This article was also published in the Financial Times.
I was introduced to the particular ingredients and cooking techniques of
Cambodian cooking by two very different chefs in three very distinct locations.
The first was the petite, charming and memorably named Vandy Van, who is in charge
of the cookery school attached to the Amansara hotel at Siem Reap, close to the
extraordinary temples of Angkor.
The kitchen is located on the first floor of an atmospheric old wooden Khmer
village house naturally cooled by the wind that comes off the lake nearby. Here
for two hours in heat exacerbated by the fact that we were cooking over
traditional charcoal I chopped and chopped – garlic, turmeric, galangal, chilies
big and small and kaffir lime leaves - eventually finely enough to meet Van’s
approval. Soft and refreshing spring rolls; chicken curry with potato and
pumpkin; a salad of banana blossom, chicken and roasted peanuts; and stir-fried
water spinach with garlic were the fruits of our joint labours.
Van is today such an exemplary and patient teacher because she came from the
countryside to be a student at the Sali Baï Hotel School set up in 2002 by the
French NGO Agir Pour Le Cambodge, which has so far trained over 600
disadvantaged Cambodians to work in their burgeoning hospitality industry. And
here her teacher was the far fuller figure of Joannès Rivière, a Frenchman who
has cooking and restaurants in his blood.
Rivière, 32, hails from Roanne, south-east France, where his parents used to
supply the renowned Troisgros restaurant with vegetables. Although he came to
Cambodia to train cooks, he switched roles to cook at the Hotel de la Paix. During
this time he met Carole Salmon from Brittany, then the director of the local
French Cultural Centre. (Photo of Johannès and Carole by Jessica Lim.)
They married and earlier this year embarked on two time-consuming adventures:
as parents of a baby son and as proprietors of their own restaurant, Cuisine
Wat Damnak. 'We took it as a lucky omen that our son decided to sleep through
for the first time straight after our opening night', Carole explained with a
Their restaurant takes its name from a temple located 500 metres away and is no
more than a five-minute tuk-tuk ride from the town centre. Its physical charms
emanate from the fact that it was formerly a private home which now provides
three distinct eating areas: outdoor seating in the garden; upstairs for those
who enjoy eating while sitting on the floor; and a much cooler ground floor
where a vase of unopened lotus flowers stands by the door.
An understated elegance underpinned our three hours at Cuisine Wat Damnak. The
most obvious manifestation of this were the paper place mats and menu which
bear a rice pattern, and Cambodian rice is particularly good; a turmeric margarita
and a pomelo and fresh ginger martini that got the evening off to great start;
and two menus, one four course at US$17 and the other US24 for five courses,
under the heading Cambodian cuisine but each demonstrating top-quality French
But what was perhaps even more exciting was the balance and acidity that Rivière
is achieving with so many exciting local ingredients. Slices of water lily
alongside grilled pieces of frog meat; rice flakes, the produce of the rice
crop before it is milled, formed into a pancake with thin slices of the local
sausage and a tamarind sauce; tiny prawns in a fish consommé with slices of
ultra-tart star fruit; and a fillet of freshwater croacker fish, skewered and
quickly grilled on a plate of edible flowers. With coffee came glasses of thin
slices of pomelo, banana and tamarind dried and then coated in sugar. Dinner
for three with a bottle of French wine (naturally) – a Côtes du Rhône 2009 from
Gabriel Liogier – came to US$100 excluding service.
Rivière subsequently explained that his mission was to stay as close as
possible to the French practice of shopping in the market for that night’s menu
and that his son’s arrival had rendered his former electric alarm clock
redundant. Two mornings later we set off on his motorbike for his favourite
market, Psaa Cha, one of the oldest in Siem Reap.
Before we plunged into its narrow, bustling byways, Rivière laid down a few
guidelines. That Cambodians don’t really like the flavour of saltwater fish,
much preferring the freshwater fish and prawns that come from Tonlé Sap, the
huge lake and river system nearby, and that the country has over 1,000
different species of freshwater fish, of which 500 are commercially available, the
second biggest variety of freshwater fish in the world after the Amazon basin.
That because the local fishing season is seasonal, entirely dependent on the
flooding of the Mekong river, Cambodians have mastered every method of
preserving fish, including the pungent fish paste that is so widely used. And
that wherever there were those staples of French cooking – carrots, garlic,
onions and potatoes – these would be imported as they do not grow in Cambodia
at all. Instead he would be looking out for gourds, water-lily stems, green
tamarind, lemon grass and pumpkin.
What Rivière had not revealed, however, was quite how effectively he has
mastered the Cambodian language, complete with its 42 vowels, and how fondly he
was welcomed by the women who sat cross-legged by their stalls. There was a
continual stream of banter and smiles all round as Rivière poked his way round
their goods, offering me pieces of salads and fruits I had not eaten before and
prefacing each introduction with whether this one was, or was not, one of his
chosen suppliers and why.
Proof, if any were needed, that the chef may choose to leave France but a
strong element of France will always reside within him.
Sala Baï Hotel School
Cuisine Wat Damnak