Siem Reap chef Eng Im was named on Sunday as the winner of CTN’s lively television cooking competition, Cambodia’s Best Chef 2014, scooping up a $5,000 prize and a host of new possibilities.
Even before the final was aired, news of his success had spread and job offers began to flood in for the talented young cook who started work as executive chef at Palate restaurant on October 15.
The competition pitted 20 chefs from all over Cambodia against each other in a series of group and individual challenges that required them to reproduce specific techniques or to cook a menu from scratch using secret ingredients that were only revealed at the last minute.
Each week the number of competitors was whittled down until the final show when Eng went head-to-head against housewife Chan Phalla in a contest that required them to reproduce a beef steak with green peppercorn sauce and steamed vegetables, a lobster sandwich with sautéed vegetables, and a grilled salmon steak with tagliatelle and lemon butter sauce.
The heat was on in a close competition that Eng won with a final score of 90.9 per cent against Chan’s 87 per cent.
With his family in the audience, Eng was nervous and far from sure that he might triumph.
“Sometimes I felt very scared, because my competitor was very strong, and this time I thought, ‘if I lose and my family is here, how will I look?’
“I asked the producers if it is possible for my family to not come, but they said to bring them. This is the first time that my family have seen my skills, but they were impressed, especially with how fast I was.
“I’m very organised in the kitchen, so I’m fast and tidy. But I also liked to be a little bit creative with how I presented my dishes in the end. I always try to present it a little bit better than everyone else.”
The 34-year-old started his career 14 years ago, cleaning pots and pans in Siem Reap’s second five-star hotel, then known as the Sofitel Royal Angkor. There, his hard work ethic was soon spotted by the hotel’s executive sous-chef, Luu Meng, who promoted him to work as an assistant to the chefs.
Learning on the job alongside chefs from all over the world, Eng started acquiring his knowledge of ingredients and techniques, both Khmer and foreign. But, having grown up as a farmer in Kampong Thom, he had his own bank of knowledge to build on as well.
When the competition started, Eng was executive sous chef at Shinta Mani where he had worked for six years. He made the switch to Palate just before the finals were aired on TV.