Let's Eat! Nite Yun Of Nyum Bai On The Search For Self And A More Meaningful LifeBy Geana Sieburger |
I met Nite Yun, the owner of Nyum Bai, for the first time about 5 years ago. It was at a West Coast Craft show in San Francisco, back when they only did Winter shows and it was intimate enough that every vendor could almost meet all of the other vendors. She was vending her food. I was vending my wears.
Today, Nyum Bai is a physical location, a Cambodian restaurant in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood. I wanted to connect with Nite to learn about the trials and tribulations of running a restaurant. But more than that, I wanted to hear about her longing to reconnect with Cambodian culture, something that I can deeply relate to as a person who immigrated as a child. I'm truly inspired by Nite and know you will be too.
Geana: Can you tell us what Nyum Bai is and what makes it special?
Nite: "Let’s eat,” is the translation for Nyum Bai. This was my mom’s way of greeting friends and family. "Let’s eat, let’s eat!” Food, the action of cooking, is the simplest way of connecting with people. At Nyum Bai, it’s not just a Cambodian restaurant, but a space where guests can experience the Golden Era while listening to Khmer 60’s pop songs and enjoying homestyle Cambodian cooking. Nyum Bai is an ode to Cambodia’s good times.
I want those that don’t know anything about Cambodia to learn of its rich culture and history through its cuisine. For most Khmer families, gathering around the dinner mat and preparing a meal is the moment that stories and gossip are told, a time to be closer to each other. When there is no dialogue being exchanged, at least food speaks of love and nourishment. Food becomes a language that tells the stories of what survived after the war. It becomes a way for families to seek truth about their own experiences.
I was slurping on a bowl of kuy teav noodles and the vision of the space, food, concept all hit me like a ton of bricks. Back in San Francisco, I developed recipes from memory, almost guided by intuition.
Geana: Have you always cooked? What made you decide to make it a business? I know you went through La Cocina's business incubator. Can you tell us what that experience gave you that you didn't have before?
Nite: Some of the best memories I have are cooking side by side with my mom. I was pretty young when she taught me how to use a knife and a mortar & pestle. I was my mom’s little sous chef. I’m not sure how my food obsession started but I would spend a lot of time in the kitchen with my mom, found myself working in the school cafeteria, got a library card so I could check out cook books, baked for classmates, and spent my savings on food.
It should’ve been obvious to me. I should've gone to culinary school. Instead I went to school for nursing. One day, during my rotation as I was taking the vitals of a patient, I realized I felt miserable. It was really clear–I knew I had to quit. The next week I was on flight to Cambodia. When I arrived, I fell in love with the country immediately. There was a sense of belonging and a deep connection. I kept going back for longer periods. On my fourth trip to Cambodia, I had an epiphany. I was slurping on a bowl of kuy teav noodles and the vision of the space, food, concept all hit me like a ton of bricks. Back in San Francisco, I developed recipes from memory, almost guided by intuition. My mom helped me with lists of ingredients for dishes that I loved eating growing up.
So, I had this idea, but I still thought it was a little crazy. It was a dream. And for La Cocina to accept me, it meant that this could actually be a reality. Getting accepted encouraged me to pursue the dream with the support of the community. Being in that program definitely helped me refine the business vision. They have a lot of resources and so from that I had the opportunity, I was lucky enough to work at various catering gigs and popups. That’s how it all got started.
Geana: Can you share with us how your family's experience of migration fed your desire to share Cambodian cuisine with others? It seems to me like there was a strong pull for you to connect with where your family came from. And at the same time, to show others that this food and culture is worth honoring. Am I off in this assumption?
Nite: Not off, it’s an underrepresented cuisine, and so much of what I do is really bringing awareness to that. When I met other Cambodian Americans, I felt like they didn't really have a sense of pride or they didn't know too much about the history of Cambodia or they wanted to connect but didn't know how to. Why not create a space where the young Cambodian generation can come together to connect with other Cambodians? Cambodian history has been overshadowed by neighboring countries for so long. Everyone should know more and learn about Cambodian history. It’s so rich and so much has happened in the last century. Just as an example, before the Khmer Rouge, before the golden era, Cambodia was a kingdom that covered land from present day Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar.
I’m proud of where I came from and how I grew up, but for the longest I was confused about my identity. I always identified myself as Cambodian, but then when I started school I realized that I was different. Am I Cambodian? Am I American? That’s sort of confusing. It’s been a journey towards understanding that I am both.
So much is on the line. Like how can I truly improve the flow and the efficiency of the restaurant? How do I take care of my staff? How do I keep everyone happy? But really, most importantly the struggle has been learning about myself and becoming the leader that I need to be in the fast-paced environment of a busy restaurant.
