support that has come her way, including people continuing to order takeout, and people ordering merchandise such as hats and t-shirts, from all over the country, as well as people purchasing gift cards.

“The only thing I can do is take it day by day,” Yun said. “Our lives are flipped upside down. I’m sitting in an empty restaurant trying to do takeout, trying to keep the lights on. This is a surreal moment.”

Cambodian food
Upper Left: Fish Amok, Lower Left: Mee Soua, Right: Buffet of dishes prepared by Nite Yum; All Images: Kelsey Ogden

Restaurants are also notoriously difficult businesses to operate, often a labor of love. Profit margins are slim.

Having been a part of the restaurant and entrepreneur incubator program, La Cocina, based in San Francisco, primarily for immigrant and low-income women who would otherwise face many barriers to opening a food business, Yun said she is grateful for that community. “I’m speechless when it comes to the support from the community, and La Cocina, to not give up, and the idea that we’re all in this together.” La Cocina has started a La Cocina Community Food Box, filled with take home dishes from various La Cocina chefs as well as a relief fund, for which the organization is fundraising.

Yun’s cooking is based on traditional Cambodian food, which she learned as an adult. It was a cuisine she grew up eating, but visiting Cambodia opened up her palate to even more dishes. Both of her parents would cook at home, though it was mostly her mother, who cooked almost every single meal, and only cooked Cambodian food in their Stockton home. Both are excellent home cooks according to Yun.

But it wasn’t until her first trip to Cambodia that cooking Cambodian food crossed her mind. She became a chef “by accident,” she tells me.

She had been learning more about her Cambodian background, and became passionate about it. Over a series of events spanning five or six years, she slowly realized she wanted to open her own restaurant. Yun went to Cambodia for the first time when she was 21. “Not only did I leave with more questions about my family, I [also] just fell in love with the country, with the food I ate. It was just so delicious. And I felt like there was this void when I came back to SF.”

In San Francisco, there was one Cambodian restaurant. In Oakland, there are now four including Nyum Bai. She first started as a pop-up, then opened her restaurant in 2018. She said that part of her learning to cook more Cambodian dishes and opening Nyum Bai was to fulfill her own wishes of eating more Cambodian food. “I just missed Cambodian food. It was kind of a selfish act.”

She’s seeing more second generation Khmai Americans who are opening Cambodian restaurants. “The food we ate growing up was so good. [Now], it’s more about sharing our culture and storytelling, versus, ‘I’ve got to survive.’”

Nite Yun
Nite Yun caters the meal at CAAM’s “Getting Real With Ali Wong” benefit, Image Credit: Kelsey Ogden

Yun has also generously donated her time and food to CAAM in the past, including the last CAAMFest, for which she provided food for the screening of In the Life of Music>. This year, during CAAM’s 40th anniversary benefit, Getting Real with Ali Wong. CAAM worked with her to cater the special fundraising event.

Nite Yun
Illustration by Resi Bhaskoro

During the COVID-19 pandemic, she is continuing to stay busy. Through a fundraiser set up by Berkeley author Ayelet Waldman dubbed “East Bay FeedER,” Yun and her staff have been serving meals to first responders each week. “It’s such a positive experience,” she said. “When you think it’s over, the community came to together to support restaurants and hospital staff. It’s win-win situation. I feel like I have a purpose and I’m able to give hours to my staff.”

Even as restaurants are shuttering, some temporarily, some permanently, Yun continues to cook. Nyum Bai means “eat rice” or “let’s eat” in Khmer. And, she hopes, to continue to feed people.

On April 11, Yun announced she would be taking orders for a  special Cambodian New Year’s dish: nom ansom, made of pork, sticky rice, and mung beans and wrapped in banana leaf.  Orders sold out within a few days. On April, 13, the eve of the Cambodian New Year, Yun temporarily closed Nyum Bai. She plans to re-open in a few months in the same location, reinventing it for the times once again as a fast casual restaurant.

Check throughout the year for other featured storytellers and check out more of artist
Resi Baskhoro’s custom illustrations of these creators who are shaping the future of Asian America.

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