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.
What were your biggest learnings from starting your food pop-up, Nyum Bai?
The whole goal is to share Cambodian culture through food, and to celebrate the forgotten good times in Cambodia before the war. When I talk to people that don’t know anything about Cambodia — or people who do know something about Cambodia — it’s always relating to the Angkor Wat or the genocide. But there’s more to Cambodia than just that. The food is this undiscovered cooking that I really wanted to share. So that was the main drive: to somehow introduce Cambodian food, and with that people can learn more about its rich culture and traditions.
Starting any food business is a lot of work. Any learnings along the way with getting it up and running?
[Laughs.] You can just prepare and plan and think that you’ve got everything down, but in real life, all that stuff goes out the window. You just have to be able to organize and plan as you go.
At the same time, the main thing that I have learned is that my staff really looks up to me for direction, and being able to play that role as a leader is really new for me. I’ve never had to manage a staff before — I’ve always had friends or maybe one person working for me for my pop-up or when I cater. Now I have a whole team that’s looking up to me for direction. Being able to be very clear and organized with my directions — it’s definitely something I have learned since I opened up the stand here at the Public Market.
Tell me about your experience working with La Cocina and being a part of that community. Why was it special?
Just to be accepted to the program, I felt very lucky because of their resources that they have and their ways of making you feel you’re capable of doing anything. It’s such a positive, empowering environment. Being in that community helped me believe that I could succeed and accomplish my dream. That alone is something so special.
You did the pop-up dinners for two years, then landed a permanent stand in Emeryville. What has that transition been like?
It’s been exciting because I now have a permanent home. I don’t have to store my stuff at my boyfriend’s house anymore. Nyum Bai actually has a home, and it’s given me an opportunity to expand the menu, to have a permanent spot for regular customers to come by rather than doing a pop-up one time a week somewhere you don’t even know.
When came in… it was a challenge, but at the same time I saw the challenge as a way to learn and grow. I thought the whole process was very exciting.
With everything going on with immigration legislation right now — how does what’s going on politically changes how you feel about your work?
It’s just such a joke with the immigration ban, because I look around me at the Public Market and everyone around me is from a different background. It’s foolish and crazy to think this is even a topic. At the same time, it makes me happy to be here because America has given me and my family an opportunity to grow and share my culture. There are more people here that I’ve met that are excited to try Cambodian food versus people that are like, go back to your country. If we just come together, and continue what we’re doing, I hope and believe that everyone else who’s against immigrants will see not just our value, but… now, it’s America. Without us it’s not the same.
Today is International Womens’ Day. With all of your experience as an immigrant and as a female entrepreneur, what does that mean to you? What would you tell other women starting a business today?
That if you believe in yourself and if you have a passion or a goal, it can be done. It sounds cheesy but it’s true. When I look back at my journey now for the past couple of years, I started out not knowing where to go, what to do. I had self-doubt. And then at one point I said, I really want to do this. I believed in it so much that I conquered that fear and went for it even though I didn’t know what to do. If you just start somewhere and believe in yourself, anything’s possible.
It’s a journey. You will make mistakes, face challenges, and all the self-doubt over and over again, but if you overcome that it’s all learning lessons that will make you even more successful and stronger.
Tell me about your event at La Cocina Restaurant Week and what you’re most excited about.
Just collaborating with another Cambodian chef. I’ve never — it’s a very fancy dinner, about eight courses, and that alone is a new experience for me that I’m excited about. Being able to collaborate with another Cambodian chef and share ideas and stories. I’ve learned so much from her already, her experience and her background.
It’s fun and cool to be part of Restaurant Week, at the same time celebrating International Womens’ day. That’s so badass to be a part of that.
Photo Credit: Haley Mannix