2019 Great Immigrants Recipient

Nite Yun
Chef and Restaurateur | Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Culinary Arts
Born in:

Nite Yun’s family fled the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. She grew up in a close-knit Cambodian American community in Stockton, California, speaking Khmer and eating Cambodian food, but it was not until her 20s, after dropping out of nursing school in San Francisco, that Yun first visited Cambodia. Returning to the States, Yun found herself craving her mother’s cooking and realized that Cambodian cuisine was not represented in the Bay Area’s otherwise vibrant culinary scene. Yun began learning to prepare family recipes and her passion for cooking only deepened with return trips to Cambodia. She soon realized that Khmer culinary traditions had been nearly wiped out by war and genocide. Yun’s determination to preserve and share those traditions formed the impetus for the launch of her acclaimed restaurant Nyum Bai (literally, “eat rice” in Khmer, it can also mean “Let’s eat!”). Since opening its doors in 2018, the accolades have continued to roll in. Nyum Bai made Bon Appetit’s “Hot 10” list of best new restaurants in 2018, the same year that Yun was named Eater’s “breakout star of the year.” In 2019 she was named one of the country’s “best new chefs” by Food & Wine and she won the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Culinary Arts. With Nyum Bai, Yun aspires to not only preserve Cambodian foodways, but also to help those who are still coping with the trauma of Cambodia’s history. As she explained to the Vilcek Foundation, which honors immigrant contributions in America, Yun is less interested in expanding to multiple locations than she is in creating a space for the Cambodian community to come together. “When people come to the restaurant,” she says, “certain dishes bring back memories of cooking with grandma or of going to buy fish in the market. It starts a dialogue and opens up so much.”