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MUJESTIC

Sophy's goes global

LONG BEACH: Restaurateur hopes U.S. success will be repeated in Cambodia.
By Greg Mellen, Staff Writer
photo by: (Jeff Gritchen / Staff Photographer)

link: http://www.presstelegram.com/crime/ci_19058686

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia - The painting is all but done and the kitchen is coming along. But there are hundreds of details to be sorted out.

Such is the life of a restaurateur trying to get an eatery up and going.

It doesn't get any easier when you are opening in Cambodia and things pop up - like the three-day Pchum Ben, or Festival of the Dead, holiday you never saw coming.

The hiccups have forced a delay in opening a new restaurant in Phnom Penh, which will offer traditional foods with a twist.

After 10 years of success with her namesake Sophy's in Long Beach, Sophy Khut hopes to duplicate her success in Cambodia.

"I was disappointed," Khut said recently as she took a break from her hectic schedule in Phnom Penh. "I was hoping to have a sign up already (saying Sophy's Fine Thai and Cambodian Food.)"

Khut may have been born in Cambodia, but in some ways she is a bit of an outsider in this "homecoming."

Although her roots run deep in the Cambodian soil, this survivor of the genocidal killing fields spent her formative years in the United States.

She hopes to bring her Western sensibilities to the Khmer and Thai food restaurant that is expected to open any day now.

As the opening draws closer, Khut's emotions are equal parts anxiety and optimism.

"I believe in myself and I believe in my food," Khut said, "but I don't know how people here will be accepting it."

The Sophy's in Long Beach has been a popular hangout in the Cambodian community since it opened on Anaheim Street in 1991 and later moved to its current home on Pacific Coast Highway.

Khut said she plans a similar menu in Phnom Penh, although she says she'll swap out some of the stir frys at the Long Beach eatery for more traditional Khmer fare.

While the traditional fruits and vegetables are cheaper and fresher in Cambodia, Khut said meat is rare and more expensive.

She will also adjust the prices with most meals at about $5, which is in keeping with the local competition.

What Khut said she won't drop are her more westernized standards for sanitation and cleanliness in food preparation, something that's not always a priority in the restaurants in her homeland.

Despite her United States upbringing, Khut isn't above using some Khmer ingenuity to help the restaurant along.

In her recent trip to Cambodia, Khut brought along 50 pounds of tightly packed frozen salmon. Some fast talking and $20 and she was able to get the fish into her restaurant freezers before they began to thaw.

Like the Sophy's in Long Beach, the Phnom Penh restaurant will be a family business. Khut's older brother, Sakhena Khut, 54, will be in charge of the daily operations in Cambodia. Several young adults Khut has helped take care of since they were orphaned years ago will also work at the new Sophy's.

Khut said her brother has been pushing the expansion idea for the past five years, and she finally decided to take the plunge.

The location appears ideal. It is close to the popular Wat Phnom shrine in downtown Phnom Penh and within a couple of blocks of a bus station frequented by visitors and an active strip of bars with lots of foot traffic.

The restaurant will have seating for about 60 indoors and 40 on a street-side patio.

If the venture is successful, Khut said she has tentative plans to open yet another Sophy's in the seaside resort town of Sihanoukville.

One day, Khut says she would even like to have a restaurant in Siem Reap. It is the province she was raised in and from which her family fled on foot to escape the Khmer Rouge in 1975. At that time, the genocidal reign that would kill about 1.7 million Cambodians was just beginning its atrocities. Khut says her family had been targeted, and she and family members fled and walked a week, including days without food, before reaching the border with Thailand.

For now, however, Khut needs to keep her focus on the immediate future.

"As it gets closer, I have cold feet," Khut said. "But I'm very happy. First because this is my home country and I am going to be able to create jobs. I'm proud I'm from Long Beach, and I'm going to try to make this successful."

greg.mellen@presstelegram.com, 562-499-1291

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