The food at Fat Passion is as unexpected as its young Hong Kongese owner, Chen Shijie. The 26-year-old, who goes by ‘Jorge’, started off training as a butcher some seven years ago but ended up working under a series of chefs – some with Michelin-star pedigrees – around the world before finding himself in Phnom Penh with his partner “Crystal” Leung Wailan, 27.
The couple decided to open their casual restaurant-bar near the National Museum earlier this year.
His style, he says, has been influenced by his many travels – living in Italy and Cambodia and testing restaurants in Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand, Spain and Holland.
Jorge’s cooking reflects that path – from the Argentinean chimichurri-style dressing on the chargrilled cauliflower “couscous” salad ($8) to the special this week: an Italian-inspired crab and shrimp ravioli ($16).
“I go to the market and I try to force myself to create something. It’s all based on what I have seen or what I have tasted before and I think ‘oh, this is is kinda fun,’” he says.
Fresh out of school, Jorge went to work for a refined Mexican restaurant in Hong Kong whose owner happened to have a guesthouse on Koh Ta Kiev.
“He taught me everything, how to cut an onion, this and that . . . and he told me all these stories about Cambodia. That’s how it started,” he says.
After months of pleading, Jorge was able to go live the island life cooking at the bungalow with well water and a wood fire.
After a year on the island, he made connections with an Italian restaurant owner who agreed to take him in for eight months at his restaurant in Piedmont’s Turin province, a scenic establishment on the edge of the glacial Candia Lake.
There, working under a husband and wife team of chefs in a family-run farm-to-table restaurant, Jorge learned the Italian language and its culinary culture.
“I never worked that hard in my life, man,” he says, wistfully recalling being scolded for not knowing the difference between a pomodoro (tomato, in Italian) and a pomodorino (cherry tomato) and having farmers showing up at the door with cases of vegetables. “Giorgio!”, they called him.
Afterwards, he returned to Hong Kong, working at a private-dining “one table only” establishment that specialised in high quality dry-aged meats. But he was set on returning to Cambodia, and after a first attempt on Koh Rong, which fell through for reasons outside the kitchen, he found himself an apartment in Phnom Penh.
The plating and quality of the dishes at Fat Passion are evidence of Jorge’s fine-dining background, yet the restaurant has a minimalist interior with simple wooden tables and is the kind of place to have a beer with friends over some shared grub.
The salad, made from charred and crumbled cauliflower head, with raw onions, herbs, oil and vinegar, and topped with fresh basil and salmon roe, was refreshing and rich with flavour.
“I just want something that’s not fussy – you don’t need to be fancy, no need to dress up, just go out and eat,” he says, grinning behind his thick black-framed glasses. “I just put the technique in there and see what’s what.”
Exemplifying that concept was the $12 plate of starters, featuring home-made pita bread and pita chips, an in-house smoked mackerel mousse dip, as well as a smoked eggplant and yoghurt dip.
With it comes three pieces of tender fried chicken – his favourite – lightly dressed with a honey-chilli sauce and some potato chips.
The restaurant – whose name, Jorge explains, is because the couple are “fat with passion” for the food – is definitely experimental. Striking out on his own in Cambodia is an opportunity for him to define his own style, he says.
“I’m still learning what I should cook, still trying to find the answer every day,” he says. As such, his menu has only begun to settle down this past month, and he plans to continue having specials every few weeks that may become fixtures if the response is positive.
This past week, the pulled crab and shrimp ravioli in a frothy chili oil and crab and shrimp sauce, topped with lumpfish roe, succeeded as a fusion dish in its own right, even if some Italian purists may not approve.
“I always try something new. Before it was a shrimp tortelloni, so I just recreated it and upgraded it,” he said.
Fat Passion is located at #171 Street 19, and is open Tuesday-Sunday from 12pm-2pm and 5pm-10pm. Tel. 015 462 422