Since Raffles Le Royal Executive Chef Steve Van Remoortel changed the menu after he arrived last September, business has increased by 30 per cent.
Van Remoortel, 39, hails from Antwerp, Belgium and has worked in 11 countries since he completed his chef’s training.
In his latest adventure at Raffles Phnom Penh, he remains both fussy and secretive about his ingredients, with lamb from Colorado and beef from a specific supplier in Australia.
“My cuisine has always been about purity of products,” Van Remoortel says.
“Phnom Penh is a very charming place and challenging in a lot of ways,” he said. “It is much harder to get real quality goods and have people handling these goods like they are quality products,” he said.
One important principle for Van Remoortel is knowing the customer and making accurate judgments about what he might like.
“It is very important to know as much as you can about the people you are serving and make food accordingly to it.”
When Chef Steve is a restaurant customer, he picks something he thinks the chef put his heart into.
“At the end of the day I pick something where I can see the chef is creative and will put his heart into it. Going for dinner with me can be challenging sometimes,” he laughed.
“I can taste when the chef puts his heart into the food. When something is cooked with a lot of love -- you can taste that.”
As executive chef, Van Remoortel’s influence is felt throughout the hotel, in all the restaurants and at all the functions.
“In terms of a buffet, it is easy to have something, comfort food for each nationality or each part of the world. When you are doing a sit down dinner this is much more challenging. Maybe have a pure western dish with a spicy touch. Or an Asian dish with a cold water fish and this is where the mixing and matching comes in.”
Khmer people want to have the best possible products and are quite keen on knowing that nobody else has this particular item, according to Van Remoortel.
“The key part which most people don’t understand is mouth feel. Something we don’t know why we don’t understand. Every dish has different types of mouth feel: runchy, smooth, hot, cold, trying to attack all the senses. If they all mix together you’re going to get a good dish.”
Another aspect of Van Remoortel’s approach is the presentation.
“If something looks stunning you’re already halfway there. You’ve won half the battle if it looks good.”
“We’ve done some surprising pairings. Red wine with soup goes particularly well, and these are the specific flavours, and we will see if they are going to match.”
Over the years, he’s picked up different things from different places.
“Jamaican dishes are fantastic and you learn touches of local cuisine and you start working them into recipes that you know from before. Food evolves. What I cook now is not the same that I used to cook. You tend to use ingredients you really like.”
This is the judgment criterion of a good chef:
“He should know he is getting what is the best and the person who is doing it should be the chef. What Raffles is doing is exactly that.”
Knowing what various ethnicities appreciate and getting clues about guests’ preferences are both essential to Van Remoortel’s approach to the chef’s art form.
“When we do dinners I try to find out about the person and I can tweak the food towards their taste.”
For example, Japanese people tend to go in an Italian direction in their first forays into Western cuisine.
“There are 800 Italian restaurants in Bangkok,” he said.
Chef Steve gets pheasants from somewhere in Asia.
“The pheasants I’m buying here are very well suited for the Asian market. If you buy a pheasant in France, it has got a strong taste, but the pheasants we are using here and the feed they have, and they are mild and suitable for Asian market.”
For the Colorado lamb, it is grown for the meat, not the wool; an important consideration for Chef Steve. He finds the quality of Asian vegetables good. Potatoes should come from colder climates.
Chef Steve praises fine Cambodian ingredients including Mondulkiri strawberries, Kampot pepper, Takeo prawns, and fresh Tonle Sap elephant fish which are “jumping out of the box” when they arrive.
As the only westerner in the Raffles Le Royal kitchen, the Khmer staff are excited by chef Steve’s introduction of special foods they’ve never seen, like artichokes, white asparagus and celery root.
“Your food evolves and the way you cook evolves. The food really evolves, either you jump on the train and change with it, or you stay old fashioned and keep doing things the same way. It is about evolving,” he said.
When people come with special requests for events or wine dinners, Chef Steve’s team is able to honor the requests 99 per cent of the time, he says.
“With a little time, we can make anything happen.”
Van Remoortel grew up in a restaurant environment and had wanted to be a chef since he was eight years old.
“It has always been about fresh food,’’ he says. “I grew up outside the city, and we always had vast amounts of fresh ingredients,”
For the new concept brunch Van Remoortel launched at Bangkok’s Panorama Restaurant, $4.5 million restaurant built around a “life cooking” concept, the $120-per-person cost included a free flow of Champagne.
For his efforts, he received Thailand’s Best Restaurant Award in 2009.