How a home-schooled and YouTube-trained chef opened a Khmer pop-up attracting customers from across the country | Peninsula Foodist | The peninsula foodist

By Anthony Shu

Sitha Yim chops vegetables at Sitha’s Khmerkitchen, her Cambodian pop-up. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

A pop-up born out of necessity
On weekends, a banner unfurls from the awning of San Bruno’s Nguyen Pho advertising Sitha Yim’s “authentic Khmer cuisine”. At a time when pop-ups attract tens of thousands of social media followers and boxes of poppy seed bagels and black sesame egg tarts sell out months in advance, temporary restaurants seem fashionable and glamorous, opportunities for chefs to cook with unbridled creativity and without the headaches of managing payrolls and rising rents.

But Yim, owner of Sitha’s Khmerkitchen, is neither a pastry chef trading the chef’s whites of an acclaimed restaurant for a chance to craft. its own menu neither one technical employee pursue a passion while living off a stable salary. Instead, she learned to cook most of her Khmer recipes by watching her mother and YouTube videos. A single mother who earns most of her income from pop-ups but also works three other jobs, Yim sources formula and diapers for members of the Cambodian community and carefully sculpts clients’ eyebrows in microblading between orders for his twa ko, sausages stuffed with beef, rice and galangal (often described as more lemony than ginger).

Yim is part of a entrepreneurial movement selling hard-to-find food locally and finding customers from immigrant communities on social media. With the lack of Cambodian restaurants on the peninsula and only a handful of restaurants in Oakland and San Jose, Sitha’s Khmerkitchen, which pops up in Nguyen’s Pho on weekends and also offers food service, is one of rare places to taste the emblematic dishes of the cuisine. in the bay area. from Oakland Nyum Bai was named one of Bon Appetit’s Top 10 New Restaurants in 2018 with a menu that resembles Yim’s, but that honor hasn’t resulted in the widespread opening of Cambodian restaurants locally.

Inside Sitha’s Khmerktichen, however, diners find comfort in prahok ktiss, ground pork simmered in coconut milk with fermented fish. Served as a dip, it infuses the cabbage and eggplant soaked in it with a powerful punch of umami and heat. Orders are also pouring in for the dancing shrimp salad featuring raw, translucent seafood, barely visible under bright red pepper flakes and bright green herbs. However, just three years ago, Yim had never even prepared many of these items.

Sitha’s Khmerkitchen amok trei is made by steaming salmon with kroeung, a herb paste comprising turmeric, garlic and galangal, inside a banana leaf. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Connecting with Cambodian communities
Arriving in San Francisco at age 7 after moving from Cambodia to “too cold” Chicago in 1984, Yim’s childhood centered around Nagara Dhamma Temple, a Buddhist temple founded by her parents. Prohibited from participating in extracurricular activities, Yim washed dishes, cleaned and helped the elderly at the temple after school. Service to others, especially the elderly, became a primary value in his life. “I help others before myself, and sometimes I shouldn’t,” she says.

In 2019, just before the pandemic hit, Yim returned to live with her mother under the misty skies of the Sunset District. Her younger brother had just died aged 33, and she had finalized her divorce after a six-year process and was left alone to care for her two children. “I didn’t know what to do,” she said.

Yim, who previously owned a donut store and ran a Houston location from a Southeast Asian-Cajun seafood restaurant, took a friend’s suggestion and started selling the sweet and spicy Cambodian jerky which is often served hot and fried to the point of breaking in the mouth. However, meat curing in San Francisco meant Yim rushed around the house placing trays of beef strips in the living room, on the balcony and even on the stairs depending on where the sun was shining. Rains or heavy fog forced Yim through her mother’s balcony doors in order to save her product from the waterfall.

Meanwhile, Yim found herself returning to the communities she grew up in as a child. Between deliveries of sacks of beef jerky, Yim began working as a case manager for Cambodian residents of Chinatown struggling with mental illness and continued to interpret for Khmer speakers and help the elderly fulfill their papers at his parents’ temple. She made sure to instill an appreciation for Cambodian culture in her 9- and 15-year-old children, giving them chores in Khmer and refusing to use the default English, even when they answered with a look. puzzled.

