Interview: star chef Chanthy Yen


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.

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.

“Foraging teaches you about sustainability—where the food comes from, the seeds, the earth and the ecosystem.”

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!

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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 in the East Coast are stinging nettles, 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.” 

How to make…

Nhoam Trey Mhasamout (Grilled Halibut Salad)

“In most Cambodian households this dish relies on the earthy flavors of fresh fish caught from the Mekong River, which are then sun-dried and smoked over an open flame,” writes Chanthy Yen, the chef at Touk and at Parliament Pub & Parlour in Montreal. Since we don’t have access to fish from Cambodia, we’ve adapted this recipe by using fresh halibut that is grilled and topped with a bright and citrusy dressing loaded with aromatics. This fragrant salad is a multisensory experience—every bite is infused with a different combination of crispy shallots, juicy citrus, fresh herbs, and tender, grilled fish. Yen has cooked around the world and across cuisines, but it took the pandemic for him to return to his roots—the Cambodian food he first learned from his remarkable grandmother.


1 12-oz. fillet halibut or haddock
1 tsp. vegetable oil
Kosher salt

1 Tbsp. finely chopped lemongrass 1 Tbsp. finely chopped ginger
1 Tbsp. finely chopped galangal or ginger
2 limes
2 Tbsp. fish sauce
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1 Tbsp. shrimp paste
½ tsp. Diamond Crystal or ¼ tsp. Morton kosher salt
½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper

1 pomelo or 3 small or 2 large white grapefruits, peeled, segments torn into 1″ pieces
3 medium tomatoes (about 1 lb.), cut into wedges
1 bunch scallions, thinly sliced on a diagonal
1 small bunch cilantro, leaves with tender stems picked, torn
1 small bunch mint, leaves picked, torn
3 cups coarsely chopped purple or green cabbage (about 1″ pieces)
2 medium shallots, thinly sliced
1 red or green Thai chile, thinly sliced
¼ cup crispy fried onions
¼ cup puffed rice, preferably wild (optional)

Step 1
Prepare a grill for medium-high heat. Rub halibut all over with oil, then season with salt. Grill, turning halfway through, until just cooked through, about 5 minutes total. Transfer to a plate.

Step 2
Pound lemongrass, ginger, and galangal in a mortar and pestle to a paste. (Alternatively, you can pulse in a food processor.) Transfer to a small bowl and finely grate zest from limes into paste. Halve limes and squeeze in juice; mix well. Add fish sauce, oil, shrimp paste, salt, and pepper and mix again to combine.

Step 3
Gently toss pomelo, tomatoes, scallions, cilantro, mint, and cabbage in a large bowl to combine. Flake grilled halibut into bowl and add any accumulated juices on plate. Pour dressing over salad and gently toss to coat.

Step 4
Divide salad among plates. Top with shallots, chile, crispy fried onions, and puffed rice (if desired).

Story Nik Berg / Photography Sylvie Li

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