We have two great reasons to celebrate today. First, it’s day two of La Cocina Restaurant Week, celebrating the voices, talent, and food of chefs across the Bay Area with dinners hosted by La Cocina entrepreneurs and acclaimed San Francisco chefs alike. And secondly, it’s International Womens’ Day! What better opportunity to champion the social, economic, cultural, and political achievement of women everywhere?
As a proud partner in La Cocina’s Restaurant Week, we spoke with Nite Yun, a La Cocina grad and founder of the Cambodian food business Nyum Bai. The concept started as a pop-up and catering business and recently landed a permanent spot in Emeryville’s Public Market. On Sunday, Nite will be cooking with Chef Sophina Uong, who was also born in Cambodia and will be helming the kitchen at the forthcoming Mestiza Taqueria.
Here, Nite tells us all about growing up as a Cambodian refugee in America, the challenges and rewards of owning her business, and why it’s her mission to celebrate pre-war Cambodian food and culture.
Tell me about your background and coming to the U.S.
My family is from Cambodia, and during the war there was a genocide that happened in Cambodia. When my family fled the country in 1977, we ended up in a refugee camp in Thailand. That’s where I was born. Our family got sponsored by our church in 1984, and that’s when we came to the States. We were in Texas for a few months, and then we ended up moving to Stockton.
How did you first discover Cambodian food?
Growing up, my parents only knew how to cook Cambodian food. So that was the food I grew up eating.
Did you always cook when you were younger?
I always helped my mom out in the kitchen. We grew up in a really small one-bedroom apartment, so there was really nowhere to hang out besides in the kitchen, helping my mom prep for dinner.
What do you love about Cambodian food and flavors? Tell me about some of your favorite things to make.
I like all the texture and the fresh ingredients, how we would always combine fresh herbs and veggies, and there’s always a meaty dish to go with that. For instance, there would be a green mango salad with a fried fish, or a really delicious, herbaceous fish sauce to go with a really yummy cut of steak. There’s always that contrast of fresh ingredients and cooked meat, and I love that.
We also have a lot of delicious soups. I always remember enjoying all the foods my mom prepared for my brother and I.