Storm clouds were hovering over South Philadelphia one recent afternoon, threatening to wash out a second straight day of outdoor dining.
“I just wish it would stop raining!” said Danny Duk, 51, glancing at the sky from between the crisp, black umbrellas and lush green planters he’d recently installed on the sidewalk beside Sophie’s Kitchen, the Cambodian restaurant he co-owns with his wife, chef Sophia Neth, at South Randolph Street and Washington Avenue.
The wind picked up. A mist began to sprinkle the edge of our table. And, right on cue, their son Tony Chomnan Duk, 30, emerged from inside with a fragrant feast of steaming lemongrass beef stew, coconut curried mussels, and a grilled banana leaf stuffed with minced pork belly and mushrooms.
Restaurateurs across the region, devastated by months of dining room shutdowns during the pandemic, universally fret over the whims of weather to destroy an entire night of outdoor dining business. But few have also had to overcome the life-threatening challenges of the coronavirus that have beset this family. By comparison, a little rain was no match for the magnetic power of this food to keep us transfixed.
In early April, Sophia, Danny and two of their four adult children were rushed to Methodist Hospital in South Philadelphia with COVID-19 symptoms so severe, they were immediately separated and admitted for several days.
“I was so scared, I thought I might die,” says Sophia, 48, remembering the flurry of activity in the intensive care unit as nurses shared startled looks at her depleted vitals, as needles pricked her dehydrated veins in search of a place to inject fluids, as she gasped for air while her clothes were removed. “And then it was like: ’Oh my God, what if I don’t see my kids again?’ ”
Yes, she would. But for a woman who had already survived so much — escaping the horrors of genocide in Cambodia with her family as a child, and working to achieve the lifelong goal of opening a restaurant to sustain her family (one of my favorites in 2019) — this would be another long and fretful journey. Her 25-year-old son Brandon Chomno Duk, who had no underlying health issues, would even need to be intubated on a ventilator as “a last resort,” he recalls the doctor telling him: “The nurse asked me before I was put under if I wanted her to say a prayer. I’m not religious, but I was 100% down with it.”
This is the story of their comeback.
Nobody knows exactly how the coronavirus found its way into the family.
“I cleaned and sanitized the door handles every two hours from the moment I first heard about the pandemic,” said Sophia, who rarely left her kitchen.
They added a Venmo payment option to supplement their previously cash-only business to minimize contact. But Danny, who had been out in the world shopping and making deliveries, came down with a bad cough and persistent pain from head to toe.
He went to Pennsylvania Hospital during the last week of March — twice — along with their also ailing 24-year-old son and sous-chef Jordan Chomnit Duk. Both times they were sent home after some Tylenol and intravenous fluids. But by April 3, Sophia was now also sick with fever, breathlessness, and swollen ankles. Brandon was rolling on the floor from the pain of his cough. So Tony, who was unaffected by the virus , drove his family to Methodist in two trips.
“I cried when I got to the hospital because I could not see my family or say goodbye,” said Danny. “But I want to thank the nurses and doctors for taking such good care of us.”
“I was just praying,” said Sophia, “that if I got through this I was going to be a better person, a better mom, a better wife, a better friend. But some nights it was so painful I kept feeling I was going to die in my sleep.”
Danny was the first to be sent home, released after four days in the hospital. But he was still so weak he could not lift a 25-pound bag of rice. Jordan came home next. Sophia came home three days later, and they were elated to be reunited but still wearing their masks — and still too scared to kiss each other hello. They were also so winded, it took several minutes to the walk up to their second-floor apartment.
With frequent care packages of medicine and soup left on their doorstep by relatives, including a restorative bah bah rice porridge with salty trey ngeat (fish jerky) from Sophia’s mother, Phalla Neth, with whom she once shared the cooking duties at the now-closed Khmer Kitchen, the whole family healed and regained strength within a few weeks. They took more time off to recover before getting retested for COVID-19: all negative. And even Brandon, the last to come home after 11 days, pronounced himself “returned from my deathbed and just dandy!” Right on time to celebrate his 26th birthday.
And yet, the family’s challenges are hardly over.
First, they had to overcome the stigma of returning to work in a public-facing business like a restaurant after recovering from COVID-19. But as long as they follow CDC safety guidelines, says Thersa Sweet, an associate professor of epidemiology at Drexel University, “[diners are] not at risk of getting it from them if folks are testing negative and it’s been a decent period of time.”
“People who’ve recovered are more likely to be protected from this disease than somebody who’s not had it,” she said.
Nonetheless, the family has remained quiet about its plight until now, fearing it would make customers reluctant to return. Sophia has also fielded startling condolence calls from members of the local Cambodian community who had heard false rumors that one of her children had died. So they posted videos of the family singing karaoke together, a favorite pastime to exercise their lungs, including a clip of Danny doing his best impression of Cambodian singer Sinn Sisamouth.
Even more pressing, they needed to save their restaurant at a moment the hospitality industry is experiencing a historic crisis of job loss and closures due to the pandemic. Their landlord, Stella Wong, has been understanding, even though they’re three months behind in rent. And other bills were piling up.
“I don’t really know how to do anything else beside cooking and doing nails,” said Sophia. “And I don’t want to go back to nails. I thought about quitting, but this business is not just about me, it’s for my whole family, it’s our only income.”
As much as their livelihood, Brandon says that for his parents who immigrated to this country as children, making this restaurant thrive again is also about their identity.
“[Opening Sophie’s Kitchen] was the biggest moment in my mom’s life, where she felt like she was finally edging closer to that American dream of being a business owner,” he said. “My parents no longer felt like those immigrant kids who didn’t know where they were at, or that they weren’t a part of anything, or just being kids of war. ... She’s often talked about the restaurant as her one good chance to finally make it, to feel like we’ve finally achieved something.”
And so Brandon, an information technology pro who was laid off in March, went to work for his parents, completing the city permits for outdoor dining that they finally debuted in mid-August with 10 well-spaced tables. A proper sign for the restaurant with boldly-traced Khmer script, on order and delayed since the restaurant opened in 2019, finally arrived. Along with their steady takeout and delivery business, sales have bounced back slightly, to about a third of their previous revenues, but enough, Danny says, to begin repaying rent.
Sophia, meanwhile, set about sanitizing all three floors of the restaurant’s corner rowhouse and rebooting her kitchen. The laborious process of hand-pounding fresh kroeung, the golden spice paste of lemongrass, garlic, galangal, and lime leaves that is the fragrant power source at the heart of so many of her vivid dishes, has become less exhausting.
She began deboning and stuffing her marvelous chicken wings again with lemongrass sausage and holy basil. She laced green papaya salad with a wicked tartness and flickering spice. Her phahok kteah pork dip once again radiates the hot glow of red chiles and the tidal twang of fermented fish paste.
And, oh, the soups! A tart lemongrass beef broth, somlaw majou kroeung, filled with the strawlike crunch of hollow water spinach stems. A hearty stew called somlaw gka gko sweet with pumpkin and thickened by pulverized roasted jasmine rice.
“I’m impressed by their ability to get back to work,” says Drexel’s Sweet. “We hear about long-term fatigue with people who’ve had significant cases. It’s really quite admirable. I hope people see this as an inspirational story and are there for moral support of this family by eating at their restaurant.”
Meanwhile, at our meal, the wind and rain had steadily grown into a legitimate downpour. But Tony, always on cue, calmly appeared beside our table with another umbrella to keep us dry — and we settled into our fragrant feast, and ate, and ate, and ate. Sophie’s Kitchen is back, having survived one of the fiercest the storms of this pandemic. And its return has brought just the kind of moral support we needed, too.