by Grant Moser
Sopheak Richard “Rick” Neth, 36, is a busy man. He works as a meat specialist at the Weaver’s Way stores in Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill every Tuesday through Saturday. He also works every day at Khmer Kitchen, the well-reviewed Cambodian restaurant in South Philly which he owns with his mother and sister. He is actively involved with the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia to promote and advocate for the city’s Cambodian population. He also has a wife and four children.
All these roles plus the example set by his parents help Neth reach a specific goal. “It’s a matter of securing the future,” he insisted. “My kids are going to be okay. Later on, I’m going to be okay too. It’s a mindset and a focus. You can’t think about what you don’t have; you need to go get it.”
He and his family learned this lesson of not ever taking anything for granted when he was very young and they were living in Cambodia. When the Khmer Rouge took power in that country in 1975, both his parents were professionals; his mother owned a store. They had a good life, which suddenly turned into a nightmare.
From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge ruthlessly ruled the country and is remembered by history for the brutal genocide it committed against its own countrymen in an attempt to reform the country and culture. Approximately one-third of the entire population — about two million people — were murdered.
“Everything broke down. If you were a known doctor, lawyer, teacher — even if you wore glasses — you went to ‘education’, where you were killed. People were sent to work in the fields for 12 to 15 hours a day. You either joined the Khmer Rouge, or you died. They tried to wipe out the entire culture, any record of its existence. Erase it all,” Neth explained.
Though he was very young, and much of his time in Cambodia was a blur, Rick admits remembering some things that he doesn’t want to. He chooses not to dwell on those memories.
In 1978, his family (Neth was 4 years old and had an older and younger sister) fled the country. The trip was difficult and dangerous. They traveled across the border and overland through Thailand in order to survive. “I give my parents the utmost respect,” he said.
His family finally made it to a refugee camp in Thailand, and their names were put on a long list of refugees waiting to be sponsored by another country. They waited over a year to find out where their new home would be. In the meantime, other relatives who had made it to the camp separately were sponsored. Neth has family members in Australia and France, flung around the earth by chance. His family was sponsored by the United Baptists and brought to Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1982.
Rick knew no English, although he learned fast by playing with other kids at school and in the neighborhood. Within a few years he had forgotten how to speak fluent Khmer, the language of Cambodia. They were the only Asian family he could remember in the area, and the other kids were curious at first, but they quickly made friends. Bill Clinton, who was governor at the time, would often jog by their house and stop and play soccer with them for a few minutes.
His parents, professionals in their home country, could only find manual labor jobs in America. Yet they were happy. “The idea of being able to make your own decisions and freely go wherever you want is more than anything they could ever ask, coming from what they did. They loved having weekends off and enjoying life with us. That wasn’t an option over there. You make the best of what you have; you don’t take things for granted.”
Over time, they began locating family members in the U.S. who had escaped as well. Cousins of his father were living in Philadelphia. The first time they came to visit, Neth remembers being amazed that so many people could live in one place. It also happened to be during the 1986 sanitation strike, and garbage was piled everywhere.
Despite that first impression, his family moved to the Port Richmond neighborhood of the city, and Neth spent the rest of his youth there. “I loved the city. Everything I learned about how to be a man, an adult, a person, I learned here. Philadelphia taught me everything.”
His parents taught them about their heritage and wouldn’t let them forget where they had come from. Neth remembers his parents telling stories about how they survived, telling them to never forget them and to tell his own kids one day about them too. “You know that saying ‘When I was a kid, I didn’t have it as easy as you?’ Well, I can actually say that to my kids,” he said.
While a student at New Edison High School, Rick got a summer job learning how to carve meat. The skills he learned there landed him a job at Fresh Grocer, where he met James Dean Stefano, the current store manager at Weaver’s Way in Chestnut Hill. Three years ago, Stefano recruited Neth to come work at Weaver’s Way and start their meat department.
When he’s not at Weaver’s Way, you will most likely find Neth at his family’s restaurant, Khmer Kitchen, which opened in June, 2012, at 1700 S. 6th St. (at Morris), which he co-owns with wife Dyna, sister Sophia and his mother, head cook Phalla Lon. The goal of the restaurant is to show the Cambodian culture and style of cooking to Philadelphia. About half of the region’s Cambodians still live in South Philly between Snyder and Oregon Avenues.
Cambodian food differs depending on which region of the country it originated from. However, most of the dishes at the restaurant are vegetable-based because meat wasn’t an option for the people in Cambodia. Khmer Kitchen has only 26 seats and is almost always full, with customers often willing to wait up to an hour to be seated. “We know the regulars by name.” said Rick. “Sometimes they don’t even have to order because we know what they want.”
The pervasive poverty in the county has Neth anxious about his trip to Cambodia next year, the first since he left as a boy. “It’s pretty much a Third World country. It’s hard to be privileged in the U.S. — have a house, a car, buy whatever food you want — and over there see your family members in the countryside where things aren’t good. You’re either super rich or dirt poor. Food, clean water, clothing is an issue. It breaks your heart. I really want to go back, but I’m not sure if I’ll be able to handle it. I’m excited to find out where I’m from, what city I was born in. We have a lot of family over there. We had a lot of family lost; whether from the Khmer Rouge or starvation and sickness, we lost a lot. But there’s still a lot there.”
Khmer Kitchen received a rave review from the Inquirer’s Craig LaBan and a 93 percent positive rating from urbanspoon.com, a local restaurant rating website. For more information, call 215-755-2222.