On Her Feet in Constant Motion
We stand for way too long behind the counter of a Japanese fried chicken restaurant with Lena Sok.
As I approach the current downtown Oakland Aburaya location on Seventeenth street, I can already see the heavy traffic of all black-clad cooks zig-zagging to and from the produce truck double parked outside. The energetic rush of pre-opening prep time is emanating from the floorboards. One of the three people behind the counter is counting the cash in the register, another has his back to me, heating the oil for frying. The other, Lena Sok, is undulating her wrist, chopping big pieces of red cabbage into smaller pieces, eyes intently focused, working with the precision of a surgeon—the same way she observed her mother slice hunks of beef for Cambodian stews.
Dinnertime at the Sok household typically involved Lena’s mother preparing dinner in the small kitchen in their flat in East Oakland, on International Blvd. Lena alternated between television, toys, delving into her imagination, and general mischievousness that sometimes lead her into the kitchen. Although Lena would be shooed away during the production of meals, she nonetheless paid attention to the manner in which her mother prepared the food that nourished her.
But her relationship to food changed after watching documentaries on the atrocities of factory farming at the tender age of eleven. The bloody horrors of immobile cows being plowed by forklifts, and pigs hung by their feet and sliced down the middle alive were seared into Lena’s psyche. After witnessing this traumatic footage, vegetarianism followed, which did not augur well for eating in a first-generation Cambodian household. Her mother could not understand this American way of thinking, of shunning perfectly good food in a country of surplus. During a visit to Cambodia, her relatives were perplexed by the young Lena’s rejection of meat. Mamasan (the Aburaya approved title for Lena’s mom) chalked Lena’s vegetarianism to her becoming a nun.
Mamasan, crestfallen and baffled, proclaimed that Lena must cook for herself if she were to remain a vegetarian in her household. Emboldened by youthful vigor, Lena took her up on that offer. As a young, inexperienced vegetarian, her adolescent diet mainly consisted of pasta, salads, beans, and rice, and did not venture far from that. However, for the first (and certainly not last) time in her life, Lena used the kitchen as a conduit for personal expression.
When I walk into Aburaya, Lena approaches me with poise and composure, though today her face is slightly taut due to the stress of opening. She welcomes me and adds, “It’s a crazy day to come in. The shipments are an hour late, and we open in fifteen minutes.” A powerfully built bandana-wearing gentleman to the left of us dons an Aburaya shirt on which the first and last A are nearly rubbed out. It’s worn, not in a filthy way, but in a way that communicates its wearer has a profound commitment to the craft he is broadcasting; basically, the shirt has stories, not stains. He meticulously counts the items on the list of groceries.
Lena tells me politely there won’t be time for pleasantries between the staff and me. She repeats that this is a crazy day to come in and she chuckles. Fifteen minutes later, I’m behind the counter.
Customers immediately begin to flood in.
Now it’s 8:30, I have been standing for three hours, motionless for the most part. A slow, buzzing ache starts to wobble up and down my legs, the result of years of wearing down my knees skateboarding. My strategic post-noon coffee is beginning to wear off. My back hurts. My goodness, without even exerting any energy whatsoever, am I, dare I say it, tired? Yet I look back into the kitchen and Lena is in motion, deftly jumping between tossing golden, freshly fried chicken in spices and sauces, preparing salads, and boxing complete meals together by the dozens. She walks swiftly behind me and calls “Back!” which is kitchen code for I’m right behind you, idiot. Don’t reverse your clumsy body and knock this plate I spent the last five minutes preparing to the floor. No move by Lena is wasted. I’m impressed by her concentration. She tells the cashier to “eighty-six avocado,” which is kitchen code for Take that item off the menu, we’ve sold out and don’t piss customers off advertising food we don’t have. Blaring through the speakers, David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel” plays.
After completing her degree in Philosophy and Education Studies in two and a half years, Lena decided to fulfill her career aspiration of becoming an English teacher. She participated in a teacher exchange program in South Korea, where she taught at an all boy’s school in a rural town. Lena spent many of her evening cooking food in her flat, contemplating what would come next in her life.
Upon returning to the United States, Lena began to work full time at her mother’s recently acquired restaurant Garden House, and then new pop up Japanese fried chicken spot operating within Garden House created by the svelte punk rock dilettante Adachi Hiroyuki, who self-identifies as “Captain Fried Chicken.” Reeling from the lukewarm feelings about teaching, Lena jumped into the world of the restaurant business. As well as being thrust into an atmosphere of fresh outrage at recent murders by police and civil unrest in Oakland, Lena felt compelled to get involved in assisting her local communities. She started her own pop up food company that specializes in sustainable and affordable food, as well as a non-profit dedicated to helping immigrants jump start their own food businesses. She also now co-owns Aburaya with her sister and Adachi.
Lena Sok embodies the best we may manifest in ourselves—unrelenting commitment to your craft and community. With a killer work ethic and a tack-sharp mind, Lena now practices cooking as an art form. She still often shadows her mother in cooking traditional Cambodian food, making up for the many years of being shooed away or choosing not to eat her food. The comfortable smells of traditional Cambodian cuisine fill her mother’s abode, and the stories and feelings her mother may refuse to revisit are perhaps not spoken, but felt. It is from these moments Lena receives her inspiration for her own cooking practice, which she believes should be sustainable, healthy, and affordable.
In the entirety of time I spent that evening with the crew of Aburaya, observing, conversing, joking, and certainly dodging, Lena had spent easily five plus hours on her feet in constant motion. Perhaps ten minutes had been spent resting, taking a sip of water, and absentmindedly scrolling through her phone. Even in this moment of repose amid the tumult of a kitchen, Lena Sok maintains that regal composure, never revealing emotion more than she has to. I cannot help but think of how far Lena has come, from her past, being shooed away from the kitchen, to the present, where eating is political, and the food is far out. –Akande X