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Local spices key to race for culinary crown

120525_04

Topaz chef Sopheak Pov will be testing his skills against the best in world this week. Photograph: Calvin Yang/Phnom Penh Post

When Sopheak Pov was sent to France to work with Michelin-starred chef Alain Dutournier two years ago, it was meant to be much more than a learning stint with the one of the top chefs in French contemporary cuisine.

He was tipped to succeed Alain Darc, a veteran French chef and former executive chef of Topaz Restaurant. The then 61-year-old, better known to his staff as “Papa”, was retiring after two years at the helm of the award-winning restaurant’s kitchen, famed for its culinary innovations.

“It is not an easy job. I am responsible for every single decision that goes around the kitchen,” said executive chef Sopheak, who assumed the position in 2010. “It was difficult because I had to learn everything in a short amount of time.”

Two years and many satisfied customers later, the 36-year-old has gone on to become one of the most promising chefs in the country. He is one of a quartet of chefs who will be representing Cambodia in the global finals of the MLA Black Box Culinary Challenge in Tasmania, Australia.

The team, comprising Sopheak, Sun Chanrotana, Sek Sivanthonn and Hem Phyra, made history last year when they captured the gold medal at the national stage of the Black Box challenge held in Phnom Penh.

The victory granted the quartet from Topaz Restaurant a ticket to compete at the biennial competition, which will be held this week.

“It is an honour to be able to represent the country against world-class chefs from around the world,” the former Comme á la Maison and River House Restaurant chef said. “It is a very heavy responsibility. But I believe we can pull it off.” After taking over the reins, Sopheak, who has been with Topaz Restaurant for the past 10 years, has devised a fusion of European and Asian flavours in his dishes.

To date, he has come up with six to seven new dishes created to popular acclaim, such as the lobster ravioli in Kampot green peppercorn and poached Asian silver seabass with spring vegetables and an infusion of ginger and chocolate fondant.

“The experiences that I have received so far have given me new insights into different styles of cooking,” Sopheak said. “My aim is to bring some local flavour to the dishes from around the world.”

Despite his recent successes, the ever humble Sopheak insists that he would not be where he is today if not for the strong team of sous chefs and assistants that run the kitchen together with him day in day out.

“We face different challenges every day. Some are big, some are small. The important thing is that we have to work as a team,” Sopheak added. “Only then can we achieve greater things.”.

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