Bruyns’ food, like Rivière’s, is difficult to label. “It’s not Cambodian cuisine by any stretch,” he says. “Rather, it just takes advantage of produce in the area. I put foie gras on the menu when we first opened, but one look at the faces of my Khmer staff, and I realized I wasn’t in France. So we abolished everything not Cambodian, with the exception of kombu and miso.”
He is, in fact, so committed to local produce that he refuses to keep a cool room at the restaurant, forcing the kitchen to procure its ingredients daily from the market. Or from foraging—when we meet, Bruyns seems particularly excited about an endemic spice called white cardamom, which grows in southwest Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains and imparts a menthol-like flavor that is perfect for curing tuna and duck. “None of my staff had even heard about this extraordinary spice; it doesn’t exist in the markets,” he says. “But go into the forest and get past the leeches, and it’s everywhere.”
While not every chef goes out exploring Cambodia’s natural pantry for new, wild ingredients to the extent that Bruyns and Rivière do, certain businesses are changing the suppliers’ side of the equation too. Eggscellent is one, a free-range egg enterprise started by Swiss expat David Keller to help create jobs and ameliorate poverty in the countryside around Siem Reap. Eggscellent now supplies eggs to numerous restaurants, guesthouses, and hotels in Siem Reap, including the Park Hyatt, which orders 300 eggs a day for breakfast.
The Park Hyatt has proved to be a major supporter of local suppliers, often spotlighting them in its Masters of Food and Wine series of events. One special menu was created to showcase Kampot peppers; another, the honeys from Nature Wild, an organization that supports sustainable wild honey collection around the country. The menu I try is an eight-course degustation that pairs Cambodian-inspired dishes with fruit- and spice-infused rice spirits from Sombai, a Siem Reap business. Devised by the hotel’s locally born sous chef Piseth Theam, the meal begins with tuna cured with Kampot pepper, fresh and light and perfectly matched with Sombai’s spicy mango-chili spirit. Thin slices of raw U.S. beef tenderloin marinated with lemongrass and kaffir lime are served with a lemongrass-and-lemon spirit, a sweet accompaniment for a dish so tender, and by the sixth course—a chicken and pineapple curry with winter melon served with coconut-and-pineapple spirit—everything just tastes like candy.
Theam, whose father was the chef de cuisine at the original Hôtel de la Paix from 1961 until 1963, plans to incorporate homegrown fruits, vegetables, and meats into his menus as well. He says he’s eager to get Cambodia’s food culture back to what it was in the days before the Khmer Rouge had their devastating effect upon the country and its culture. Re-establishing reliable supply chains will take a lot of effort, but, in the words of Joannès Rivière, “It’s a win-win—the community benefits, the environment benefits, and the food is fresher, tastier, and cheaper.” As the saying goes, you reap what you sow, and it looks like Cambodia is poised to regain lost ground.
Where to Stay
Formerly the historic Hôtel de la Paix, the 108-room Park Hyatt Siem Reap (Sivutha Boulevard; doubles from US$224) offers pomp and glamor in Art Deco–style in the heart of downtown. In Phnom Penh, Raffles Hotel Le Royal (92 Rukhak Vithei Daun Penh; 855-23/981-888; doubles from US$192) was one of five palace-like hotels built by the French colonists in the 1920s, and its rooms are accordingly fit for kings.
Where to Eat
For three tasting menus that highlight the best of Cambodia’s produce, try:
Cuisine Wat Damnak (Wat Damnak village, Siem Reap; 855-77/347-762; six courses for US$28).
The Common Tiger (20 St. 294, Phnom Penh; 855-23/212-917; five courses for US$50).
The Dining Room, Park Hyatt Siem Reap (Sivutha Blvd.; 855-63/ 211-234; eight-course Sombai Tasting Menu for US$80).
This article originally appeared in the April/May print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Cambodia’s New Crop”)