I can still remember my grandmother’s kitchen. We had a table, which was just for show, a Western staple we adopted but never used. The floor was where everything took place—where we ate but also where we prepared food, squatting, chopping, pounding, cleaning. I can still hear the grinding of the mortar and pestle, the stone pestle hitting the mortar at that perfect angle so you get that little double tap. I can smell the chiles and garlic toasting over the fire.
Every meal was a lesson, an attempt to absorb the complex cuisine of Cambodia with its six pillars (salty, sour, sweet, spicy, bitter, and aromatic) and its reliance on fragrant ingredients like kampot peppers, galangal, finger root, and lemongrass. As my grandmother’s apprentice, I was taught to always start with rice; how to make the fundamental red, green, and yellow curry pastes; and how to pickle and ferment. She explained the importance of our mother sauces (curries, chutneys, and fermented pastes). I watched her make her own rice wines with yeast, grow her garden filled with ingredients from home (bok choy, chiles, baby eggplant, mustard greens, and makrut), and properly clean a chicken and split the bones. Over time, her knowledge became mine, and before I moved out, before I even learned how to speak English, I had perfected the essential Cambodian techniques of steaming, grilling, sun-drying, stir-frying, spit-roasting, boiling, and lacto-fermenting. It was a wonderful time of my life, in this world my grandmother created, where shared meals were all we needed.
Eventually I moved back to my parent’s place in Windsor. No one there knew how to cook, so I did. The war raised my parents; they had no idea how to nourish. All they knew was conflict. They were scarred by their past, and cooking was the only way I knew how to care for them. I made lots of soups and stir-fries and eventually started to introduce them to Italian food (my first part-time job). They loved grilled calamari. But cooking was also my safe space. It was how I could help and nurture, and I was good at it. As soon as I realized that I could make money cooking, it gave me financial control of my life at a young age. I saw it as a way out of this home, this town, and this life as an outsider.
Being queer and a visible minority, I always had to prove myself. I learned English late, which made it hard to relate to other kids and immediately isolated me. I never saw myself reflected in others and always felt like I had to pave my own way, alone. The culinary world was no different. I was stereotyped in the kitchens I worked in—put in pastries because I was “feminine” or fish because I was Asian. I was called names and hidden away in the back of the kitchen. So, I fought back the only way I knew: I became an expert, excelling in all cuisines and working the hardest, the longest, the best. I was a machine that would not quit. I rose through the kitchen ranks; became the chef of my very own restaurant, Fieldstone (which closed in 2019); and then found my way to Parliament. But still, I never felt like I fit in. I couldn’t see myself in this chef mold.