Sitha’s Khmerkitchen freshwater clams are cooked in garlic, garnished with green onions and basil, and served with a tamarind sauce. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Build a business through social media
Eventually, Yim switched to a small dehydrator purchased from Amazon, but it couldn’t keep up with the growing demand as she fine-tuned the sweetness and heat of her recipe. “At first, I didn’t know how to make (beef jerky). So I went to YouTube, and I was watching 10, 15, 20 (videos) all night,” she says. Thanks to social media groups populated by Cambodian Americans lacking a taste for home, jerky orders rose from 10 to 400 pounds a week, a sum that could no longer be hidden in the corner of her mother’s house.

Selling primarily through Facebook and Instagram also meant that Yim’s business was a two-way conversation, with customers reaching out whenever they wanted chicken wings. meticulously boned and stuffed with spices and glass noodles or papaya salad prepared with the essential element of raw pickled crabs known as salt crab. Yim spent more time in the glow of cooking videos on his phone and continued to seek his mother’s advice, never wanting to turn away students who craved their family’s cooking or working professionals without time. to slowly simmer soups. “I just wanted to make all the dishes they ordered…all of a sudden I had a full menu,” Yim says.

Among Yim’s social media patrons was the owner of San Bruno’s Pho de Nguyen, Phong Nguyen, and the two began discussing the downturn in business at the restaurant since the pandemic began. Eventually, Nguyen and her fiancé proposed that Yim host a three-day pop-up in December 2021, and the space filled with customers seeking the opportunity to sample Yim’s cooking at a restaurant. Nguyen then asked if Yim would be interested in taking the space over the weekend.

Van Bui, left, prepares garlic noodles as Sitha Yim pulls stuffed chicken wings out of a fryer. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Create a home for Khmer cuisine
By this point, Yim’s frequent YouTube searches, stacks of tasting spoons, and careful measurements of fish sauce and sugar had begun to wear off. Whereas immigrant parents and grandparents usually cook with intuition and have trouble jotting down their recipes, Yim says it’s her mother who’s now freaking out in her daughter’s kitchen. She expresses her shock when she sees Yim confidently throwing handfuls of lemongrass into jars instead of carefully measuring each cup.

And when it came to the personnel issue, Yim knew she could turn to her family for help. “(My daughter) says she has seen how much I have always struggled. To survive, to have an income, to put a roof over our heads,” Yim says of her daughter, Ping. She works as a waitress at the pop-up and bus tables the same way her mother spent her evenings scrubbing the floors of the family temple. Yim’s boyfriend and mother also help in the kitchen.

Sitha Yim, left, and her boyfriend Van Bui at Sitha’s Khmerkitchen. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Shortly after accepting Nguyen’s offer to operate Sitha’s Khmer kitchen on weekends, Yim began to see his dining room packed with customers, including Cambodian-Americans traveling from across the states. -United. While the menu images are slightly blurry and still bear the bold white font that adorned them when Yim first shared them on Instagram Stories, his cooking now reflects hours of rehearsal and his stubborn devotion to Cambodian cuisine (all by transmitting a sober and homemade presentation) . The platter of raw vegetables surrounding the prahok ktiss is organized by color, with a row of leafy green peppers, lettuce and cabbage blending into translucent slices of white onion. She’s figured out how to fit time into her schedule to pick up crawfish shipped from Louisiana to the airport, as her menu also includes an entire Cajun section that’s inspired by her days in Houston and includes okra, muffled and po’boys.

Yim envisions a full restaurant as she continues to expand her customer base, but high food, rent and staff costs still present significant obstacles. In the meantime, Yim will continue his hectic weeks of home deliveries and shipping sausages and jerky amidst his many other jobs.

No matter what, she will always put her family first, which is the motivation behind her restaurant. “I don’t just think about myself. I also think about the future (of my children). That’s why when I work, I work. I don’t complain, even if I’m tired: I continue anyway,” she says.

Sitha’s Khmer cuisine, open weekends inside Nguyen’s Pho, 586-A San Mateo Ave., San Bruno; (415) 798-4759, Instagram: @sithas_authentic_khmer_food.

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