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Siem Reap shines in culinary competition

After a gruelling all-day cooking marathon, a team of chefs from a five-star hotel in Siem Reap took out the top honours at the 2011 Cambodian Restaurant Association Competitions, held at the Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra on Friday. 

The chefs from Grand Soluxe Angkor Palace Resort and Spa defeated nine other teams to win the first “Khmer Mystery Black Box” contest, in which participants were forced to quickly improvise recipes from a box of secret ingredients.

Angkor Palace chef Phaing Sophai confessed he felt nervous before the start of the competition, both by the size of the 300 strong crowd watching him, and from fear of what he would find when he opened his team’s box.

“It was hard for me in the beginning because I could not see the ingredients. When we opened the closed box, we saw both Cambodian and foreign ingredients inside. Immediately, a Cambodian recipe named ‘Plea’ came up in our minds, so we decided to cook that dish,” he said.

“Plea doesn’t really need a lot of ingredients but because the competition required us to use more than 16 ingredients for a dish, we invented a seafood recipe by adding more flavours. We also tried using some foreign ingredients too, and it worked!”

While the Khmer mystery box portion of the competition was the most keenly awaited challenge of the day, hospitality staff also competed in bartending, fruit carving, barista and bed- making challenges, in order to win cash prizes.

Cambodian Restaurant Association President Van Porleng told the Post, he hopes the contest will be held annually in future as a sort of culinary Olympics, where local chefs and hospitality workers can show off their skills to the world.

“The Cambodia Restaurant Association aims to organise this competition every year, both in order to increase the standard of the industry but also as a first step towards participating in international competitions all over the world. We also want to organise workshops and conferences where hospitality staff can enrich their professional knowledge,”  he said.

More than 80 teams from hotels, restaurants, bars, nightclubs and NGOs took part in six different culinary and hospitality challenges during the day, and were assessed on their teamwork, creativity, and speed by a panel of sixteen local and international judges. Many of the challenges were gruelling with several elimination rounds held before a winner was announced.

Sophai and his teammate Sok Vichetm, credit their long tenure as chefs at Angkor Palace as crucial in helping to prepare them for the mystery box competition. Before starting work in the restaurant business, Sophai said he learned to cook several Cambodian and Thai recipes at refugee camp in Thailand.

“I think the competition made me love my profession more. At first I thought I cannot compete with these other  cooks because they are also from the five stars hotels, but we won in the end.” he said.

Straight after the mystery box contest, Gnov Sopheakdey from Samaki Cafe in Battambang, grabbed the crowd’s attention with an impressive performance in the barista section of the competition.

Blowing his competitors away, Sopheakdey took home a $300 cash prize, defending, the culinary reputation of Battambang, during a competition mostly dominated by staff from restaurants and hotels in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh.

Other winners included Long Borey from Riverhouse Lounge, who was unanimously selected as Cambodia’s best bartender, while Hagar Restaurant employee Lay Maly  stuck up for smaller establishments with a victory in the fruit carving contest.

A team from Phnom Penh’s exclusive Topaz Restaurant & Piano Bar triumphed in a second black box contest, this one involving foreign ingredients, before  Mao Srey Pov and Ngorn Sokhoeun from K-West Restaurant took home the “best bed-making” prize.

Minister of Tourism, Thong Khon, hailed the competition as a success, and said he would like to see it repeated next year as it segues with the government’s goal of promoting Cambodia as a fine dining destination.

“Food, beverage, and hospitality competitions are an essential factor in strengthening the quality of tourism services we provide in Cambodia. Cambodian foods have a special taste, compared to foods in other countries, and with the creativity of Cambodian cooks, they can make tourists remember their dishes and want to return to Cambodia,” he said.

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