It's a truth universally acknowledged that a bad lunch can ruin a day. But for Chan Khun, the owner and chief baker of Country Cob Bakery in Kyneton, a small town in regional Victoria, it was nothing short of life-changing.
When Khun moved to Australia from Cambodia in 2004, the former IT and engineering student found himself working at a spa factory - a stressful and frustrating time that felt nothing like the "better life" he had hoped to build.
However, at the factory, he noticed long queues forming at the lunch truck every day. His coworkers were getting meat pies - something Khun had never heard of. "We don't have pies in Cambodia. I didn't even know what they were. One day I gave myself a chance and bought one, but it didn't go to plan," he laughs.
That first bite of the takeaway pie was surprising in a disappointing kind of way. "It didn't look right and didn't taste right to me," says Khun. "But after that, I thought, 'Well, if people can eat this, why not me?' I was curious. I also thought if I could put my flavours from back home in, it might taste a lot better."
Khun quit his job after a year at the factory and began studying English during the day and - through sheer chance fell into the world of baking.
"One day I went to play soccer and one of my friends said they were looking for people to work in the bakery on a night shift. I thought if I could make some money while I'm studying, why not?" he says.
"I started at 2am in the bakery, finished by 8am. I would have a shower or go straight to school for English class. At lunch, I had to sleep in the car to regain my energy. It lasted for one or two years," he says.
"I thought if I could put my flavours from back home in, it might taste a lot better."
But while his time at the bakery led him to study baking and patisserie at TAFE, cooking has always been in his DNA. Growing up in Phnom Penh as the oldest of three kids, Khun was often the default kitchen assistant in his family. "Mum was in charge of everything to do with filling the stomach. And every time she cooked, she included me in the process."
One of his mother's most-loved dishes was Cambodian chicken curry — an earthy, aromatic stew packed with lemongrass, turmeric, galangal and makrut lime leaf. "Mum always cooked this when we had family gatherings. We would dip bread rolls into the curry sauce or have it with vermicelli," he explains.
In 2016, when Khun and his family took over Kyneton's Country Cob Bakery, the recipes he grew up with inspired his pie fillings.
By then, his brother Ryan and his sister Lisa had come on board and in 2017, he created a satay seafood pie with Ryan which landed his bakery the title of 'Australia's Best Pie' by the Baking Association of Australia, out of nearly 1,700 entries around the country.
But his achievement didn't stop there. Khun's bakery would go on to win the title of 'Australia's Best Pie Maker' each year to 2020.
That a humble pie can turn into fertile grounds for innovation has been thrilling for Khun. These days, the bakery serves 24 varieties of pies, plus weekly specials that span from barbecue pork with whiskey to quail egg, pork and kimchi.
"If we can bring something new into our pies and make customers happy, we'll do it."
"I know a lot of bakeries that make good products, but they stick to the old [rules] and don't want to change. For us, we're young blood. We came to a new country, and we want to try everything. If we can bring something new into our pies and make customers happy, we'll do it."
This is why you'll see items like vegan cauliflower curry or XO lobster pies alongside his equally beloved traditional, small-town offerings. To Khun, the whole spectrum of flavours is what makes his pies even more 'Australian'.
"We are a multicultural country, so I'm not surprised that people want to try different things."
Hard work and big ideas aside, it helps to have his mum's winning recipes up his sleeve. "Our caramelised pork and pepper pie won best pie in 2019. It's a Cambodian dish —one of mum's secret weapons. She still cooks at home every day and we go to her for ideas."
Cambodian chicken curry pie filling
- 100 g lemongrass powder
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1 tsp turmeric
- 2 makrut lime leaves
- 20 g galangal
- 3-5 curry leaves
- 10 g chilli powder (optional)
- 10 g annatto seeds (curry leaf seed)
Blend in a food processor till smooth or paste.
Ingredients for curry
- 100 ml olive oil
- 1 L coconut milk
- 1 L chicken stock
- 100 g brown sugar
- 70 g chicken seasoning
- ½ tsp salt
- 2 kg diced chicken
- 300 g diced sweet potato
- 300 g potato
- 300 g diced carrot
- 200 g diced eggplant (optional)
Slurry (for pie filling only)
- 175 g cornstarch
- 220 ml water
1. Heat olive oil in a pot, when hot add all curry paste and stir till lightly brown.
2. Add chicken and stir well till lightly cooked and then add coconut milk, simmer for 10 minutes.
3. Add Brown sugar, chicken seasoning, salt and all vegetables and bring to boil.
4. Mix the thickening agent and water and all the slurry until it is well combined.
Note: This step is only for making pie filling only. For a complete meal, this can be served with rice, bread roll or vermicelli noodles if you don't want to stuff your puff or shortcrust pastry sheets.
In a small country town in Australia, brothers Ryan and Chan Kuhn run a bakery where they fuse their Cambodian roots with an Australian cultural staple - the meat pie. Watch Pie via SBS On Demand below.