Cristia Nou Picart, 36, is a chef from Barcelona, Spain. He arrived in Phnom Penh three months ago and is now the new chef at Doors Music and Tapas, where he has created special new tapas and lunch menus. Before he moved to Cambodia, he was the head chef at the Capella Hotel in Singapore for three years and before that he worked at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Barcelona. He sat down with Emily Wight to talk about Mediterranean food, how to attract Cambodians to Spanish cuisine and the importance of sourcing local produce.
What inspired your love of cooking?
When I was young, my mother would cook for the whole family. After school I’d invite my friends back to my house, and after that they’d always want to come back because of my mother’s food. I was always around her while she cooked, always interested to watch her, saying, “What’s that you’re putting in? What are you doing now?” My grandma also lived nearby, and she cooked Catalan food, so I learned from her too.
What kind of food do you cook?
When people hear about Spanish food, they think: paella, tapas, sangria. Maybe that’s how it’s marketed internationally, but we have so much more to offer: amazing cheese, fish, rice, and not just paella. And the meat: we’re crazy about the pork - it’s beautiful. We have Iberian ham, chorizo, Serrano ham, all cured products. I make fresh bread using a unique Josper oven; seabass with wild mushroom risotto; seafood paella; Spanish sausage. I also still cook some of my mother’s recipes: empanadas and ham croquettes.
Is there a place in Cambodia for Spanish food?
Definitely. It’s my aim to branch out to Khmer people so they can discover authentic, traditional Spanish food. In Germany you have a lot of Spanish restaurants and it’s the same in London; in France you have Mediterranean food too. At the moment, Cambodians aren’t used to Spanish food. But they’ll get used to it. Garlic, for example, is a key ingredient in both Spanish and Asian food. Everyone loves it. We are gradually having more and more Khmer people come to eat here. It started with Western clientele who bring Khmer friends and then they bring their friends who are also Khmer.
Where do you source your produce from?
It’s very important to have good quality food and usually this means it has to be as local as possible. Even if a zucchini is big and misshapen here, it’s local and I’d rather take it than import one from another place. The markets here are very good, for vegetables and also local fish. However, the beef I import from Australia or the US because it’s different here: too chewy and it tastes different. Obviously Iberian ham I also need to import, but for the sausages, I use pork from here in Cambodia.
For you, what is food’s most important quality?
It’s impossible to say. If you’re an artist, you don’t have a favourite colour. For example, I like yellow, but blue is fantastic and red is beautiful. You can’t say just one thing: it needs to be an amalgamation. It might look very good, but when you taste it it might be too salty.
For chefs, is it easier to work in emerging and fledgling economies such as Singapore and Cambodia than Spain, where the financial crisis has hit hard?
Traditionally in Spain, people had more money to go out, and in Barcelona there was much the culture of eating out all the time and of course there are all the tourists there as well. But people are eating out less: my friends in Spain tell me they still go out to eat but maybe three times a week instead of twice. And we have had a massive reduction in jobs. Of all the people I went to cookery school with, only two of us are still chefs now out of 30 or 40 people.
If you had to choose a last meal, what would it be?
It actually wouldn’t be Spanish - it would be Italian pizza. Believe me. Italian and Spanish food come back to the same thing: the Mediterranean. Basil, olive oil, good bread… the tomatoes on a pizza are very important. Give me tomatoes from a tin, and I’ll say, “no, thank you”. I want real tomatoes, infused with garlic and basil. Another thing that I love is croissant with chocolate, it’s one of my favourite things and once I’ve started eating I can’t stop. Of course I love paella, but if tomorrow was my last day it would have to be pizza and then croissant with chocolate.