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Pat Vann plating a dish of Phanaeng Kai (red curry chicken) in the kitchen of his restaurant in Kingston.Johnny C.Y. Lam/The Globe and Mail

Kingston, a university town otherwise known for farmers’ markets and limestone courtyards, doesn’t have a large Cambodian community. Fewer than 200 of the city’s roughly 130,000 people identify as Cambodian, according to the latest census.

Yet for decades, annual crops of newcomers to Queen’s University have fallen in love with its many Cambodian restaurants. “Every day, hundreds of Queen’s students make a difficult decision,” wrote Julia Segal in a local student newspaper in 2010. “Cambodiana or Cambodian Village?”

When students graduate and move away, they are often baffled, given the Cambodian feasts of little old Kingston, to be unable to find the same flavours almost anywhere else in Canada or the U.S.

Posts on message boards dating back years express Kingston expats’ continuing hunger for the town’s Khmer eats. A 2013 request to for local Cambodian options was met with a digital shrug: “Yet another Kingston transplant who longs for the food of Pat…”

It is altogether curious that Kingston has nine Cambodian restaurants. Toronto, in contrast, has just one according to Google. Sophat (Pat) Vann caused this anomaly.

Desperately seeking umami

Three of the most popular dishes at Pat's Restaurant - Phanaeng Kai (red curry chicken, top), Golden Chicken (bottom right) and Vermicelli with shrimp and spring rolls.Johnny C.Y. Lam/The Globe and Mail

Between 1991 and 2008, Pat started the first six local Cambodian eateries, though now he and his sons only own one, Pat’s Restaurant. Two of Kingston’s three other Cambodian restaurants, Siem Reap and the Golden Damrei, were opened by people with links to his kitchens. Toronto’s Khmer Thai was founded and is still owned by Sarann and Jade Chhouk, who traded renovation work for eight months of live-in training with the Vann family.

Pat’s unique style spread because people just can’t get enough of it. “I miss that red curry with all my heart,” wrote a hungry Reddit user in 2018, reminiscing about Kingston’s Royal Angkor. “Even something half as good would start to fill the void it has left behind.”

Pat’s middle son, Saveth, laughs about all this craving. “People always ask us what we put in our food.”

Ravenous Queen’s grads are constantly driving in from Ottawa and Toronto. One comes up from Philadelphia every American Thanksgiving to bring back six or seven orders of Golden Chicken, a dish that packs a spicy punch of coconut, peanut and lemongrass. What’s the farthest someone has come for the food? Australia, says Saveth.

Matt Allen, who runs a culinary business called Aragon Rd Food & Stuff and is a chef at Chez Piggy, Kingston’s most celebrated restaurant, remembers when he first tasted Pat’s food as a child. It was shortly after Pat’s original place, the Wok-In, opened in the early nineties.

“I have this distinct memory of my dad bringing home these most amazing fish cakes that had a whole shrimp sticking out with the tail attached, all fried,” Allen says. “And I’d never tasted anything like that in my life.”

Now, decades later, with years of chef training, experience and what he views as a strong grasp of flavour profiles, Allen still can’t explain Pat’s alchemy, which, against the odds, has put Kingston on the map of Cambodian food.

“It’s got those big umami pops of flavour with just the right amount of lime. And I guess it is difficult to describe, but it is unrecreatable for me,” Allen says. “I can’t make that food. I try. Whatever his extremely regional style is that has been transposed onto Kingston, I can’t do it.”

The journey from Cambodia to Kingston

Pat Vann cooking with his son Saveth Vann.Johnny C.Y. Lam/The Globe and Mail

Pat himself is a slight figure in his late 60s, with hands that seem too large for his little frame because of joints swollen by years of work. His smile is intent, his words few and his laugh quick.

He grew up in Phnom Penh and was cooking for his six younger siblings by his mid-teens. Soon after, the Khmer Rouge took power, enforcing a genocidal neoagrarian movement, which, through starvation, forced work and mass killings, murdered roughly a quarter of Cambodia’s eight million people between 1975 and 1979. City dwellers, like Pat, were targeted, and he was enslaved for three years in his early 20s. His dad didn’t survive.

