From gangs to galleys, one Cambodian chef’s journey

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“Nobody can tell you that you can't do it no matter where you are. No matter if you're a former gang member or not, you can still be a top executive chef,” says chef Visoth Tarak Ouk. Photos courtesy of Gladstone’s Long Beach.

Visoth Tarak Ouk is the child of Cambodian refugees who grew up in Long Beach’s Cambodia Town in the 1990’s. In his teens, he joined a gang, seeking protection from bullies. Eventually, he pulled himself out of the gang life and into the galley, finding a new path in the kitchen. This month, Ouk (commonly known as Chef T,) published his first book. It’s a memoir and cookbook called: “Kroeng: Cambodian Cooking with Chef T”.

As a kid, Ouk says he was often picked on by those around him. 

“I didn't know how to speak English. There's derogatory words that [were said that at] the time I didn't know what it meant,” he tells KCRW. “I was getting chased almost every day. I got beat up for no reason at times. So I started to grow this hatred. This big hate towards everybody else that wasn't Cambodians.” 

He says it took the death of his sister when he was in his 20’s to start to get his life together.

“She graduated [from] Cal State Fullerton with two degrees. But she didn't get to celebrate it at all. She died before receiving her degrees three weeks prior to a truck, or a car, hitting her while she exited her own vehicle. We had to bury her on her own birthday.”

Ouk remembers his parents told him that he should’ve died instead of his sister. At that moment, he remembers crying and telling himself he had to change. 

He went back to school and got a culinary degree from Long Beach City College. At the same time, he worked his way up kitchen crews around Los Angeles starting at restaurants like Applebees and Quizno’s.

“I worked at a lot of fast food places and I went to school at the same time. And a lot of people laughed at me, they made fun of me, but I kept pursuing,” he remembers. 

Today, Ouk says he typically spends 12 to 14 hours on his feet in the kitchen, but it’s worth it: “Cooking is life, it's not even work. It's what I love to do. … Cooking [is] actually the only real art of the culinary art. The soul art that is nourishment towards your body physically, and to the soul.”

Ouk’s loup de mer with ginger and scallions, left, and Octopus in a yuzu and wasabi aioli with radishes, right, from his book, “Kroeng: Cambodian Cooking with Chef T”. Photos courtesy of The Khmer Generations Project.

As he’s gotten older, Ouk says he’s forgiven his friends and family for laughing at him over wanting to change. 

“I do not want to hold that. I do not want to hold that in my heart. … I was like, ‘You know what? It's not worth it, because then I'm doing the same thing that they did.’”

He adds, “That's why I help with the community so much, because I want to do something that nobody did for me to help. So that's why I do so much for the community, the kids, the students, all that because I want to lift this heavy stone out of my heart. … I still feel that burden. I still feel that pain. When you know when people don't believe in you, it really hurts you.” 

Today, Ouk is at the helm of Gladstone’s Long Beach as executive chef. In an unexpected turn of events, an author too.

“I decided to write the book because … I want to show people that you can be whatever you want if you put your heart into it, and you follow your dreams. Nobody can tell you that you can't do it no matter where you are. No matter if you're a former gang member or not, you can still be a top executive chef.”