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Chef Chandra and the Curse of the Talking Heads

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By Lorette C. Luzajic


Chef Chandra at Angkor Restaurant.

It's late Sunday night in Toronto and I'm walking past Gerrard Street's Angkor Restaurant. Amid the feverish hodgepodge of colourful d├ęcor sits Chef Chandra, his back to the window, all alone, staring motionless into the fish tank. The picture is something sad and lonely out of an Edward Hopper painting. Though the scene is brightly lit through a public window, I feel I have witnessed something private and solemn, and feel embarrassed.

The stark picture is a direct contrast to a bustling dinner a group of us shared not two hours earlier. Dashing in a shimmery patterned metallic blouse fit for Cambodian royalty, Chef Chandaramony Eang had served us his finest cuisine. The wonderful exotic aromas of kaffir lime, lemongrass, coconut, garlic, fish sauce and peanut simmered in the air, and the noisy clatter of pots and pans clank behind the din of our table's laughter and chitchat. Chef Chandra proudly brought out dish after dish of spectacular food, and his wide smile and distinctly jovial mannerisms belied so much pride in his food. There'd be no way to guess that this same man was imprisoned and tortured for four years, that his body is filled with landmine fragments, that he walked for weeks to make his escape from the Killing Fields into Thailand, and that he never saw most of his family or his nameless sweetheart again.

Now, Chef Chandra, who still dreams of severed heads and open graves, gives all his pain and passion to his food, which he serves proudly. His humble proceeds fund his registered charity, Aid for Victims of Cambodian Landmines.

Angkor Restaurant is the first Cambodian restaurant in Toronto, but Chandra serves Thai-styled food as well, given that was much of his chef's training was after his harrowing escape through the minefields into Thailand. He also finds that hanging a sign that says Thai outside attracts more customers, and though the foods of both lands are similar, Chandra is proud of the subtle differences and his secret recipes. He is, after all, the grandchild of Cambodia's former Prime Minister Lord Penn Nouth. As a small child, he watched the Prime Minister's chef with endless fascination, memorizing the details of creation. "I can cook for you with my eyes closed," he says, demonstrating in the air how he would feel for the ingredients with his hands, sensually closing in a bunch of mint or pinching seasoning and stirring an imaginary pot. "It would come out perfect."

On my next visit, Chef Chandra tells me lives with his 21-year-old son in a humble room in the back and doesn't own a car. A leg is a luxury for many people of his homeland, as is water, and he can't justify this type of foolish indulgence. Only food and people matter, anyways. Who needs a car? You don't need this sort of status when you're practically royalty, and a rare survivor of an historical epoch most of the world can't imagine.

Most, of course, except Angelina Jolie: her horror at the Cambodian land mine situation was the beginning of her astounding reincarnation from Goth addict to philanthropist of the world. Her first adopted child, Maddox, was rescued from an orphanage there, and Jolie has been raising awareness about thousands of issues ever since. Chandaramony idolizes her, and even has a poster of her hanging behind the bar, in hopes that one day she'll hear his story of impossible survival and want to know more about his mission. "You can't really become a Cambodian unless you are born there," he explains. "No one can really immigrate there. Angelina Jolie is an honorary citizen because she has done unbelievable things there. Together we could do more."

Food and goodwill melded early on in the mixing pot of Chandaramony's fate. He was a remarkably precocious child, and as young as 8 years old asked to volunteer at the Red Cross. He helped in the kitchen and was very worried that poor people have enough to eat.

Indeed, after studying as a chef in Thailand, he came to Canada as a refugee; using a scholarship he'd earned to study social work at George Brown. Then he began cooking at his small resto, building the business bit by bit, letting the simple therapy of stirring rice noodles and succulent marinated eggplant strips together heal his emotional wounds. "There is blessing in food," he says. His other grandfather was an herb doctor, with healing recipes and tinctures that Chandra says cure psoriasis. He can make that ointment, too, but his grandfather's spirit lives now in the way Chandra combines his herbs and spices while cooking. Everything he makes from scratch. "Love and passion," Chandra says more than a few times. "From my heart, from my heart." With every noodle he serves, a few more pennies go back home. "There is a draught right now in Cambodia," he says. "Thousands are thirsty. To get to the river for water, they have to walk through the dangerous zones, forbidden. Already several I am supposed to care for have died, and a thirteen-year-old girl lost both her legs. Just to get water!"

In Cambodia, about one person in 290 has an amputated limb from landmines planted some 30 years ago during the era of the Khmer Rouge, the communist regime that forced Chandaramony, his four brothers and his four sisters, and his parents, into slave camps. They were separated one from another, then set to work for years. Chandaramony dug graves for 20 hours a day, subsisting on one scoop of rice.

These memories and losses would drive anyone to the brink. "I still have nightmares every night. At night I cry myself to sleep." Chandaramony can't shake the image of those who had been beheaded, tossed into group graves. "Two brothers, two sisters for sure are in a pit- I hope one day to find that pit grave and plant flowers for my family. The others? I do not know."

