If you’ve been looking for traditional Cambodian street food, a vibrant sandwich, or a restaurant with an incredible story behind it, look no further! Meet Hak Lonh, who launched his business in the midst of a global pandemic, after discovering a passion for sharing his heritage through food. Many aspects of Cambodia's culinary history and traditional cuisine were lost during the Cambodian genocide, so Hak opened Gamboge LA in order to celebrate Cambodian culture.
Chef Hak Lonh was born in a small refugee camp in Thailand, before immigrating to Hershey, Pennsylvania as a toddler. His family fled Cambodia to escape the Cambodian genocide, and after settling in America, they relied on traditional Cambodian cuisine as a means to represent and preserve their heritage.
Growing up in Pennsylvania with a classically trained chef as a father and an excellent home chef as mother, Hak was constantly surrounded by food. His father originally opened a Chinese-Cambodian restaurant, but later incorporated American cuisine due to the lack of culinary diversity in Hershey. From the age of 5, Chef Hak worked in his father’s restaurant completing tasks and helping customers, which he explains has “shaped how [he] approach[es] making food and running a small business.”
Hak’s love for food is largely inspired by his mother, whose cooking has driven his desire to share his parents’ story and his Cambodian culture with the rest of the world. He learned many of the recipes for Gamboge from his mother, and the food brings back fond memories of his childhood.
Brought to LA by a job opportunity as an adult, Hak began to discover the diversity and ubiquity of Asian culture in Los Angeles, and his eyes were opened to the possibility of sharing Cambodian cuisine with others. However, Hak has not always worked in the food industry.
After finishing high school, he pursued a college education in art and filmmaking. As a filmmaker, Hak edited, produced, and directed commercials and documentaries for over 18 years, along with running a production company for 16 years. As time went on, he felt unable to project his voice and share his culture through his profession. “I just decided to pivot out of production because I felt like I didn’t have anything to say, and so I chose food as another form of expression, and I felt like I had more purpose.”
Stopping his job and pursuing a completely new venture – opening a restaurant – was exciting and risky on its own, but COVID-19 posed even more challenges to Chef Hak and his team. He describes what it was like to open Gamboge LA during a global pandemic: “We were operating at 30% capacity, we weren’t able to use our wine bar for a good six/seven months, and we weren’t able to be a full-service restaurant. But there was a lot of grace from customers that understood how hard it was to start a restaurant in a pandemic with no experience working in other professional kitchens. We are still figuring it out every single day, every single week.”
Before opening Gamboge, Hak had little professional experience in the kitchen, other than working in his parents’ restaurant as a child. While exploring the relatively new territory that is the food industry, Hak’s work as an Asian business owner has impacted him immensely. “I think it’s been awesome. It’s impacted me in an amazing way where I get to represent Cambodian food and Cambodians in the culinary world.”
One of Gamboge’s specialties is numpang, a “cousin” to the popular banh mi. It is a sandwich served on bolillo bread (a shorter French baguette) with a pickled papaya and carrot slaw, chili paste, green onions, and options of pate, grilled or sautéed meat.
Gamboge also serves toasted corn, called esquite. “We make an esquite, which is kind of like an intersection of Cambodian street food and LA. We grill a whole corn and glaze it with coconut milk and serve it on the cob, but I sort of evolved the dish to include onions and garlic and citrus.”
In the future, Hak Lonh wants to convert his restaurant into a platform where he can introduce new, up-and-coming chefs to the food industry. “I want to turn
[the restaurant] into a vehicle where chefs can come in and I can help them get their brands off the ground and build content for them. There are so many other chefs out there that don’t have a voice, or they do have a voice and just need a megaphone, and I think Gamboge would be a perfect megaphone for them because we have such a dynamic space to take advantage of.”
Navigating the road to a successful business is an extremely difficult process, especially if you are relatively new to the operation. But, despite its challenges, Hak says the entire experience has been extremely rewarding because of the supportive community he is able to share his food with. He gives advice to small business owners, or anyone that can take the advice to heart! He says, “Every day is another day to do better than the last. Even if you've messed up, have grace upon yourself and be kind to yourself, don't beat yourself up. You’re going to have a lot of upward battles, but if you can get over those little humps and learn from those little things, then each time you attack a problem, you’ll become a little bit better. You gotta stay focused.”
Visit Gamboge LA!
Address: 1822 N Broadway, Los Angeles, CA 90031
Website (order pick up/delivery): https://gambogela.com/
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