Meet the Cambodian-American Baker Behind LA's New Punk Rock Vegan Doughnut Shop
Donut Farm is a new vegan and organic doughnut shop in Silver Lake owned by Josh Levine of the punk band, Flipper. However, his Cambodian-American baker is the star of the kitchen.
All photos by Javier Cabral
As you are driving, Ubering, biking, motorcycling, stumbling, or walking down the endless boulevards and avenues of the sprawling labyrinth known as Los Angeles, you will eventually notice one thing: Angelenos love their doughnuts.
A quick search for "doughnuts" in the LA County area on Yelp will reveal a staggering 7,785 listings, from the city of Gorman to the city of Glendora. We are a doughnut town and we have no problem admitting that. However, what many don't know about this sugary fried dough phenomena is that Angelenos owe it all one Cambodian immigrant by the name of Ted Ngoy. This dude paved the way for that divey, rundown-chic doughnut parlor style that we all know and love, but he also set the bar for a whole generation of Cambodian-Americans.
Mercredi Uy's family is one of those Cambodian-Americans who followed Ngoy's footsteps. He is the proud doughnut baker behind Donut Farm, a newfangled vegan and organic doughnut shop in a Silver Lake strip mall owned by California punk rock veteran Josh Levine of Flipper. When I visit on a recent Wednesday afternoon, some of Uy's doughnuts are are already sold out, including one with a matcha glaze that had piqued my interest in the first place. Levine is out of town on this particular day, but Uy sits down and fills me in on the Cambodian doughnut history of LA.
"When [Ngoy] became a success, it became a thing within the Cambodian community to own a doughnut shop and build your wealth that way." Oddly enough, there are no doughnut-like foodstuffs in traditional Cambodian cuisine, and making doughnuts was just another way for Cambodian-Americans to assimilate into America. Uy shares with me that he grew up eating plenty of doughnuts, since all of his mom's friends were either doughnut bakers or owned doughnut shops. He went to study at Le Cordon Bleu and become a private chef. Uy and his mother—a native of Kampong Chhnang province—eventually fell into the lucrative LA doughnut business as well in 2007. They bought a doughnut shop in Santa Monica and Uy took a two-day crash course in the art of doughnut-making.
Uy and his mother operated his family doughnut shop for five years until the rent was raised and they couldn't afford to keep it by selling $1 doughnuts, so they closed shop and moved on. Nonetheless, Uy couldn't shake the baking bug after that. He eventually found himself developing the recipes for another reputable LA doughnut establishment—one that he prefers for me to not disclose—and honing his lifelong fried dough skills even more.
"Donuts have always been interchanged throughout my life," Uy tells me.
Donut Farm seems to be the result of everything Uy has worked for, and I haven't seen another doughnut shop in the city like it. It offers that aforementioned glamor-grime appeal of family-owned LA doughnut shops, but with the slightest hipster makeover since it used to be an old donut shop before Levine purchased it back in February. There is a quarter of a Marshall half stack on the corner of the room, the words "cold brew" plastered over the old, illuminated generic menus on the wall, and a neon-lit bleeding doughnut with the establishment's name in all lowercase letters. It is a nod to the very old, grungy Silver Lake, but without forgetting that the neighborhood's current residents might consider $29 for a baker's dozen of vegan, organic doughnuts to be an absolute steal.
The specimens at Donut Farm are a near-perfect representation of the LA-Cambodian doughnut style, which are defined by a smaller, tightly wound coil shape, a dark brown extra-crispy exterior, and an unabashedly cakey texture. Uy has found a way to incorporate his higher education in culinary arts to Donut Farm's menu as well. Upon opening, Levine requested that he "wanted a flavor to the doughnuts that were special only to LA," since Levine operates three other locations scattered around the Bay area.
This prompted Uy to create a sourdough mother created from the yeasts around the shop, which according to him, "gives the doughnuts a sourness and aroma that is unique to this shop." He gave the sourdough a name, too: Francois. (One of his earliest pastry memories involves a six-month week trip to Paris with his uncle, whose middle name is Francois.) It took him a week to cultivate the yeast in the air and get it strong enough to be able to lend its flavor to doughnuts without dying.
After Uy tells me this, I am immediately prompted to try his sweet potato fritter, made with the sourdough that he just finished explaining; and while the sourness is subtle, it is definitely there. It is subtle. I am tempted to order a coffee and finish it off. He takes me on a little tour of the doughnut flavors, which includes: salted caramel, lemon poppyseed, blueberry, strawberry, a cinnamon roll doughnut, and chocolate, one with sprinkles and another with coconut. Uy fries in organic palm shortening. It is not unusual for Donut Farm to sell upward of 1,500 doughnuts a day.
"Because I grew up Cambodian in LA, I've been exposed to many doughnut shops, and even more doughnut variations, subtleties, and recipes, so I have a really high standard for doughnuts," Uy tells me, humbly.
I ask him whether his mom has had a chance to try the doughnuts and whether she liked them or not. "She has! And she is happy for me."