Ethan Lim's Cambodian-Inspired Fine Dining Puts Guests at Ease and Summons Memories
May 2, 2023
Ethan Lim: Cambodian Futures is available to stream, and will also air on WTTW in an abbreviated form at the end of American Masters: Nam June Paik, on Tuesday, May 16 at 8:00 pm.
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Kroeung is the name for a variety of spice pastes that are foundational to Cambodian cooking, but Ethan Lim’s family didn’t make it in the kitchen. Instead they would place their mortar and pestle on the concrete doorstep between the porch and kitchen of their first-floor apartment—“the most solid, stable ground,” Lim says, where the pounding of lemongrass, turmeric, garlic, galangal, and other aromatic ingredients wouldn’t reverberate through the entire Chicago three-flat.
But the vibrant food that the Lims made at home with kroeung was nothing like what they served customers at the restaurants they owned. Those offered mainly Chinese American food: orange chicken, crab rangoon, Mongolian beef. After taking over one of those restaurants eight years ago, Lim began showcasing some of the bright, funky flavors he had grown up with via the “limitless” canvas of the sandwich, creating an especially acclaimed kroeung-marinated fried chicken sandwich, among other creative combinations.
Now Lim’s restaurant Hermosa, located in the Northwest Side neighborhood of the same name, is a full-on showcase for Cambodian flavors—and Lim’s experiments with the cuisine of his childhood have won him both a Jean Banchet Rising Chef of the Year Award and the sustained attention of a short American Masters profile, Ethan Lim: Cambodian Futures, that’s available to stream now.
He has moved the flavors of his youth out of the liminal space of a concrete doorway in the past and presented them to the outside world.
Cambodian Futures captured Lim in a sort of in-between moment, says Dustin Nakao-Haider, the director of the documentary. When Nakao-Haider first met Lim, in the summer of 2021, the chef was essentially running Hermosa on his own as a casual sandwich shop during the day and an eight-seat private dining room offering multiple courses of his Cambodian-influenced dishes at night.
“You had been kind of grinding on your own,” Nakao-Haider said in a recent conversation over a meal at Hermosa with Lim. During the many months of filming, Lim won the Banchet Award, “and now you’ve got the extra table and a bigger staff…you transitioned from just doing this by yourself to expanding the idea more broadly.”
Lim launched his private dining “Family Meal” during the COVD-19 pandemic after offering some Cambodian take-out, in part to allow a pod of people a way to once again enjoy the experience of dining out relatively safely. But it was also a way to circumvent some of the strictures of typical fine dining formats, by allowing people to linger over a meal for as long as they would like, as if they were in someone’s home. His mom, who is uneducated but speaks four languages and three dialects of Chinese, had once told him that she felt out of place in a fancy restaurant. He wanted to create a place that served ambitious food where she could feel at home.
“I love inviting someone into our home, to just entertain them and make them feel comfortable,” he says in his careful, considered manner. At a traditional restaurant, “team members have this clockwork thinking where they need this table completed by a specific time because I have another guest due. My most memorable and enjoyable experiences with my friends and people I like are when time sort of stops and you kind of forget about it and you close the restaurant down.”
Not that Lim doesn’t have fine dining chops—he worked for the Alinea Group—or retain clockwork thinking, even if he hides it from guests. Nakao-Haider explains that, especially when Lim worked solo, he would set timers for each task he needed to complete for a Family Meal, in order to ensure he accomplished it all.
Those tasks included not just buying and prepping ingredients, cooking, serving, and washing dishes, but also writing out menus (the names of dishes in Cambodian Futures appear in his handwriting), curating music, and designing the restaurant, which has the feel of a hip European bistro popped into a hot dog stand. There’s an old Coke fridge in the corner next to a huge panel of Marvel comics on the wall, wine bottles and glasses occupying weathered wooden surfaces throughout the tiny but cozy space, and chalkboards listing menu items mounted over a commercial kitchen visible over repurposed cabinets that serve as a counter.
“I never have viewed the hat that I wear as simply being chef. I call myself the content creator for this place,” Lim says. “I view it in terms of purpose from my parents. This is more of a lifetime work.”
Lim’s parents were born in Cambodia to Chinese parents. They were forced to flee the country during the Khmer Rouge’s fathomless genocide, which killed millions of people between 1975 and 1979. Lim himself was born in a refugee camp in Thailand before his family came to Chicago, where they found a strong community of Cambodian refugees; the husband of the president of the National Cambodian Heritage Museum & Killing Fields Memorial’s board was Lim’s neighbor growing up. (The vice president of the board is a producer of Cambodian Futures.)
Lim’s parents are an important part of his life and career. He lives in Kenosha, so he takes the Metra down and stays with them overnight in their home near the restaurant when he runs a Family Meal. He recalls his mom coaching him as he pounded kroeung on that doorstep as a child, training his palate and feel and eye. Lim and his mother shop for ingredients for the family restaurants every week at Tai Nam Food Market in Uptown, and they grow more ingredients in their garden. After he dropped out of high school (despite being an honors student) because he wanted to venture out into the world, his dad is the one who eventually “insisted that I do something on my own.” So he took over Hermosa, which was on the site of his family’s very first restaurant in Chicago, which they opened in 1986. His sister and brother run the Chinese-American Googoo’s Table next door.
In Lim’s acceptance speech at the Banchet Awards, he brought his mom onstage with him and thanked her for, among other things, “having us hold on to our food traditions, beginning with our humble noodle stand in Cambodia more than half a century ago.”
Part of the drive behind Lim’s cooking is to, as he says in the documentary, “find out how Cambodian food would evolve if the war had not happened,” a philosophy he has taken to calling “culinary futurism.” (Nakao-Haider actually coined the term in conversations with Lim during filming.) The genocide erased not just millions of lives but also vast swathes of cultural knowledge and memory, including recipes. Lim wants to try to carry the ingredients and dishes of Cambodia into the present and imagine what chefs might be doing with them if there had not been such a devastating loss.
He sometimes applies French technique to dishes, given that Cambodia was once a French colony. He dehydrates and roasts fish into a powder to evoke the fundamental flavor of fermented fish that characterizes so much Cambodian cuisine. He combines American ideas (fried chicken) with Cambodian ingredients (kroeung).
“It’s futurism involving globalization,” he says. “We live in a country that’s a melting pot. So to simply hold on to a single authentic technique to me is narrow-minded.”
The approach allows older generations to recall the flavors or dishes of their youth and summon memories. But it also lets the younger generation that might not be as familiar with their culinary heritage to experience it in a format that is recognizable to them. As Punisa Pov, a Cambodian musician who appears in Cambodian Futures at one of Lim’s Family Meals, once told WTTW about the value of Chicago’s Cambodian museum and its cultural programs: “Culture can be a way for the generations to connect”—especially when those generations are separated by the trauma of genocide.
Lim’s embrace of Cambodian flavors at Hermosa has given him another point of connection with his family. Food has long been a sharing experience for them. “Being at the dinner table was always an opportunity to share stories,” he says. But with the advent of his excursions into Cambodian-inspired cooking, his mom has become more curious and creative about flavor combinations and dishes. “When I get home, she’s always curious as to, ‘What did you cook today?’” he says.
“It’s great to have that sort of food discussion with the parents, because Dad chimes in as well,” Lim says. “Part of it is for them to recall their food memories, dishes they had when they were in Cambodia. And they can still taste those flavors.”