Before he became known as Chef T, one of Long Beach’s quickest-rising culinary stars, Visoth Tarak Ouk, had a different nickname—one that hinted at his past.
Ouk, 42, is executive chef at Gladstone’s on the Downtown shoreline, and he’s become a familiar face on local TV, appearing in spots on KTLA, FOX 11, and ABC7. Soon, he’ll be a contestant on a yet-to-be-revealed Food Network show.
But before all that, he earned a reputation at Long Beach City College’s culinary program, where his classmates gave him a meaningful nickname: Rising Phoenix.
“I was called a phoenix because I came from the ashes, rose up,” Ouk said.
Chef T is telling the story of his rise in a new book—part cookbook, part memoir—that chronicles his journey from Cambodian refugee, to gang member to food-world star.
In “Kroeung: Cambodian Cooking with Chef T,” pieces of his past are told through six recipes. Each dish starts with a story about Ouk’s life and unfolds into cooking instructions for meals like somlor machu, one of Ouk’s favorite soups from childhood, made with tamarind paste, celery stalks, dwarf Chinese eggplants, fish sauce and beef tripe and lungs.
“It’s Cambodian soul food,” Ouk said. Food that never fails to awaken comfortable feelings, “like mom holding you tight and like grandma patting your head. It makes you feel alive and brings you back to being a kid again, when it’s all pure and innocent.”
Along the way, readers also get a view into the wider Cambodian diaspora provided by Ouk’s co-author, Christine Su, a San Francisco-based scholar of Cambodian history and identity. But the heart of the book is Chef T and his arduous rise from the ashes.
“Something I think people should know about Chef T is that his success as an executive chef came through years and years of dedication and hard work,” Su said. “He put in hundreds of hours as a dishwasher, busboy, fry cook, sandwich maker and many other roles, and worked his way up. Nothing was handed to him.”
Ouk’s parents fled Cambodia during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. When Ouk was a newborn, they lived in a hut at a Thailand refugee camp.
Fearing the Khmer Rouge could invade Thailand, Ouk’s father, who worked for the Cambodian embassy, used his network to move his family to Oakland when Ouk was 3 months old. In search of a larger Cambodian community, Ouk’s family eventually moved to Long Beach when he was 9.
Life in an unfamiliar American city was not easy for Ouk.
“I got chased, jumped, beat up, spit at, made fun of and humiliated for not saying words the right way,” Ouk said. “It was all terrible.”
Even in the roughest parts of his childhood, Ouk gravitated toward the kitchen. In an attempt to stay out of trouble at his high school, he worked in the cafeteria of the Poly Academy of Achievers and Leaders.
“He served breakfast and lunch to his classmates every day and never complained or got distracted,” said cafeteria supervisor Lynn McGee. “If he was going through something you’d never know. He kept to himself and was a real detailed hard worker.”
While the work kept him busy, the constant bullying pushed Ouk and many of his fellow Cambodians to form a gang to protect themselves.
“But that’s not how it went down,” Ouk said. “We went from being in a brotherhood to becoming un-governed, unruled, unimaginable street thugs.”
Soon, they were fighting among themselves.
“Cliques started, and it grew until we started to split into a civil war,” Ouk said. “So not only were we fighting other races, we got busy fighting our own kind.”
After losing many friends to violence, Ouk tried to change his life by enrolling in LBCC’s culinary program in 2002, but he was pulled back into gang life and soon dropped out.
“I never thought I would live to see 30-years-old,” Ouk said.
The turning point in Ouk’s life came in 2010, when his 25-year-old sister, Chomvorttei, who was weeks away from earning her master’s degree at California State University, Fullerton, was struck by a car and dragged for 2 miles. On her birthday, Ouk’s family held a closed-casket funeral where they celebrated her life with cake and tears.
“It was the saddest thing, and I think it woke me up,” Ouk said, “because she was the ‘golden child,’ and I was like, ‘Maybe I should just take the torch and carry it and you know, live, fulfill her life through mine.’”
Ouk re-enrolled at LBCC in 2010, where he walked over two hours every day to the Liberal Arts Campus from his house in Cambodia Town.
Ouk earned his associate’s degree in culinary arts in 2011 and was soon hired at The Westin hotel in Downtown Long Beach for a six-month internship. That started his slow climb through the culinary world, working low-level jobs like fry cook, busboy and sandwich maker at Quiznos, Boston Market and other restaurants.
Ouk said in 2016 his luck began to change when he posted an Instagram picture showing his transformation from gangster to chef. It went viral. Suddenly in demand to cater events all over Long Beach, Ouk received a call from Gladstone’s in 2019 asking him to join their team as executive chef.
A wider audience will now get a glimpse of that story in Ouk’s book, which carries in its title the word “kroeung,” Khmer for “ingredients.” It’s a word Ouk says defines him as well.
“Everything that happened in my life are the ingredients … that made me, me,” Ouk said. “My family and my upbringing, the gang-banging and all the other stuff is all in there. And that one recipe turned out to be Chef T.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that Chef T is 42 years old.
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