Cuisine Wat Damnak in Siem Reap was this week named Best Restaurant in Cambodia when it entered the prestigious Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list at number 50, the first time a Cambodian restaurant has been included on the list.
Owner-chef Joannès Rivière collected the award in Singapore on Monday night at a gala party at Capella resort, attended by many of the world’s most celebrated chefs, including Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park, New York, number four on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, and food media from around the globe.
“I’m honoured, it’s really a great achievement,” Rivière said in the dining room of his restaurant.
In its third year, Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants is the regional edition of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, which was launched in 2002 by the UK’s Restaurant magazine.
The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list is voted on by members of regional panels that together form an academy of almost 1,000 industry experts, including chefs, restaurateurs, gourmands and food media. In Asia, more than 300 members of the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants Academy, some of which vote on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, are selected from six regions.
The list is held in high esteem by the restaurant and hospitality industry and zealously followed by globetrotting gourmands who travel to eat, each year working their way through the list’s restaurants, which can range from fine dining establishments focused on molecular cuisine to stylish bistros serving quality comfort food.
“It’s going to be great for Siem Reap,” Rivière said. “It definitely puts Siem Reap on the culinary map internationally. It’s good for Siem Reap, but it’s also good for Cambodia.”
A place on the list has proven to have a positive impact on tourism. Awards for Spain’s El Bulli and Denmark’s Noma, voted number one time and time again, have helped food tourism in the Catalan region and Copenhagen respectively.
“There’s no reason why Vietnam and Thailand are culinary destinations and Cambodia is not,” Rivière said, shaking his head in bewilderment. “But it’s always the same: you think about everything you read about Asia. You look at a book on plants and they say ‘this tree is common in Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam’ and they never mention Cambodia. It’s like there is a big black hole on the map in Asia.”
“But I think that’s changing,” Rivière added. “Cambodia is definitely worth visiting when it comes to food. We have the products. We have the culinary culture. We have everything people could want. I just think we’re not the best at promoting ourselves here in Cambodia, especially in Siem Reap.”
Rivière, who came to Cambodia in 2003 to volunteer as a cooking instructor at Siem Reap’s Sala Bai Hotel School before becoming the executive chef at Hotel de la Paix (now the Park Hyatt), was born in Roanne, France, a region famed for its gastronomy, to a family of organic vegetable growers who supplied their produce to some of the area’s finest restaurants.
An upbringing surrounded by fresh organic produce, has influenced the development of Rivière’s unique, inventive contemporary Cambodian cuisine, focused exclusively on local produce and authentic Cambodian dishes and flavours.
“I’d like to see the award as a message to Cambodian chefs,” Rivière said. “This proves that you don’t have to use imported products like foie gras and so on; that it’s possible to have a world-class restaurant with a menu based on local products.”
“Young Cambodian chefs need to start to pay attention to their grandmother’s cooking and the products around them,” Rivière said. “The government should also support farmers to grow local produce and, in restaurant schools, there should be a Cambodian culinary curriculum controlled by the government. Otherwise, in 20 years’ time it will be lost.”