Vacay.ca is spotlighting Canada’s leading chefs and how travel impacts their work and their lives. In this edition, writer Anna Hobbs speaks with Montrealer Chanthy Yen. Read her previous article on Fogo Island Inn’s Jonathan Gushue here.
As an award-winning chef, and co-owner of Cantine Teré in Montreal’s Mile End neighbourhood, 31-year-old Chanthy Yen’s star is rising. He has already earned an enviable reputation for his experimental approach to cooking that melds techniques and flavours of Mexico, Spain, Canada and, particularly, Cambodia. As Yen tells it, seeing the world, studying culinary arts in British Columbia and being raised within an Asian culture has deeply impacted how he cooks and lives his life.
Yen was born in Windsor, Ontario a few years after his parents arrived from Cambodia. Inspired by what he saw of Vancouver during the 2010 Winter Olympics, Yen followed his instincts and recommendations of his friends to venture west, where his culinary career launched. He is now the latest personality to be profiled in Vacay.ca’s Chefs Talk series.
Vacay.ca: How has your Cambodian heritage influenced your cooking?
Chanthy Yen: I grew up with my grandparents who were refugees. It was in a household where English was the second language. I didn’t learn to speak English until I was 6 or 7. We lived in subsidized housing and received food boxes filled with things we had never seen or tasted before. When I first saw peppercorns, I thought they were candy. We did a lot of experimenting, creating ways to make western staples like Aunt Jemima pancake mix taste more like home, by adding bacon and chives. Sometimes it worked out. I learned a lot of the fundamentals of Cambodian cooking, fermenting, building robust flavours with lots of aromatics, using citrus when needed and using the most of every ingredient. And I learned to experiment.
Vacay.ca: When did you know you wanted to have a culinary career?
Yen: In a lot of Asian homes, the family was known for one recipe and when you made that recipe everyone was involved — your aunts might be peeling ginger, your cousins using the mortar and pestle. I was the only boy they allowed in the kitchen when they were cooking. I loved it all.
When I was 14, I started cooking in an Italian restaurant, the only Asian in the kitchen. When I tried to bring forth a taste of my heritage, I realized that I was a bit more creative than I was experienced!
Vacay.ca: What were the next steps to becoming a chef?
Yen: I went to the Northwest Culinary Academy in Vancouver. I gave cooking a bit of a break for a while, going to the front of house where I learned a lot about customer service.
Then I completed a stage year-long at Mugaritz in San Sebastian, Spain, one of the most acclaimed restaurants in the world. Based on my experience there, I was the first Canadian chef to be invited to work at the El Bulli Foundation at Bullipedia, a revolutionary food lab run by legendary chef Ferran Adrià. Working with him taught me a lot about fermentation that creativity and knowledge go hand in hand.
Vacay.ca: What has been your career path since returning to Canada from Spain?
Yen: I worked at several Vancouver restaurants, including the Mackenzine Room as sous chef which taught me how to be a leader and articulate my dishes and express my ideas to other people. I was also able to help my mentor of five years, Jefferson Alvarez, open his new restaurant, Cacao.
Vacay.ca: What brought you to Montreal?
Yen: I moved when my fiancé was accepted at McGill to study urban planning. My business partner Emiliano Rivera and my friends moved their lives and together we opened up Fieldstone.
Vacay.ca: That was one month after arriving. How did you have the confidence to take such a big step so quickly?
Yen: I had been cooking for 14 years, so I was confident with my skills. I created over 180 plates. I was able to create dishes in my mind, put them on paper and bring them to life as soon as we opened.
Vacay.ca: Two years after opening Fieldstone, you closed it, opting for a new concept. Why was that?
Yen: After being closed for two months, we opened Cantine Teré in the same location on May 10th this year. It is more casual, and we can reach a larger crowd. We serve a better-than-average brunch — that is, no eggs Benedict. We make different emulsions and our own smoked tomato jam in place of catsup. Lunch is casual and our dinner menu is the most creative of all. I am no longer the only chef in the kitchen, so it is an opportunity for me to be a leader and train others.
Vacay.ca: Where is your favourite place to travel in Canada?
Yen: I love camping in the Okanagan. Kelowna is one of my favourite cities.
Vacay.ca: What is one of your most vivid travel memories?
Yen: I still have relatives in Cambodia and in 2000 I went with my family to visit. I was able to just dive back into the culture. Seeing the farmlands and travelling to all the temples, it was definitely a culture shock.
Recently, René Redzepi of Noma hosted a challenge for young chefs to ferment a goose. I won the challenge and with it a trip to Copenhagen and an opportunity to eat at Noma. Copenhagen, Denmark and Noma — it was all fantastic.
Vacay.ca: Any other memorable trips?
Yen: Paris in 2016 when my fiancé and I got engaged. We are waiting for the right time and hoping to get married in San Sebastian. We think it is the ideal location with its beautiful scenery and incredible food, but it also holds a special place in my heart as the first city that I lived in outside of Canada.
Vacay.ca: Why do you like to travel?
Yen: Definitely for food and also architecture.
Vacay.ca: What are three necessities you won’t travel without?
Yen: A camera, a journal and my phone. I like to send pictures every day to say, “Hey, everyone this is where I am.” They are also a record for my journal to inspire me once I am home.
Vacay.ca: If I was to drop into Cantine Teré for dinner, what would you suggest I order?
Yen: Huitlacoche Creamsicle with shaved tonka bean and cocoa olive pearls. Local Halibut Ceviche with sea buckthorn, confit onion oil, and serrano lactonesa, which is a milk emulsion.
Vacay.ca: You have just added dinner at Cantine Teré to my bucket list! What would you like to be known for?
Yen: For diversity in food and in the kitchen, and putting the spotlight on Cambodian cuisine.
Vacay.ca: Happiness is. …
Yen: Food with the ones you love.