Chefs love adding their own modern twists to traditional staples. Here are four young chefs to watch who lead some of cambodia’s most innovative kitchens
Words by Amanda Kaufmann Photography by Sam Jam
The Kimsan twins got their start working in the kitchen at the same hotel in 2003. They’re not twins (or even sisters) by birth, but Kimsan Pol and Kimsan Sok have grown together in culinary education and food philosophy over the years. They’ve participated in competitions around Southeast Asia and been trained by top chefs around the world, from France to Japan to Australia. The “twins” have even learned from Cambodia’s royal chef how to prepare prahok and amok fit for a king (it takes the freshest ingredients and a few extra steps).
All of this experience comes together in their restaurant, Embassy, in Siem Reap, in a seven-course set menu that highlights Cambodian flavours and forgotten recipes. The chefs change the menu monthly, using produce that’s in season and following the holiday seasons. For Pchum Ben in early October, a Cambodian family would traditionally eat a sweet and sour soup. “Tourists are used to eating soup before a main dish… [so] I create a salad but keep the flavours of the soup,” said Pol. “So when you eat the salad, you feel like, ‘oh, I used to eat this kind of flavour but in soup’.”
The twins uphold Cambodian tradition with a female-only staff in their kitchen. “We promote the Cambodian food,” explained Sok. “In Cambodia, it’s the woman who makes the food in the family…. Cambodian women mostly stay home to take care of the family, to take care of the kids, so I want to move them up.” The staff hail from different villages, from which they bring their own ideas to ensure the menu incorporates a range of the Kingdom’s flavours.
Le Broken Plate
Chef Plong Narith’s foray into a culinary career was unusual and fortuitous. He was born in Phnom Penh and raised in the town of Phsar Baek Chan, or “Broken Plate market”, then went to study engineering at university in Montreal. When he needed a job while completing his degree, a fellow engineering student introduced him to a friend who needed an apprentice in his sushi kitchen – of “the first generation of famous chefs in Montreal right now”. From this fateful introduction, Narith was hooked and inspired to learn as much as possible about Japanese and other cuisines. “I was able to get in touch with [the] subculture of working in a restaurant, becoming more convinced that everyday life would not be as rewarding as being a chef or a cook in a restaurant,” he said.
At two Japanese restaurants over seven years, he worked his way up through the stations from sushi to soba making to the hot bar. “Without those important seven years of Japanese cuisine, I could not continue moving further to different kitchens, different styles of cooking,” he said. He then worked in French-Canadian and Italian cuisines, while independently exploring Tex-Mex barbecue and other foods.
The culmination of his decade-plus of exploration is his ever-changing omakase-style menu at Le Broken Plate in Phnom Penh. “The menu changes according to what we can do with the fresh ingredients,” said Narith. Omakase means a chef’s choice tasting menu, which at Le Broken Plate incorporates lots of in-season produce with a variety of fresh fish and seafood, raw or seared, paired with a rack of lamb or beef tenderloin. “I don’t like to do the same dishes, repeat,” said Narith. “I need to explore what possibilities are out there for me so not to be bored to death” – to the great benefit of his diners.
Chef Mengly Mork brings his personal philosophy to his two Siem Reap restaurants: “I never try, I never know”. When it comes to Cambodian cooking, he forages for ideas just as one forages in the jungle. “I like to follow people,” explained Mork. “Like some people who collect wood to sell for furniture, and I ask them when they go, I’ll follow you… They get something from the jungle, how people do things there, they use things to cook. I come back with an idea. ‘This is what I eat there, and this is what I bring here.’ And people like it.”
One adventurous dish is his “jungle style” grilled beehive marinated in chilli and garlic and wrapped in a banana leaf. Other ingredients he is still contemplating include cow dung. “The dung is before it turns into dung,” said Mork. “It’s just from the stomach. The way the stomach produce the dung.” It’s something he tried at a wedding in Srey Kandal. They mix the contents of the stomach with water and then pour it over meat. “I’m very scared to try that from the first moment, and then I said to myself, I have to try… And then the taste was like ‘hmmmm’. There was starch and grass inside. The starch is from the stomach, and the flavour of the grass from the grass. And it tastes good.”
His restaurants serve elevated Cambodian street food, infusing twists into the flavours of classic street dishes. Though he was formally trained in culinary school and worked in multiple hotels and restaurants, it was a trip to a Singapore’s Chinatown for a street food experience that influenced his menu. “I said okay, street food is going to be something in the future,” said Mork. He opened his first location in 2017 and the second in 2018. He’s also started a biannual street food event with other chefs from Siem Reap and Phnom Penh.
Mork named the restaurants Pou after the nickname that he got going to the market. “Pou means uncle, so it’s a kind of respect. It’s like, I go every morning, every free time, and then they call me Pou. Even if they’re older or younger than me, they call me Pou.” He added, “They like that people always come and try things.”