The walls of Angkor look like a shrine. Ancestral portraits share space with Cambodian art, dozens of clippings about Rescue Cambodia, a poster of a curvy blonde, restaurant reviews, a letter from the King of Cambodia, framed coins, huge laughing Buddha statues, exotic carvings with long outstretched fingers, plastic flowers, giant fish, little bowls of anchovies to snack on if you get a beer, jade figurines, a few old plastic disco lights, and pictures of relatives. "I finally found my mother," he says joyfully. "Twenty-seven years later I was reunited with her." He returned to Cambodia to see her and a couple of surviving siblings. He was too late to see his father.

An endearing and bright personality, robust and attractive, Chef Chandra had no problem finding solace in a small handful of wives along the way. He doesn't say too much about the details here, wanting to protect the privacy of good women that he loved. But the larger than life romantic hero figure can't resist telling me about the heart that broke on those bloody fields along with his back and his legs. "Call this part of the story Love in the Killing Fields," he tells me, his eyes filling up. "I am awake every night wondering what happened to her, and I can never know."

"Listen," he says, motioning for me to help myself to some ice and lychee liqueur and prepare to listen intently. "This is what happens if you love a girl in the Killing Fields," he says. "Love is forbidden. You love a girl, the Khmer Rouge cut your head off and put it on a stick. They put the heads of the boy and the girl in the crossroads so that we would be reminded of our fate if there were any romance. If they catch you, they cut off your head."

He couldn't express his feelings for the beloved, without putting her life in danger as well as his own. "I was so crazy in love," he says, "that I would say to the little fishies, fishies, I love her, swim along the river and tell her. I would tell the birds, hi, little birdies, I love her, go and tell her. I tell the bees, buzz by and tell her how much I miss her and love her."

"You can't tell a 17 year old they can't fall in love, nothing can stop it," he says. "When we could talk, we would sneak in words about getting married one day. I want to go and find her. Sometimes I say, please fish, go, find her, and tell her that I am here."

The hardships continue to follow him as he surmounts one obstacle after another. But he keeps on because he knows God will protect him while he cares for those who need him most. There has to be a reason he survived, he says. In his particular group, there were 580 people. "Only myself left, one!" he exclaims. On the endless walk through minefields to get to Thailand, to freedom, he witnessed bodies splattering from mines. Chandra was hit, too, but not killed, and kept walking until he got there.

And while his freedom and relative safety in Canada are precious to him, here he also survived getting shot in the head ten years ago.

"It was the Khmer Rouge, I'm sure of it," he says. "God told me later that he would protect me, that no one could kill me. He put his hands around me. I'm supposed to be dead. But I have work to do."

He goes into the back and gets to work, while I sip my drink and read over my notes. Soon, he returns with a steaming plate of fish smothered in garlicky black beans, rice noodles stir fried with spicy chicken and peanuts, tender bok choy pieces, and eggplant slices that melt in my mouth. The front of the menu exclaims, "If you like Thai food, you'll love Cambodian." It promises that the "taste will knock you off your feet." One slurp into the chicken coconut soup and I sure am bowled over. While I love spicy food, I can barely take it. Still, the soup is so damned delicious I can't help diving in again and again.

Cambodian food does share an ingredient list familiar with its neighbour Thailand, but Chandra says Cambodian combinations are simple fare with more complex seasoning. "The ingredients have never been changed since the dawn of the Khmer empire," claims the menu. Indeed, rice, seafood, vegetables and coconut are still key, and generous use of ginger, garlic, lemongrass, lime, fish sauce, rhizomes, tamarind, and fiery chilies peppers.

And while I am melting into a heaven of spectacular flavours, Chef Chandra is concerned that not enough people are experiencing his master hand. He uses those words "love and passion" again. "Tell everybody to try. Bring your office, your friends, come and visit and eat from so many flavours. It is not so I can buy a fancy car. I want my hospitality to be more successful so I can buy more supplies, more medicine, more water, for my rescue mission." He shows me his web site, which features heart wrenching stories of people in need, strong and heroic children and adults in a world we can't imagine, many without limbs. "This is why I go on, through everything. It is love. I must fulfill my mission."

So what would you do if a simple act of dining at Angkor on mind-blowing dishes could help save a child? You would head on down to experience this inspirational, delicious, eccentric little place for yourself.

In the end, though I am stuffed to the gills, I can't stop myself from yet another helping of the shrimp and rice affair. It's very subtle, very simple, and I can't refrain from shoveling it in. "You like that one?" Chef says, whisking away the used dishes to make room for tea. "It is the exact same recipe, a secret, prepared for the Prime Minister Penn Nouth, my grandfather. Our chef taught me how before it all fell apart."

Try the food that will knock you out of your seat at Angkor Restaurant, 614 Gerrard Street East, 416.778.6383, from 10 am-10 pm, 7 days a week. And learn more about Chef's charity and make a donation at www.rescuecambodia.org



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