How a YouTube Home Chef and Trainer Opened a Khmer Popup Attracting Customers from All Over the Country | Peninsula Foodst | The Peninsula Foodst

Written by Anthony Shaw

Popup born out of necessity
On weekends, a sign is raised from the canopy at Pho de Nguyen in San Bruno and proclaims “Authentic Khmer food of Sitha Yim.” While pop-ups attract tens of thousands of social media followers, and boxes of poppy seed cakes and black sesame egg pancakes sold months in advance, pop-up restaurants look modern and glamorous, and offer opportunities for chefs to cook with unrestrained creativity and without the hassle of managing payroll and increasing rents.

But Yim, the owner of Sitha’s Khmerkichi restaurant, is neither a pastry chef who trades in the chef’s whites at a famous restaurant for a chance to make her own menu nor a tech employee who pursues a passion while living on a fixed salary. Instead, she learned how to cook most of the Khmer recipes from watching her mom’s YouTube videos. A single mother who derives most of her income from the pop-up but also works three other jobs, sources Yim baby formula and diapers to members of the Cambodian community and carefully sculpts the eyebrows of microblading clients between delivering her orders of twa ko, a sausage stuffed with beef, rice and galangal (often described as more citrusy compared to with ginger).

Yim is part of a movement of entrepreneurs selling hard-to-find dishes locally and getting customers from immigrant communities on social media. With a shortage of Cambodian restaurants on the peninsula and few in Auckland and San Jose, Sitha’s Khmerkitchen, which pops up in Pho de Nguyen on the weekends and also offers food service, is one of the few places to enjoy the Bay Area’s signature cuisine. Auckland’s Nyum Bai was named one of Bon Appetit’s Top 10 New Restaurants in 2018 with a menu similar to Yim’s, but that honor hasn’t resulted in a large-scale opening of Cambodian restaurants locally.

Inside Sitha’s Khmerktichen, diners find comfort in prahok ktiss, minced pork cooked in coconut milk with fermented fish. Served as a dip, dipped cabbage and eggplant dipped in it with a heavy blow of umami and heat. Orders are also pouring in for this dancing shrimp salad that has raw and translucent seafood, barely visible under the vibrant red pepper flakes and bright green herbs. However, just three years ago, Yim hadn’t prepared many of these items.

Connecting with Cambodian Communities
Arriving in San Francisco at the age of seven after leaving Cambodia for “too cold” Chicago in 1984, Yim’s childhood centered around the Nagara Dhamma Temple, a Buddhist temple established by her parents. Banned from participating in the extracurricular, Yim washes dishes, cleans and helps the elders at the temple after school. Serving others, especially the elderly, became a paramount value in her life. “I help others before me, and sometimes I shouldn’t,” she says.

In 2019, just before the pandemic, Yum is back with her mother under the misty sunset sky. Her younger brother just passed away at the age of 33, and she finalized her divorce after a six-year process and found herself the sole caretaker of her two children. “I didn’t know what to do,” she says.

Yim, who formerly owned a donut shop and ran a location in Houston for a Southeast Asian-Cajun seafood restaurant, took a suggestion from a friend and began selling crunchy, sweet and spicy Cambodian beef that’s often served warm and fried so much that it crashes in the mouth. However, San Francisco meat drying meant that Yim scampered around the house and placed trays of beef steak in the living room, porch, and even on the stairs depending on where the sun came up. Rain or thick fog forced Yim to storm the doors to her mother’s balcony in order to save her produce from the falling water.

Meanwhile, Yum finds herself returning to the communities she grew up in as a child. In between handing out bags of beef bacon, Yum began working as a case manager for mentally ill Cambodian Chinatown residents and went on to translate for Khmer speakers and helping the elderly with paperwork at her parents’ temple. She made sure to instill an appreciation for Cambodian culture in her children, 9 and 15, giving them chores in Khmer and refusing to default to English even as they responded with a puzzled look.

Building a business through social media
Eventually, Yim upgraded to a mini dryer purchased on Amazon, but she couldn’t keep up with the increasing demand because she finely tuned the sweetness of her recipe. “At first, I didn’t know how to make ?????? (dried beef). So I went to YouTube, and I was watching 10, 15, 20 (videos) all night long.” Thanks to social media groups populated by Cambodian Americans who have lost a taste of home, intermittent orders have ballooned from £10 to £400 a week, a sum that can no longer be tucked away in the corner of her mother’s house.

Selling primarily through Facebook and Instagram has also meant that Yim’s business has been a two-way conversation, with customers reaching out whenever they crave delicately deboned chicken wings stuffed with spices and glass noodles or a papaya salad prepared with the staple of pickled raw lobster known as salted crab. Yum spent more time glaring cooking videos on her phone and continued to seek out her mother’s instructions, never wanting to turn down students who yearned for culinary professionals or working in their families without time to slowly cook soup. “I just wanted to make every dish they ordered… Suddenly, I got a full menu,” says Yim.

Among Yim’s clients on social media was the owner of Phong Nguyen Pho de Nguyen in San Bruno, and the two began chatting about the slowdown in work at the restaurant since the beginning of the epidemic. Eventually, Nguyen and his fiancée suggested that Yim host a three-day pop-up show in December 2021, and the space filled with patrons looking for a chance to sample Yim’s cooking at a restaurant. Then Nguyen asked if Yim was interested in taking over the space on the weekends.

Create a home for Khmer food
At this point, Yim’s frequent YouTube searches, heaps of tasting spoons and the vigilant measurements of fish sauce and sugar started to fade. While immigrant parents and grandparents usually cook with intuition and struggle to jot down their recipes, Yum says it’s her mother who is panicking right now in her daughter’s kitchen. She was shocked when she saw Yim confidently tossing handfuls of lemongrass into the pots instead of carefully measuring each cup.

And when it came to the question of employment, Yum knew she could turn to her family for help. “(My daughter) says she saw how I always struggled. To survive, have an income, put a roof over our heads,” Yim says of her daughter Bing, she works as a maid at pop-ups and bus tables in a similar way to the way her mother spent her evenings cleaning The floors are in the family temple. Her boyfriend and her mother also help out in the kitchen.

Soon after accepting Nguyen’s offer to run Sitha’s Khmer kitchen on weekends, Yum began seeing her dining room crowded with customers, including Cambodian Americans traveling from all over the United States. While images of the menu are a little blurry and still bear the bold white font that graced it when Yim first shared it on Instagram Stories, her cooking now reflects hours of repetition and her fervent dedication to Cambodian cuisine (while still imparting a simple homemade presentation). The dish of raw vegetables surrounding the prahok ktiss is organized by color, with a row of green bell peppers, lettuce, and faded cabbage to translucent slices of white onion. She figured out how to fit the time into her schedule to pick up lobster shipped from Louisiana at the airport, as her menu also includes an entire Cajun section inspired by her days in Houston and includes gumbo, étouffée, and po’boys.

Yim is looking forward to a full-fledged restaurant as it continues to grow its customer base, but high food, rent and staffing costs are still major hurdles. Meanwhile, Yim will continue her hectic weeks of home deliveries and shipping out sausages and baked goods amid her many other jobs.

Regardless, she will always prioritize her family, who are the driving force behind her restaurant. “I don’t only think of myself. I think of (my children)’s future too. That is why when I work, I work. I do not complain, though I am tired: I still keep working,”

== I Sitha’s Khmerkitchen, open on weekends inside Pho de Nguyen, 586-A San Mateo Ave. , San Bruno; (415) 798-4759, Instagram: sithas_authentic_khmer_food. ==

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