Din Oun, the head waiter at Raffles Hotel Le Royal, nervously poured red wine for a table of “customers” at Topaz restaurant as an audience of around 20 watched.
“Now recommend one local and one Western dish to pair with the wine,” instructed Tommy Lam, president of the Singapore Sommelier Association and chair of the event.
Oun hesitated briefly and decided that either grilled chicken or lobster would work. His attentiveness won him a compliment, but Lam also reproached the waiter for shaking. At next year’s competition, the president warned, standards would be higher.
The Cambodian Sommelier Association, which elected its first board yesterday, hosted the two-day competition on Tuesday and Wednesday to test the skills of Cambodia’s ambitious but minimally trained wine professionals. Contestants were judged on general wine knowledge, ability to differentiate wines, and service quality.
The first place award went to Hak Seyha, the head wine steward at Topaz and runner-up in last year’s competition, while second and third places went to Leourng Minol of Sofitel and Oun of Raffles respectively.
Sokunthy Keo, sales and marketing manager at Thailias Group, which provided logistics for the event, said the competition was necessary to boost the Kingdom’s hospitality industry.
“It’s very important to have this competition because the career of sommelier is new in Cambodia, and there are many new restaurants, bars and hotels who need staff who are professional and talented to increase their level of service,” she said.
Seyha, who on Tuesday was elected president of the Cambodian Sommelier Association, said that Cambodia has much work to do if it hopes to be competitive at international competitions.
“The association is very important for people who work in the industry, because Cambodia is too young with wine compared to other countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, Malaysia or Indonesia,” he said.
Seyha himself competed in Singapore last August at the Southeast Asia Best Sommelier Competition, along with Gnean Eden of Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra. Eden won last year’s Cambodian competition, the first, which was held before the association was formalised. Although neither won any prizes abroad, Seyha said that competing in Singapore was an accomplishment in itself.
Ut Vuthy, assistant manager of Almond Hotel’s Yi Sang restaurant and contestant at this week’s competition, said that the association is a step forward for a country that lacks any accredited sommelier training program.
“In Cambodia, we have never had sommeliers. We just have wine stewards, but we are not clear about the process of how to [serve] wine.
“So if we have this sommelier association in Cambodia, the group can spread out to train the other restaurants to make them know wine very well and know well how to make the customers happy.”
Kheat Sareant, contestant and house supervisor at the Common Tiger restaurant, said he did not expect to win the competition but was nonetheless happy to participate.
“Being a sommelier is my favourite [job]. It is what I am always thinking about, what I’d like to be in my life,” he said.
“Wine is all over the world. That’s why I like wine: to have communications with all the customers.”
Following his victory this week, Seyha will be sent to Bangkok in April for the Southeast Asia Best Sommelier Competition 2014.