Stories are sacred, and being a listener is a privilege. Especially tonight.
We know a fair bit about Cambodia, having visited recently, so on our visit to the Gold Coast’s only Cambodian restaurant, Bunnath Kitchen, we come humbly, as one would to a temple.
Restaurant owners Bunnath You (Bernie) and his wife Ivy greet us when we arrive. Their renovations to the former La Porte Verte restaurant have achieved a simple elegance. They’ve also made changes to the kitchen where Bernie cooks the cuisine of Cambodia, including Amok curry, the unofficial national dish of his homeland.
Bernie has taken traditional Khmer food, similar but different to Thai and Vietnamese cuisine, and modernised it just a little for the Australian palate.
It’s a short menu of five entrees ($7 each), ten mains ($17 – $29.50) and a couple of desserts ($9 each), yet it boasts some of our favourite dishes.
We start with Keung (pork and prawn mince rolled in bean curd skin and deep-fried), so delicious that we could easily have doubled up on the order!
Then to mains. Firstly, the ‘must try’ rich Amok Trei, sweet coral trout in a fragrant yellow curry custard. Gently steamed in banana leaves and overlain with the gentle flavours of lemongrass, galangal, fresh turmeric and kaffir lime in a sweet coconut milk sauce, this dish is a real treat, the fragrant spices all the more pungent from being pounded by hand rather than by machine ($28.50). We supplement it with Lok Luk – stir-fried beef with salad ($28.50), and Bong Kear Ang – local prawns wrapped in kroeung (a paste of fresh herbs) minced pork then rolled in prosciutto (29.50).
While not large in size, the dishes are tasty and filling, made from top quality locally-sourced ingredients; a little glimpse of food from a land and culture unknown to many Australians.
“Hopefully the dishes we create will be appreciated for their quality,” Bernie tells us. “The meat is as good as possible. It’s deliberately this size so you can taste what the food really is.” (Absolutely delicious!)
Satisfied from the meal and glass of wine, it’s time to learn more about Bernie’s journey.
With Ivy beside him, he begins his story:
The son of a successful businessman, Bernie, who’d lost both his parents in 1978 under the reign of Pol Pot, escaped to Thailand as a refugee. He was very fortunate to escape, he says, as Pol Pot killed over half the population of Cambodia – soldiers, teachers, uni students, expats and many business people, all within an 18-month period. It was the worst genocide in history.
To make things worse, Bernie’s grandfather had migrated from China to Cambodia to seek better opportunities for his family. He was business-oriented, trying to assimilate with Cambodian locals, yet the family were still seen as being ‘Chinese outsiders’.
As Bernie relates his story, somehow it is overlaid with the grizzly mist of history we have come to know: the ‘killing fields’ where over three million died, the brainwashing of children so that they killed their own parents, a land left barren and haunted…
Even after a traumatic day at work, my troubles pale into insignificance in comparison to Bernie’s story. I glance across to one wall where a brilliant array of the couple’s orchids is blooming, their beauty in stark contrast to the story of human cruelty and suffering.
“The memory is still there, but at least I don’t cry,” Bernie says. “Life has to go on. There is no alternative. If you keep thinking about it you feel so depressed. There is a whole generation of Cambodians missing who were a gentle, cultural people, fishing and working a fertile land. The people left have changed.”
Bernie migrated to Australia in 1980. Unable to speak English, he studied Civil Engineering at RMIT before working at Telecom. In 1990 he started work as a consultant for the United Nations setting up schools. Moving back to Australia in 1995, he settled on the Gold Coast, converting an old cray farm in Clagiraba to a fish farm raising jade perch (grunter).
“Forgive but don’t forget,” Bernie tells us.
“There is no future without memory, whether you are at work in the kitchen or sitting at the table,” food writer Margo Schachter wrote recently in an article in Fine Dining Lovers.
“I hope that people will come to try Cambodian food,” Bernie says. “It was a risk opening a restaurant with an unknown cuisine, but I want people to find out about our culture and food. I hope they understand it.”
East Quay Shopping Centre, 13/44 Commerce Drive, Robina Ph: 07 5562 0707
Open for Lunch Thurs to Sun 11am – 2:30pm; Dinner Tues to Sun 5pm – 9pm Closed Monday.