Journey to the Jude: Escaping war and poverty in his homeland, chef Johnny Siv develops culinary talents to feed the St. Jude community

Memphis, Tennessee, March 12, 2020

Johnny Siv is a sous chef and manager in Food Services at St. Jude.

Johnny Siv is a sous chef and manager in Food Services at St. Jude.

The Journey to the Jude series highlights how St. Jude employees developed a passion for their careers and how that journey translates to their current roles.

By Johnny Siv

I almost died when I was 5 years old. Sickly and frail due to malnutrition and dehydration, I lay in a pile of hay on the floor of an old shack. My mom, Sivorn, and older sister, Dalline, were also very sick. Flies swarmed my face. Skin stretched tightly over my bones. My family thought I was dead.

But I lived.

Something stirred within me. I’ve been stirring ever since that day 45 years ago in a Cambodian village. That was a different time and place, but the memories remain. Those thoughts move me each day as I walk into the kitchen at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

I still see that 5-year-old kid when I’m at work. When patients come through the cafeteria, they remind me of him. Their stories are different, but I relate to their feelings of uncertainty, fear and sickness. It’s why I work so hard. When I wake up at 4 a.m., I think to myself, “I’ve got to go take care of them.”

This is my Journey to the Jude—a story of how I escaped my war-torn homeland and found a new life. In the United States, I learned to cook, to speak English and found a rewarding career as a manager and sous chef at St. Jude.

Out of Cambodia

I was born in 1970 in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. During the 1970s, a civil war ravaged the country. Cities were evacuated and more than 1 million people were killed. Food and water were already scarce before the war. We often ate only bananas, rice and whatever we could catch or find. We lived in a house made of tree branches and banana leaves.

Siv spent five years in a refugee camp in Thailand after his family fled Cambodia.

Siv spent five years in a refugee camp in Thailand after his family fled Cambodia. (Johnny Siv childhood photo)

The Khmer Rouge regime took over the country in 1975. My father was killed along with many others because he was a soldier. My family was forced to travel around looking for food and shelter. I had 10 siblings. During the war, they all died except for a sister and a brother. When one of my siblings would die, we’d stop to bury them and then keep moving. It was a sad time, and we looked for a way out. In 1979, when Vietnam invaded the country and ousted the Khmer Rouge, we fled across the border to Thailand.

We left at nightfall. Bullets were everywhere—armies fighting and border guards trying to keep us from entering. When we reached the border, we crouched and dug into the earth. With fresh dirt in our fingernails, my mom, Dalline and I crawled under a fence to enter Thailand. My brother, Louch, stayed behind in Cambodia. I was 9 years old. Eventually, we found a Thai refugee camp. I spent the next five years there.

A love of cooking

Although I grew up during a troubled time, Cambodia holds a special place in my heart. I started cooking because my mom makes great Cambodian dishes such as chicken curry and stir fry. Her love of cooking taught me the importance of family and our heritage. I love to cook. My favorite things to make are omelets and Mexican food. Today, I share my passion for food with my wife, Voleak, and our three kids.

Both my sister and my wife work with me as chef de cuisines at St. Jude. It’s hard to believe how far we’ve come since we arrived in the U.S. in 1984. With the help of the American Red Cross, a local church group sponsored my family’s move from Thailand to Memphis. After five months, we moved to Stockton, California, to be closer to a larger Cambodian population.

At age 16, my first job was at a 24-hour diner in Sacramento where I made a variety of meals from scratch—meatloaf, corned beef, omelets and other breakfast foods. I honed my cooking skills and practiced my English with my coworkers and customers. I worked in many kitchens and restaurants in the next two decades before I returned to Memphis.

St. Jude beckons

In 2007, a co-worker at a Memphis restaurant suggested I apply at St. Jude. Her mother worked at the hospital, and I thought I would give it a try. I joined St. Jude Food Services in May 2008. I didn’t know much about the hospital, but the opportunity to work at St. Jude was life changing.

St. Jude invested in me, allowing me to participate in leadership and development programs. Training is an important and enjoyable part of my work. I play a role in working with new employees and helping to develop the skills of our current staff. I like to share my story with them to help give them perspective.

I work closely with staff on daily meal planning and preparation. I’m grateful for St. Jude and the opportunities I’ve had as an employee. Each day I am challenged, but I look forward to it. Food is where we can find not only nourishment, but also joy. I am happy to do anything I can for the kids to make their day a little better.

 

Full Circle

Johnny’s brother, Louch, still lives in a village in Cambodia. His brother was severely injured from a bomb blast when he was young.

Throughout his time at St. Jude, Johnny has sent a portion of each paycheck to the village to build a school and buy books. In 2015, he visited his brother and helped construct part of the school. It’s important to Johnny, since he didn’t have the opportunity to attend elementary school.

“Because St. Jude does so much for me, I want to give back where I can,” he said. “I do that through my work at the hospital and by giving back to my country.”

 
 
 

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