Geana: So interesting! You've always struck me as a hard worker and you've been creating today's Nyum Bai for a few years. Was there a time when you weren't sure if Nyum Bai would make it? Maybe a time when you felt like you were giving it your all but not seeing the results you wanted. What felt like the biggest obstacles to you?
Nite: Yes, plenty of hard times. I wanted to quit several times–not making any money on rainy days at Mission Community Market, pop ups where I would have just a handful of customers, working from 8AM to 11PM on a day with only 20 covers. All of that is so discouraging.
There are so many different kinds of complex problems I encountered. One is me growing up and developing into a leader. Having the doubt of being able to manage a group of people. It requires personal growth. It’s something more personal I have to deal with. And two, finding the support especially on the financial side especially when you're starting out when no one's really coming to your restaurant. How do you find the income to keep the business going? And three, always fighting the doubt. “Is this good enough? Did I make the right decision?" So much is on the line. A lot of people think and say “oh wow, Nyum Bai is so successful!” They think that I live this glamorous life but the actuality is that the day-to-day, even now, is a struggle. Like how can I truly improve the flow and the efficiency of the restaurant? How do I take care of my staff? How do I keep everyone happy? But really, most importantly the struggle has been learning about myself and becoming the leader that I need to be in the fast paced environment of a busy restaurant. I started out with just 5 people total and now I have about 20 people to manage. Having to learn how to cook as my passion, but then having to learn to manage a business and also to be a leader that my staff can look up to, that’s been a challenge. I've always been kind of a solo independent person. So having to be part of a group where I'm the leader, where they look to me for direction, I think, “man, Nite, you have to shape up mentally and physically so you can be able to take care of your team!” It’s hard. It can be really mentally and emotionally draining.
Geana: I completely understand how the emotional and the personal are so important and how personal growth within businesses is necessary for sanity. During these challenging moments, what allows you continue on? I'd love to hear about the inner personal skills you have or developed over time that give you the strength to persevere–the things and people that without, you wouldn't have made it or that things would have been much much harder without.
Nite: Yeah, I definitely learned to give myself alone time. I think that helped me kind of press the reset button when things get pretty shitty and stressful. I'm lucky enough to have a partner that understands how stressful it is. I have a meditation room at my house where I go to have my alone time for 30 minutes out of the day or maybe spend the whole day there to reset, refresh myself. That’s really helpful. When things get really bad I remind myself of all the things that I'm grateful for, that what I get to do is pretty special. Remembering that I’m living out my dream with a purpose keeps me going.
People have said to me, “you definitely raked up all of the awards.” I know it's pretty crazy, but I don't know what to say or do about it. It's not going to change what I do or how I do things.
Geana: You and your restaurant are pretty well known now. What was your biggest surprise in the last two years as Nyum Bai got more and more press and as you became more renowned for your cuisine?
Nite: I’m still surprised with all the accolades really. I'm very grateful that Nyum Bai is getting acknowledged for what it stands for and what it's about. Like when we got our first Bon Appétit, Best New Restaurant feature, it just didn't hit me what an impact that would make because to me, it's like “well, if I just do what I do, make sure that I continue to cook food that I know, and continue to treat my staff the way that I do, that's all that really matters.” And it just got crazier and crazier! I just couldn’t really believe all the people that wanted to try Cambodian food or that had had Cambodian food. I think I need to really reflect on how crazy the last two years have been.
People have said to me, “you definitely raked up all of the awards.” I know it's pretty crazy but I don't know what to say or do about it. It's not going to change what I do or how I do things. Ultimately, I’m very grateful because the whole goal has always been sharing Cambodian food and bringing awareness to Cambodian food and culture. So I guess in a sense people do see it and hear it.
Geana: You’re doing it! I hear a lot of gratitude, surprise and modesty too. That's something I really appreciate about you. Nyum Bai is one of the most popular restaurants in the Bay Area, and you’re really modest about it.
What's still missing for you? What's next for Nyum Bai or yourself? Do you want to sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labor for a little while or is there something else you're working on?
Nite: I went back to Cambodia just a couple weeks ago wanting to get inspired again and to learn more about Cambodian ingredients and techniques. So for this year my goal is to focus more on old school ways of preparing Cambodian food. I learned how to pickle fish and smoke fish. So I’ll be bringing more techniques like that to the restaurant. We’ll be adding more things to the menu using more fermentation techniques, preserving, adding smoked fish to the menu. So, more food-fused goals.
And finding more of a work and life balance.
If you loved what you read here, please visit Nyum Bai.
All photos by Aubrie Pick.