As Cambodia’s kitchens get increasingly creative, a new generation of chefs is poised to take the Kingdom’s cuisine in thrilling new directions. We meet the rising stars at three of the country’s most innovative restaurants
Words by Dene Mullen Photography by Sam Jam
Seng Sothea, 33, chef-owner mahob
After moving to Siem Reap from his home province of Kampong Cham in 1999, Sothea Seng got his start in cooking at the age of 17 as a kitchen hand in the staff canteen at the Sofitel hotel in Siem Reap. From there he went to Angkor Palace Resort and Le Méridien hotel before setting off on the journey that would change his approach to food. Sothea spent two-and-a-half years at the Grand Hyatt in Dubai, where he volunteered for extra shifts in order to learn about a variety of cuisines, including Japanese, Italian and a New York-style steak house. Primed with this knowledge, Sothea headed a kitchen in St Lucia for a year before returning to Cambodia and opening Mahob in late 2014, where he serves modern interpretations of classic Cambodian dishes.
“Our resources here in Cambodia are exceptional. We have such fresh ingredients and can call on all the elements from vegetables and spices to meat and great seafood. We have the best pepper in the world, and I really love to cook with tropical ingredients that Western visitors don’t know. For example, our local watercress is probably my favourite ingredient, and we also have several edible flowers that are really good for our cuisine. I think Cambodian food is holy food, and we satisfy key flavour profiles such as sour, salty, bitter – but not too spicy.”
Siv Pola, 34, chef-owner, Mie Café
Pola was inspired to cook by his mother, but it was very much his own determination that led to him owning one of the most exciting restaurants in the country. Born into a poor family in Siem Reap province, Pola received little formal education but dreamed of going to cooking school. He applied to an employment agency and landed jobs first in Bahrain and then in the Cayman Islands as a waiter. With the money he saved, Pola was able to pay his way through the prestigious Culinary Arts Academy Switzerland and then spend six months at the two Michelin-starred Domaine de Châteauvieux on the outskirts of Geneva. He returned to Cambodia with little cash left and opened Mie Café as a coffee shop originally, slowly turning it into the fine restaurant it is today.
“Cambodian food is all about the ingredients. We use a lot of lemongrass, galangal, things like that. I use the techniques I learned in Europe and apply them to local products. I guess you could call it Cambodian fusion. Almost every Cambodian dish will use fish sauce or prahok, our special fermented fish. I especially love working with galangal, because it gives you spice and flavour but it’s not as hot as a chilli; it creates something else.”
Tim Pheak, 28, executive chef, Trorkuon
Pheak’s culinary career really took off when he landed a job in the kitchen of Song Saa Private Island, where his passion and determination caught the eye of renowned head chef Neil Wager, who Pheak credits with teaching him the importance of elegant presentation. After two years in Cambodia, Wager took his young protégé along to consultancies in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, where Pheak took on increasingly senior roles. Upon his return to his homeland in 2016, the quiet Cambodian was offered the chance to run his own kitchen at Trorkuon in Jaya House RiverPark hotel. His beautiful dishes and commitment to experimentation with Cambodian flavours make him arguably the country’s most exciting young chef.
“I love everything about Cambodian cuisine. I love dishes that are a little bit spicy, although I always try to combine that with sour and sweet. I’m very into curries and stir fries at the moment, and my favourite ingredient is probably turmeric leaf, because when I was young my aunt used to cook it with frogs. Not many people know how to cook with it, so I think it’s a special ingredient. I especially like to chop it and use it when roasting.”