The Chef

"Once upon a time, a beautiful Cambodian princess kissed a frog, and she became a wonderful chef."

That's how we like to tell our story. The truth, however, is a bit harsher, but in the end, especially considering the alternative, it is a beautiful fairy tale also.

By the time Sokun turned 6, the Khmer Rouges had killed all but her immediate family. As the civil war wreaked havoc on the little country of Cambodia, its people were desperately trying to survive. Sokun’s father hid the family in the most dangerous place of all: in their midst. Pretending to be nothing more than a cook, this well educated man who formerly made a living a teaching (and was therefore at the top of their black list) managed to secure some food and shelter to his wife and kids while everyone else around them kept dying, killed either through the atrocities of the guerrilla fighters or because of the terrible famine that ensued the wreckage of an entire society. The Khmer Rouge were constantly on the move and had a dangerously bad temper, sometimes shooting people just because they felt like it and life among them was gruesome and desperate. There wasn’t always enough to eat for everyone and Sokun’s little brother died because of malnutrition and medicine shortage. Sokun and her sister suffered from a severe lack of calcium, which created health problems that are still persistent to this day. Being the best cook they had, Sokun’s dad, who was sometimes assisted by his little girl, kept his position for close to a year. That was long enough for the Khmer Rouge to travel in range of the Thai border and set camp. Later that fateful night, Sokun’s dad rounded up what was left of Sokun’s family and hurried them across the border and into safety.

From a red-cross dispatch camp there, they were flown to France where they acquired the status of refugees. Not knowing what would happen to them and for how long they would be in this foreign country, Sokun’s mother hung on desperately to her mother culture and tongue and raised her children in the Cambodian tradition. But Sokun, who was going on 8 in July of 1979 when she moved to Europe and was about 10 by the time her family settled in Paris, immersed herself completely in French culture and made it her own, especially when it came to culinary arts. Food had saved her life once before, it now became her passion and defined her lifestyle: she fell in love with French pastries – croissants, macaroons, apple turnovers – and started cooking for her family, first with her dad, then later on her own. It was only a matter of time before she could perfect those skills. The Cambodian refugee community having moved in close proximity of each other, Young Sokun oftentimes cooked for up to 40 people. These people who were cut off from their homeland would often congregate together, support each other, and had no-one else but themselves to keep each other company. These guests she would sometimes use as guinea pigs, and would introduce to delicacies she had dug up in cookbooks or tried at restaurants around Paris with her friends and family.

By the time she was 20, she had gained the reputation of being the best cook there was in the whole Parisian Cambodian community – not only in Cambodian cooking, but in Asian as well as French cuisine - and people often invited themselves to her parents’ table. After she married at age 22, she kept entertaining people by cooking the most delicate and sophisticated dishes, and – this would be no surprise to whoever cooks better than the average person – was rarely invited to their tables, as she intimidated most by her skills. Her husband, who held both French and American citizenship, saw the potential of such a great talent and convinced her to give it a shot professionally. Together they left Paris for the United States of America in 1998 to open a restaurant.

When she had moved to Paris, Sokun spoke no French and had to first catch up with the language before she could attend school and get an education. She therefore learned to read and write rather late in life, but finished her schooling and graduated at about the same time as the French kids in her school. Except for a few pieces of jewelry they were able to save from the Khmer Rouge, her parents had no personal possession when they left Cambodia and had to start all over. When she moved to the US at the age of 26, she had to start all over again as she didn’t speak any English and had all of her possessions stolen. For the first year, while she was taking classes to learn English (her third language now) and her situation was being legalized with the immigration services, Sokun worked in a French restaurant… as a dishwasher! Never did she tell them about her skills, and never did they ask, although they knew she had moved here to open a restaurant. For eight long hours a day, she washed piles of dirty dishes without saying much, just content to have a job and to be able to get out of the house. But that was about to change, if not quickly. Sokun and her husband had come to the USA with empty pockets. So empty they had to borrow money from friends and family just to move. It took three years of hard work in different fields such as customer service and retail for Sokun to be able to be rid of debt completely and start saving towards her dream of opening a restaurant. Life went on and by the end of her eighth year in America she was finally able to borrow enough money to open up a French restaurant.

She picked the out-of-the-way town of Washington, GA and with her husband opened up a bed and breakfast that also offered five-course gourmet meals – classic French dishes with a twist of Asian. Within one year, in 2007, she had earned the prestigious three-diamond rating by AAA for her restaurant. Sokun then opened up Sophie's, a small sandwich shop on the town square, which she eventually turned into a French-like bistro where she could serve wonderful quiches and salads, and then took over the restaurant at the Historic Fitzpatrick Hotel also on the square, where she concocted a menu of Southern and Continental cuisine with a small twist of French. It is truly no wonder Southern Living said she is “changing the face of hospitality in [Washington, GA]”, in truth, exposing people to food they had never dreamed of tasting in this rural area, bringing a level of sophistication and standards they had to drive hours to find prior to her moving there. The AAA rating was renewed in 2008 and 2009 but in summer of 2009, wanting to live closer to the ocean and following better opportunities, she closed shop in Georgia, moved to the little town of Whiteville, NC and opened the New Southern Kitchen, where "French cuisine with a twist of Asian and Southern Flair" graced the menu. She moved Sophie's to Whiteville as well, and in 2016 built a brand new venue: the Chef and the Frog. Sokun’s constant quest for exceptional menu items has become legendary: she can identify most of the spices in any dish she eats, and reproduce it or improve upon it in her own kitchen, but the secret of her success is that she is a fervent believer that excellence resides in subtlety, and therefore prefers moderation when it comes to how many ingredients or what spices she’ll use. In a field typically dominated by men, most often white, a little Asian woman named Sokun has now become a full fledged businesswoman and a much accomplished chef. A stickler for quality, cleanliness and presentation, she manages her kitchens with an iron fist but delights all her guests with her delicately subtle yet tasty creations. Having lost everything and having started over not just once - but twice - she is the epitome of the fighter who will never give up, and is like the phoenix who will always be reborn from its ashes. Sokun today is living the American dream, and one can only hope she'll live happily ever after.