Minh Truong is a man of few words, but his presence in the kitchen cannot be ignored. He leads his all-female kitchen staff calmly and decisively in a white chef's coat, plain black slacks, and a baseball cap with the words "The Ivy League" embroidered in green.
"It's from my son, so I wear it," Truong told NBC News, smiling.
Along with his wife Mandy, the Truongs have found their niche in the New York restaurant scene, opening Angkor Cambodian Bistro in Manhattan on New Year's Eve. The Southeast Asian kitchen, situated in a row of small restaurants and quiet apartment buildings, is currently New York City's only sit-down Cambodian restaurant, serving Khmer favorites, like seafood curry (amok), Cambodian savory crepes (banh chao), pork meatballs (nem nuong), and rice noodle soup (kuythiew).
Truong and his family fled Cambodia in 1975 when Truong was just 14 years old. With no real plan in mind, they walked from the nation's capital and his hometown, Phnom Penh. For three months the family traveled by foot until they reached Vietnam, and then went on to Thailand where they stayed in a refugee camp in Chonburi.
With few basic cooking skills he picked up from his mother while growing up, Truong signed up to cook at the refugee camp. Cooking guaranteed he would eat, which was enough incentive for him. Under the guidance of others, he learned to cook Thai cuisine.
"This was Thailand," Truong said, "so we cooked Thai style."
When Truong and his family arrived in New York City in 1981, he went to work as a kitchen apprentice in French and Italian restaurants. He eventually worked his way to the job of head chef at the former Au Bar restaurant and nightclub on Madison and Park Avenues.
By 1993, he was married to Mandy and a father. The immigrant couple opened Royal Siam Thai Cuisine at a time when there were few Thai restaurants in New York City, but with the help of positive reviews in the New York Times, their business took off. For 20 years, the Truongs ran the restaurant — Minh in the kitchen and Mandy in the dining room.
After they sold the restaurant, the Truongs spent two years traveling non-stop. But Minh was itching to get back into the restaurant world.
"Here we are on vacation [visiting Cambodia] and [Minh] is still speculating how he would prepare these dishes himself," Mandy Truong told NBC News in Cantonese. "I don't know how to describe it, but he's just one of those types who likes to work."
Throughout their travels, the Truongs wondered if an unfamiliarity with Cambodian flavors contributed to the cuisine's lack of popularity in the U.S. Although tourism is viewed these days to be one of Cambodia's economic pillars, the destruction of the country in the '70s during the Khmer Rouge had left no space for outside visitors for decades.
Inspired by the flavors of the historic city Siem Reap and by the sprawl of the famous Angkor Archeological Park, Angkor Cambodian Bistro represents the Truongs' native country's flavors — flavors Minh Truong learned to cook from his mother, who lives with the couple in Queens.
Cambodian food reflects its geographic location and colonial history, the Truongs note. Spices like lemongrass, turmeric, galangal, and fresh pepper are native to Southeast Asia; fish is a common protein, as Cambodia boasts several rivers and bodies of water. Nestled between Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, it integrates its neighbors' cuisines to create unique flavors, and as a former French colony, it is not uncommon to find a baguette served alongside curry.
"We already eat Khmer food at home," Mandy Truong said. "We want to showcase the best the kingdom has to offer."
She adds that while Angkor's food is authentic, it can be tailored for patrons not accustomed to the style of food, which she describes as "the same family, but a different child" of Southeast Asian cuisine.Cambodian flavor is sour and sweet, while Thai might be considered sour and spicy, and although most ingredients are easy to find in Thai grocery stores, the flavors are lighter overall.
"We could have fit more [than 55 people in the restaurant], but we wanted our customers to feel relaxed, with plenty of space to spread out and enjoy," Mandy Truong said. "While we were traveling, we realized New Yorkers are always in such a rush. We hope diners will slow down when they visit us."