Last month, the first (and potentially inaugural) Cambodian Restaurant Association Competition pitted chefs, cooking students and hospitality workers from across the country against each other in a culinary battle royale. Rising victorious in the barista competition was 21-year-old Ngov Sopheakdey, whose coffee-brewing abilities beat out several older candidates. Sopheakdey spoke to 7Days about how she got started in the Phnom Penh coffee scene, and the secrets to the perfect brew.
What do you think of the Phnom Penh coffee scene?
Coffee shops are growing a lot, recently. You can see it everywhere. Malaysian companies are investing in coffee shops, along with a lot of other countries – some of them are doing well, others are not.
Not only do Cambodians like it, but Europeans do too. Investors notice that. They know that foreigners like coffee so they invest in coffee shops. Coffee is popular with Khmer people, but it’s becoming more popular with young people.
University students love it. It’s not just for businessmen and old men.
When did you start training as a barista?
I worked for a coffee shop for about a year, and after I quit that job I worked as a barista for the Angkor Guest House for three or four months. Then I started working for my mother. So it hasn’t even been two years yet.
What made you want to be a barista?
The interesting thing about being a barista is making art. It’s making art in latte; being creative.
Do you draw pictures in lattes?
If I feel good, I can do it, but if I feel bad I can’t even do a smiley face.
How did you learn the trade?
I learned it from one of my coworkers, and after that I mainly learned from the internet.
What is your favourite coffee?
My favourite is Arabic coffee. Before I started working in the business, I didn’t really like coffee, but now that I work at a coffee shop I love it. It makes me feel fresh. Compared to other beans, Arabic beans make me really awake. I can do my work without getting a headache.
How did it feel competing in the barista competition?
Our coffee shop was new, so the other competitors saw us as an ant – they didn’t really care about us. But when I became the winner, everyone was shocked. I was so proud of myself. They gave us 15 minutes to make 12 cups of coffee: four cappuccinos, four espressos and four of a signature drink. My signature drink was one scoop of vanilla ice cream with a hot single coffee. But it’s not just about the coffee, it’s about the service as well. The judges liked my service – I am friendly and I smile.
What’s your advice for upcoming Khmer baristas?
If you want to become a barista, you need to work hard. Don’t think that it’s easy just because it looks easy.