Claire Nelson travelled from New York to Phnom Penh to do business, finally arriving at the home of Chef Nak after a long journey.
Following Khmer tradition, upon arrival the guests took off their shoes and washed their feet and hands with bergamot orange before entering the house.
For the first time in her life, the businesswoman received hospitality and dined in a traditional Cambodian wooden house, surrounded by greenery and the sounds of birds with a breeze blowing through the fresh green leaves.
“It was my first experience. Each dish is meticulously cooked with love using contemporary ingredients. The dish was really beautifully designed and was delicious and healthy. Both food and drinks provided an unforgettable experience,” she said.
Located in Prek Luong commune of Kandal province’s Khsach Kandal district in now Arey Ksat town, about 7km from Kampong Chamlong Svay Chrum Ferry, Home Dining provided services for both domestic and international visitors as well as a historical, cultural and artistic experience.
Chef Nak said that it is not a restaurant and that what she does is unique in Cambodia and is just meant to be a wonderful place for visitors to make themselves at home.
“It means that we personally received only one group a day, even if they have one or up to 70 people, only one group. We prepare all the services for them only,” she added.
Although the countryside-style house is spacious, the chef does not receive many groups of guests at the same time because she wants the guests to feel special.
Chef Nak also said that when there are many groups of guests, she has to divide her attention for each group, so it becomes difficult to keep them focused because every dish has a story that the chef has to explain.
The chef also learns about each guest to get to know where they come from and what they like or do not eat so that she can easily prepare food they like and avoid any displeasure from the guests.
“We focus mainly on guests who value more than just ordinary food, but the experience and cultural arts. We have built two traditional wooden Khmer houses in Siem Reap and Battambang provinces.
“So all of this goes beyond just eating. It shows our history, culture and art. And every time we receive guests, we have a concert during the meal,” said Chef Nak.
The guests can also learn to cook with the chef directly and go shopping and buy the ingredients together.
Chef Ros Rotanak, her full name, said she planned to open these home-style restaurants and guesthouses earlier this year but delayed it due to the drop in tourism. However, because guests began making a series of bookings she has gradually been receiving groups since October, 2022.
Located in the newly established Arey Ksat town, Chef Nak wanted an atmosphere that was not far from the town itself – only half an hour or 45 minutes to arrive – but the meals feel like they are on a village or a farm. They hear the sounds of crickets and crows and get the experience of crossing the river on boats.
She said that in Siem Reap there are many similar options to offer guests and it’s actually Phnom Penh that lacks dining options in a traditional setting.
“For Phnom Penh, when they want to take a vacation, they must travel far to get the same feeling and for Siem Reap the vacation is very close,” she added.
Chef Nak said that she is proud that foreign guests come to experience Khmer cuisine and then help advertise it to more friends around the world, but what she needs most is Cambodian guests who are willing to spend money on this experience.
She said that 80 per cent of the visitors were foreigners and 20 per cent were Cambodians ones during Covid-19. At present domestic visitors account for 60 per cent and 40 per cent are foreign visitors.
“Our people want something special and private. We try to do something from the bottom of our hearts and do our best to win their hearts,” she said.
Sophallin Ly - Executive Secretary to CEO and Chief Financial Officer of Smart, has organised two trips to Chef Nak’s restaurant for the company’s boards of directors, once before Covid-19 and once after. The multi-ethnic board of about 30 people have all enjoyed the Khmer food on offer.
“Not only foreign guests, even local Cambodians are interested in traditional hospitality, especially the food that reminds them of the past. Even though we can still continue to eat such dishes as fried shrimp and flavoured ice like this elsewhere, Chef Nak’s house is very unique and reminds us of our childhood,” said Sophallin.
She acknowledged that Chef Nak’s home-cooked food was expensive, but the chef provides more services than just a meal, with each dish being described including its history and origins.
“Before starting to eat, Chef Nak described the history of the food and that makes us fall into the era of each dish, and foreign guests are also really interested,” she added.
When it comes to the food service and excellent hospitality from the Khmer chef, Chef Nak acknowledged that her prices weren’t cheap.
She said that the Cambodian people themselves who loved cooking and had the opportunity to study cooking did not choose to cook Khmer food because they thought they would make more money by specialising in western or Chinese dishes.
“For me, I do not think so. I sell at a high price and I tell the visitors that the food we eat every day that we overlook can be sold at a very expensive price. This comes from what we are willing to do for our guests.
“For two people, one great meal costs $700. I want to tell our people that Khmer food is not poor. It will be poor if we think it is poor and continue to think it is poor. Our food is just as good and we just don’t have the confidence that we can do it,” she stated.
For two people dining together, Chef Nak serves five dishes ranging from finger foods to main courses, soups and desserts.
Chef Nak has a home stay programme which focuses on the art of Khmer cuisine on offer as well for culinary-minded tourists.
The chef has also opened the Chef Nak Culinary Arts Centre, which has a food lab. The centre is a place to study, research and experiment with new Khmer dishes and ingredients such as vinegar, palm juice, banana vinegar or pha’ak – a fermented fish product like prahok, but not as well-known internationally.