Pat later spent five years in a Thai refugee camp, where his oldest two sons were born. Their mother, Sophath Tom, had to walk for miles to a hospital each time she went into labour.

In 1985 when Pat was 29, the family arrived in Canada with nothing and knowing no one. Many Cambodian refugees settled in Quebec, where Pat and his family might have stayed had their first night in Montreal been a bit warmer. Instead, Kingston has suited him ever since. “It’s quiet here,” he says, laughing.

After working in Chinese restaurants for a few years, in 1991 Pat opened the Wok-In, a tiny restaurant just off the main drag. Over the next 10 years he opened and sold four more places in the downtown core: Cambodian Village, Phnom Penh, a restaurant that is now called Royal Angkor, and Cambodiana. All five are still open alongside Pat’s, a testament to the appeal of his recipes.

At Pat’s Restaurant, the unmissable standards are the Phanaeng Kai (a red curry chicken known around the world as “Number One”) and the spicier Golden Chicken (“Number Six”). Delectable curry tofu stands out at Cambodian Village, as does the Coriander Chicken at Royal Angkor.

The restaurants all describe their food as Cambodian and Thai, leading to some confusion over which national cuisine brings the most compelling flavours. Pat learned Thai elements while in the refugee camp, but he insists the styles are similar. He partly called his restaurants Thai because most Kingstonians hadn’t heard of Cambodian food in the 1990s and wouldn’t have known what to expect.

Pat’s business model: Pay it forward

Pat said he wanted to name the new place Pat Thai, but the family called him on his joke, and Pat’s Restaurant was born.Johnny C.Y. Lam/The Globe and Mail

Sometimes Pat sold a restaurant so he could spend some time in Cambodia. Sometimes he was running more than one at once, staffing them with Queen’s students, and selling them off when landlord trouble or labour shortages hit. Often he just sold them to help friends.

Most of the Cambodian people in the area worked at a refrigeration factory, Pat’s son Saveth remembers. Not everyone liked it. “There would be a lot of Cambodian get-togethers,” says Saveth. “And then he would just be like, if you want to quit and open up a restaurant, I’ll teach you.” Pat always trained the people who bought his restaurants, for six months or even up to a year, if they needed more time to learn.

Pat laughs and shakes his head when asked why he opened and sold so many places, building up his competition. For him, the story is simple. “I liked training them,” he says. “Everybody is happy.”

Rather than selling all these businesses, he could have franchised them to retain control and profits. Instead he set friends up with livelihoods for life, giving them the dignity and freedom of owning their own businesses, after the horror of surviving genocide.

One of Pat’s grandsons, Payton, is playing among folded tables and chairs during our chat in the restaurant, just as the lunchtime takeout orders are starting to pick up. Saveth remembers working with his mother bussing tables after school when he was only 12, before he was old enough to serve alcohol.

“If I was taking an order and someone asked for beer or wine, I’d have to go to the back, get the cook to come out, stop cooking and serve it,” he recalls, laughing.

For a while in the mid-aughts, Pat had no restaurant. His older two sons had moved away, and his youngest didn’t want to work in the business. But he decided it was time to start cooking again in 2008 when he learned he was becoming a grandfather.

“He knew I was going to have a baby,” Saveth explains. “I wasn’t working at the time. And then he was like, well, you need to start working. So then that’s why he opened up Pat’s.”

Pat said he wanted to name the new place Pat Thai, but the family called him on his joke, and Pat’s Restaurant was born.

One can imagine this enchanting food getting a Michelin star, or being featured on a Netflix special, but for Pat, what matters most seems far beyond the glamour of chefdom or the transcendence of being able to conjure a flavour thousands crave.

Sometimes people are blessed with not one but two enormous talents, and for Pat and those who’ve watched his work, his brilliance in the kitchen is in fact second to his devotion to others.

Pat and his wife still work 12 hours most days, even when the restaurant isn’t open, though his oldest son Savon does most of the cooking now. When Pat had a stroke in 2019 he refused to stay home to rest, and instead walked the 45 minutes to work every day if only to chop a few vegetables.

Maybe he’ll even open another place someday.

“I cannot say last,” he says, laughing about whether Pat’s is his final restaurant. “I said last many, many times.”

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