F&W Best New Chefs 2019: Nite Yun of Nyum Bai in Oakland, California
The kuy teav is a good place to start. It’s a seesaw of a dish, scratching any wintry need for depth and richness with its long-simmered pork broth and singed garlic, but sparkling, too, with a springlike ransom of fresh scallion, cilantro, and the thwack of just-squeezed lime. Floating on top are shrimp so plump they seem to be on the verge of popping; dip below the surface for slippery rice noodles and minced pork. In Cambodia, this is breakfast. What a morning.
Unless you live near the few Cambodian communities in the U.S. where Khmer cooking might appear on restaurant menus, kuy teav may be new to you. Where the cuisines of neighboring countries like Vietnam and Thailand have made their way into American kitchens, Cambodian food—and its larger culture—is rarer in the States. That makes chef Nite Yun’s efforts at Nyum Bai in Oakland, California, all the more important.
Yun was born in a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand; her parents, survivors of war and genocide under the Khmer Rouge, moved the family to central California when she was just 2. “At home we ate Cambodian food; we spoke the language; we used our hands to eat rice; we sat on the floor,” she remembers. “I didn’t know I was different until I went to school and started wondering why my school lunch was packed with sardines and rice and fish.” Yun moved to San Francisco as an adult, but the food she grew up with was impossible to find in her adopted city, and she missed it. To fill the void, Yun went straight to the source, traveling to Cambodia and retracing the flavors of her youth through home kitchens and street vendors in Phnom Penh. “The weather, the sounds, the smells, hearing my language everywhere—everything about Cambodia was captivating,” Yun says.
On her third trip, the seeds for Nyum Bai were sown. “I was eating a bowl of kuy teav at my usual noodle stall, and the idea came to me crystal clear,” remembers Yun, who had just left nursing school. “I thought, ‘I don’t know how to run a food business, but I am going to do this.’ I came back to San Francisco and I gave myself no other option.” Back in the states, Nyum Bai was born: first as a series of pop-ups, then as part of the La Cocina incubator program, and, eventually, as a brick-and-mortar of her own—all sunshine and pink and turquoise in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood.
Her intuition plays as vital a role as the recipes here. Yun knows when she’s nailed the right balance of black pepper and palm sugar in her koh—pork belly simmered in coconut water until it is its richest, wobbliest, best self. She knows that the kroeung (a paste of aromatics like lemongrass and galangal) needs to sing out in the machoo soup, its strapping beef broth balanced with tangy tamarind and jalapeño, but hum low in the kuri, a mellow chicken-and-coconut-milk curry.
Dish by dish, Yun is filling in the blanks of a culture that deserves to be known for more than its tragedies. It’s a goal that’s as noble as it is delicious—exactly the spirit of a Best New Chef.