Hot off the plane from Mexico’s Pacific coast, Belmond La Residence d’Angkor’s new executive chef will be spicing things up at the luxury hotel with the addition of some smart Mexican dishes to the contemporary menu line-up.
But the hotel isn’t confining him to cater for guests – he and the Belmond team have been hatching plans for a new series of Mexican Nights for Siem Reapers with a hankering for zesty fare.
Saul Garcia Ramos joined the team just one month ago, and has since been busy acquainting himself with Cambodia’s customs, cooking and markets.
But he’s also stirring up a few ideas of his own to add to the menus at the hotel’s fine dining restaurant, Circle, and the more casual café and grill, Ember.
He’s already gained some first insights into the intricacies of Khmer cooking, though this is not his first foray into Asian cuisine.
Since graduating from the highly-regarded Culinary Institute of Mexico in 2000, the energetic 36-year-old has been honing his skills in places like the iconic Sydney nosh-house, The Bathers Pavilion, where he worked under the multiple award-winning chef Serge Dansereau.
Saul also worked at the Polygon Bar and Grill in London, under Jude Kereama who is hailed for his Asian-fusion cooking and has racked up several awards of his own, including a Michelin Bib Gourmand.
Other highlights on Garcia’s culinary world tour include Barcelona, where he secured a Masters in hotel management, Miami, and Argentina where he made the most of his time working with those grill maestros.
The last few years though have seen him back home in Mexico, where he was running five busy kitchens in a 265-room resort near the American border.
Siem Reap will surely seem quiet by comparison, but Garcia hasn’t been putting his feet up.
He has already adapted some of the existing dishes at Belmond to give them a Mesoamerican twist. The smoked duck, for example, is now smoked in the Mexican style and shredded so that it can be mixed with a tangy salpicon, all the better to roll up in a tortilla cone for one of a trio in a delicious starter.
Garcia points out that Mexican is not the same as Tex-Mex which, for example, uses much more cumin. When asked to define Mexican food, he said it was all about the vibrancy of the flavours.
“It’s rich food, with lots of flavour that’s present all the time. Sometimes it’s a little bit spicy, just a little bit, but I think it goes well with the weather. The spices are good too for opening up your taste buds to the other flavours.”
In common with many Southeast Asian and Cambodian dishes, Mexican food builds heavily on ingredients like lime, chilli and coriander.
“You won’t meet a Mexican who doesn’t use a lot of lime in the cooking,” says Garcia. “But one big difference is the openness to sweet and sour flavours here, whereas in Mexico we tend to go for spicy and sour.”
Bridging the gap and taking us on to the spicy and sweet range, Garcia’s pineapple, coriander and chilli sorbet is, quite literally, a sensational treat.
Among other exciting dishes is a baked sea bass wrapped in bacon, served with a coriander risotto and shrimp bolognaise. Red lump eggs and an anchovy beurre noir are among the touches that bring this lovely dish out, as well as a neat, little smidge of xnipec (the Mayan word for dog nose, and pronounced ‘schnipek’), which is a usually combination of habanero chilli, red onion, oregano and bay. Garcia replaced the habanero with a local chilli though, because it’s not available here, and also for fear of blowing local diners heads off.
Garcia has also been playing with Mexico’s traditional street foods to create a variation on the popular chicken tinga in a pastry case, which can be served as an aperitif or larger course.
There are also soft flautas filled with crab and sweet yam or, with luck, beef Carpaccio with chipotle sauce.
While he’s been able to source most of his ingredients here in Siem Reap, Garcia will have to import some others, especially some of the chillies that are the mainstay of Mexican cuisine such as chipotle, gaujillo and ancho. His view on local chillies, which he cheerfully eats raw and whole, is that they just don’t have the same kick as those from home, and he misses the flavour of the smokier peppers such as chipotle.
He is very keen to source as much as possible locally though.
“I’ve been visiting the markets to find what I can do. A lot is possible with what’s here, and it’s important to the local economy which makes it important to us. Also this is a special country with special products, and authenticity is a core of our philosophy here,” he says.
Of course, it’s not just about the food. Garcia has been rummaging around looking for those hibiscus flowers that are so ubiquitous here, and which he dries for use in cooking and cocktails.
“They impart a super-acid flavour, and are really good for you. We use them in cocktails and in stews and tacos too.”
It turns out that hibiscus flowers are particularly good in margaritas, which will also be a central attraction of the once-a-month Mexican Madness nights being proposed by Belmond starting November.
Details are still being finalised, but we’re told Garcia has been busy composing a menu of ceviches, tacos, fajitas, carnitas, quesadillas, Mexican desserts and four different kinds of margaritas.