Master chef Luu Meng talks about the changing restaurant scene in Phnom Penh and what sets Cambodian cuisine apart
Master chef Luu Meng explains the finer points of his Cambodian cuisine. PHOTOS: VINH DAO
You have become pretty well-known in Cambodia and beyond, firstly for Malis and Topaz restaurants and increasingly for a range of other business ventures. How far does your empire spread?
My French partner and I own the Thalias chain, which includes Topaz, Malis, Baitong and the Cafe Sentiment brands. That is the dining part. And then I own the Almond Hotel and Feeling Home, which is a serviced apartment. Cafe Sentiment was designed to target the next generation, the trendy youth, to try and introduce them to the modern dining experience.
You are also head of the Hotel Association of Cambodia. Is there an opportunity to use Cambodian food to attract more visitors?
I was invited by the Ministry of Tourism to come with them at the end of May to promote Cambodian fine dining at the Asian Food Festival at the Jeju World Culture and Travel Expo on Jeju island in Korea. It was a really great way to promote the country through art, music and cuisine. With art and music, you can see it and you can hear it and you can keep it. With food, after you taste the ingredients and the spices, it can create memories through your tastebuds. This taste and experience we can export to the world and build up the Cambodian image abroad. As a hotel association we have been talking about that a lot.
What is Cambodian cuisine?
Cambodian cuisine from a long time ago used very unique Indochina spices with an influence from Indian spices. Today we use very fresh spices grown locally that leave the eater feeling very light and refreshed after the meal. Indian food is characterised by spice, and we are the same but it is a fresher spice. In Cambodian cuisine a few ingredients also stand out. We have very nice rock salt and nice Kampot peppers, and then of course our palm sugars are very rich and have good flavours. On top of that we have prahok, or fish preserved to make the flavours come out. In France they have almost unlimited types of cheese, and we are the same in Cambodia with prahok. It can be prepared in many ways, and the taste and texture is always different depending on how it is made.
Malis is well-known for the way it incorporates French elements into traditional Khmer cuisine. How do you do that without losing authenticity?
We don't change the taste of the food, we change the presentation. Our objective at Malis is living Camboidan cuisine. That is our whole philosophy - not fusion or mixing but enhancing the flavour of Khmer food through our presentation and the dining experience. So, we use a lot of raw ingredients to produce the Khmer cuisine, but present it based on the French lifestyle and way of dining. They French have many steps to a meal and it is this part of French culture that we bring to Malis. They show us how to start with a starter, how to have the appetiser, when to have the fish, or main dish, and how to nicely finish with a dessert.
You have been heavily involved in the restaurant scene over the last two decades as Cambodia has recovered from years of war. How has the dining scene changed in that time?
The change is very much from the customer point of view. The customer today is more understanding of what they are looking for. Today of course there are a lot of choices in the city so customers are changing in that they are looking for much better eating environments, the unique aspects that restaurants like Malis can provide. For us, that type of change motivates us to work hard to create a dining experience that meets the changing needs of our customers.
Are you referring here to domestic customers, or the foreigners living, working and visiting here?
Foreigners are not a main focus for us. Here we have a lot of Cambodians that we need to work for; they are our daily bread and butter. Of course we can provide a very nice place for foreigners to enjoy, but for us the Cambodian community, business people and family people are our main target. That said, we get a lot of foreign customers who are in Cambodia for the first time saying they didn't expect a place like Malis to be here.
Do you see a new generation evolving, the much talked about Khmer middle class even, that is more in touch with the modern restaurant experience?
Young rich Cambodians, the next generation, have travelled around and experienced other nations and cultures. Now, instead of eating at home seven days in the week, they have been influenced to eat out more and more. Sooner or later, the way of dining - not only the food on the plates but the whole knowledge of dining and its surroundings - will change, and it is already happening.