Born in the final year of the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia, Pete Sok knows about the need to confront darkness while still focusing on the light.
Drawing on his parents’ experiences of hardship and resiliency, the Chopped Canada-winning chef opted to set aside his pandemic worries and seize opportunities that came his way.
One of them was the chance to re-open a Red Deer-area restaurant.
“It was kind of a crazy time for this to come along,” said Sok, “but out of the blue, these people called me” with an offer to invest in Boulevard Restaurant and Lounge in the Holiday Inn at Gasoline Alley.
In normal times, taking a chance on running a large, established hotel restaurant with banquet service for conventions and weddings would be a no-brainer, said Sok. But he admittedly had qualms about taking on this challenge while large gatherings are still being banned to reduce viral spread.
“Whenever you make any investment, you have to do it for the future,” he ultimately reasoned. “I thought, this might not be a jackpot now, but it might be a jackpot later…”
Like most restaurants, Boulevard had to rely on takeout orders of its Asian-fusion food and steaks during the two month-long ban on in-person dining over Christmas and the early New Year. When Sok was allowed to re-open to eat-in service last week, he was thrilled to see many familiar faces among the customers who came in to dine.
“There was huge excitement. When I had an opportunity to come out and talk to people, they said ‘No way, it’s you! I thought some of these tastes were familiar…’” he recalled, with a chuckle.
The Cordon Bleu-trained chef, who won Chopped Canada’s Bro-down Showdown on the third season of The Food Network TV show, has spent more than two decades working at several family restaurants around Red Deer, including his former Sophear.
He shuttered Sophear in 2018 when he and his wife decided to take a prolonged trip to Southeastern Asia, including a visit to his homeland of Cambodia.
Sok was born there in 1979, the final year of genocidal Khmer Rouge regime. Followers of the extremely repressive brand of Communism caused the deaths of up to two million people — or a quarter of the county’s population.
Sok grew up listening to his parents’ harrowing stories of their last years in Cambodia. He was an infant when his mom and dad were forced to flee their farm because of encroaching Khmer soldiers. They hid with him in the jungle for a year while making their way to Thailand to seek refugee status.
Sok later learned that many of his parents’ travelling companions had opted to split off to make their own way in the jungle, fearful his baby cries would draw Khmer soldiers.
“Yes, we have it hard now, but what my parents had to go through was horrible,” he reflected.
“I have drawn strength (from their stories) … At least now we have clean water and food — and the technology to call each other and hear people’s voices and see people’s faces…”
Someday the pandemic will be behind us, he added, and hopefully everyone will be able to embrace opportunities to gather, travel and live more normally.
After returning from Southeast Asia, Sok became chef at the Funky Monkey Restaurant at the Track on 2 racetrack and entertainment complex in Lacombe.
That operation has been closed since early December when the provincial restrictions temporarily shut down entertainment enterprises to reduce the spread of COVID-19 — but Sok hopes it can reopen this spring.