From Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, a small band of locavore chefs is determined to bring homegrown produce back into the spotlight, one tasting menu at a time.
By Leisa Tyler
Itâ€™s 8 p.m. in Siem Reap on a wet September evening. Tourists are thin on the ground here at this time of year, but Cuisine Wat Damnak is full. In the restaurantâ€™s two dining roomsâ€”one air-conditioned and contemporary, the other a breezy upstairs nook modeled after a traditional Khmer houseâ€”patrons slowly devour chef JoannĂ¨s RiviĂ¨reâ€™s nightly tasting menu while the rain thunders down outside.
Locavore dining may be nothing new in the grand scheme of the global food scene, but it is in Cambodia, and RiviĂ¨re is largely to thank. A bear of a Frenchman with a no-nonsense take on life, RiviĂ¨re left his career as a pastry chef in the United States in 2003 to come to Siem Reap and volunteer as a cooking instructor at a nonprofit hotel and restaurant school. In 2005, having learned the Khmer language and even written a Cambodian cookbook, he joined the HĂ´tel de la Paix (which was renovated and rebranded as the even more luxurious Park Hyatt in 2013), advancing the degustation menu at its Meric restaurant along with his own passion for Cambodian cuisine.
Traveling the country, RiviĂ¨re discovered a plethora of exotic ingredients: the slightly sour ambarella fruit, the deliciously earthy termitomyces mushroom, the mildly sweet Kampot pepper, the herbaceous lime-green marsh weed limnophila, the small puffer fish found in the Tonle Sap. The bigger surprise was that none of these had found a place in the kitchens of HĂ´tel de la Paix, which, like the townâ€™s other top hotels, imported most of its perishable products from Europe and Australia. Undeterred, RiviĂ¨re began integrating his findings into the menu at Meric, eventually developing a Khmer tasting menu that featured such things as beef-shank curry and green mango salad with dried snake.
RiviĂ¨re refined his approach further after leaving the hotel in 2011 to open Cuisine Wat Damnak. Coupling strictly Cambodian ingredients with French cooking techniques, the restaurant captured dinersâ€™ imaginations and quickly became the vanguard for Cambodiaâ€™s locavore movement. On the night of my dinner there, the menu includes croaker fish pulled from Tonle Sap that morning, served with pounded sesame; a delicate and earthy consommĂ© with wild prawns and raw egg; a tantalizing pork shank, caramelized on the outside and coated with zesty Kampot pepper; and, for dessert, a dragon-fruit meringue. Considering the five-course tasting menu costs just US$24, no one seems to mind when certain experimental dishes arenâ€™t yet perfected, such as frog thatâ€™s a bit too delicate for the powerful prahok (fermented fish paste) that accompanies it.
â€śThe best ingredients we can get are Cambodian, so thatâ€™s what we use,â€ť RiviĂ¨re explains. â€śOur fish is from the lake; the chickens are raised under the house; vegetables come from the farmer down the road. We use lesser known and often disregarded products because they are the freshest and the tastiest we can get.â€ť
Thankfully, RiviĂ¨re isnâ€™t the only chef in Cambodia tapping the local bounty. Another is Timothy Bruyns, a South African who came to Cambodia in 2011 to be executive sous chef at Song Saa Private Island, a resort off the countryâ€™s southeastern coast. Now the owner of a Phnom Penh restaurant called the Common Tiger, Bruyns says, â€śThereâ€™s a perception that ingredients from the West are best, or even those shipped in from Thailand, but they arenâ€™t. Whatâ€™s best is whatâ€™s grown on our doorstep.â€ť
When I stop into the Common Tiger for lunch, the tattooed, energetic Bruyns first presents me with a refreshing salad of raw tuna from the southwestern province of Koh Kong that â€ścame off the boat just this morningâ€ť with lily-flower stem, banana heart, salted turnip, and hot basil. Following this is a rich salad of roasted wild mushrooms with miso and lemongrass puree, charred shallots, a sprinkle of forest fern tips, and fat fresh soya beans adding color and crunch. But as astoundingly good as that is, better yet is the dish heâ€™s saved for last: glazed free-range pork ribs sourced from a farm outside Phnom Penh that have been cooked sous-vide for 20 hours with kombu (Japanese kelp), chili, ginger, lime leaf, and shallots.