With over 20 years of international culinary experience in top hotels and resorts both in Cambodia and abroad, chef Sing Sopheak Mongkol has returned to open the restaurant Changkran Khmer and serve Khmer food in order to contribute to the promotion of Cambodian culture to the foreign visitors as they make their gradual return to Siem Reap.
Not only that, Mongkol plans to go a step further and teach Khmer-cuisine cooking classes. He said the purpose of the classes is partly to provide an entertaining experience for tourists after they visit the famous ancient temples nearby, but also to help spread awareness about and love for Cambodian food.
“Mostly Europeans and foreigners come to Siem Reap and after visiting Angkor Wat they try to find some fun activities to do in our province, such as taking a jeep or motorbike to drive around or watching the [Phare Ponleu Selpak] circus, but that can still leave a lot of unscheduled time so they can use some of that free time taking cooking classes with me,” he said.
Born to a poor family, Mongkol became interested in cooking because his grandmother was recognised in the community as a skilled cook and was always recruited to help with the food whenever there were events or gatherings in the village.
“I learned a lot from her and I started cooking for my family at the age of 15,” he said.
Mongkol knew that in order to make a good living as a cook he’d need additional skills that complimented what he could do in the kitchen and he started with learning English from the monks at the pagoda who all loved Mongkol’s cooking.
“In 2003, I was lucky enough to go to the newly-opened Paul Dubrule school in Siem Reap. That was the beginning of my career as a chef,” he recalled.
After graduation, he started working in upscale three and four-star hotels in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. Then in 2008 he got to work as a private chef on a luxury cruise ship in Greece.
“It was a difficult job as I was alone in the kitchen and I had to be on board to cook for small tourist groups who were there on one to two week trips,” he recalled.
After just 10 months of working on the ship he returned home and worked as a chef at a luxury hotel in Phnom Penh, where he mostly cooked Khmer, Thai and Vietnamese cuisine.
In 2012, he took a job at the Amannyara luxury resort in the Turks and Caicos islands before eventually returning to Cambodia to set up his own restaurant.
Founded in 2018, Changkran Khmer restaurant is situated in a traditional Khmer wooden house at a quiet location in town that gives it a fresh but private atmosphere.
The traditional wooden house – with its high ceilings, spacious rooms and large dining area – is also the location where Mongkol plans to hold his cooking classes for groups of guests, whether large or small.
“To teach them how to cook, we’ll use the actual menu and allow them to choose whatever they’d like, the same as if they were ordering it rather than learning about making it,” he said.
The three-hour cooking class also features a shopping trip to a nearby market for ingredients, background information and commentary on Khmer history, explanations about the sources of the ingredients and folk beliefs about them.
“We teach about each item, like where they come from and where they are grown because we are still a nation of farmers and our people like to know that. We talk about vegetables, different ways the vegetables can be eaten, how to pick the best ones and what the benefits are,” Mongkol explains.
Back at the restaurant, guests will have their own workstation tables and cooking utensils and there will be some assistant chefs on hand to provide help to whatever extent may be required, which will make it easier for inexperienced cooks and beginners to take the class. They can expect to learn to cook snacks, main course dishes and desserts.
“In the cooking class, there are three things to learn: A salad or an appetiser and then we do the main course and then another dessert,” he said.
The end of the class is always enjoyable as the students get to eat what they’ve made, especially for some guests who have
never spent much time in the kitchen or picked up a vegetable knife and now can take special pride in knowing that they have it in them to be good cooks.
“They cook and then eat it right there and enjoy their own food. I think that many guests, when they receive a bib apron and their chef hat and they succeed at cooking with instructions from us, they feel refreshed and happy,” Mongkul said.
Foreign guests have written lots of positive reviews on Tripadvisor for Changkran Khmer Restaurant and in turn guided many other tourists there to learn how to cook.
“Honestly, at my place, the interior is small and the entrance is narrow. Thus, it is difficult for local visitors who travel with their cars. For travel agencies that use a tour bus it is also difficult for them to park and walk a long distance as the road is narrow,” said Mongkul.
Word of mouth and social media have made him a hit and many of the guests staying at star-studded hotels in the area come and eat at his restaurant.
“We are close to the big hotels where many guests come to stay there and they are all good customers and when they come to relax, they see our shop and are very interested to try it,” he said.
In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, culinary classes at Khmer Restaurant have also welcomed local visitors as organisations or companies began booking with him to learn about teamwork through culinary activities.
“They come to do team building. We have a lot of groups who want to cook with us, usually like 20 people at a time, so we split them up to learn to work together as a team,” said the chef.
However, during the Covid-19 pandemic, he did have to close down the restaurant for more than a month, which wasn’t easy financially.
“Then, after reopening to welcome customers in August for cooking classes only, we received 10 groups of guests. A group of two people, then four people, six people, sometimes eight people. Now, by comparison, before Covid-19 we actually had fewer customers than we do now,” said Mongkul.
In Siem Reap there are many restaurants offering similar cooking lessons to foreign tourists, but the difference is the selection of recipes, the language and teaching ability of the chefs and the amount of knowledge they have for explaining the stories behind the dishes they cook.
“In other places, some of them use inexperienced trainers and the language used in their explanations is sometimes not very fluent, but we do a lot of research,” Mongkul said.
At Changkran Khmer Restaurant one of the dishes that foreign guests are most interested in is the Angkrang Fried Beef or Ant Fried Beef, which the chef enjoys teaching about and explaining the source of the unusual key ingredient.
“It’s popular. Some of the guests, they never knew about food like this before. Some guests are afraid of eating it and some guests are eager to try it. At my place, there are trees and ant nests nearby so we explain to them the reality of it and they understand,” he said.
Outside of Cambodia, Khmer cuisine isn’t well known to many people and the number of Cambodian restaurants abroad is relatively few as compared to other cuisines from the region such as Thai or Vietnamese food.
Khmer cuisine has an ancient history that stretches back thousands of years and has influenced its neighbours, just as it has been influenced by interactions over time with countries like China and India. Khmer cuisine today also received some recent influence from France, which had colonised Cambodia for a period of 90 years.
Chef Mongkul, who loves Khmer food, said that one key to many Khmer dishes is the use of peppers and garlic and they tend to be simple dishes with something special about them. He noted that Khmer cuisines’ traditional dishes have long histories and sometimes it can be difficult to recreate ancient recipes.
“Although we have a lot of international food experience, we like to eat Khmer food ourselves and when we opened the restaurant we did some research on what Khmer food is popular and what we can recommend to foreign guests.
“We want to promote our Khmer food to foreigners. We have some authentic dishes, original dishes. We do not give up our Khmer flavours, we just decorate them to be beautiful,” Mongkul said.
In addition to serving Khmer food, the chef always comes out of the kitchen to meet guests and provide a warm and hospitable experience in addition to the great food.
“Most of the time, I come out to meet them and say hello. We want to give them a sense of comfort and enjoyment with us, because usually both Cambodian and European guests like someone to come out and chit-chat,” he said.
Most tourism businesses were affected by Covid-19 in Siem Reap, but about 46 per cent that closed have now reopened in-line with the partial return of foreign tourists, Ministry of Tourism spokesman Top Sopheak said.
At Changkran Khmer Restaurant, most of the cooking students are from places like Canada, US, UK, France and Australia or regional countries like Singapore and Malaysia and neighbouring countries such as Thailand.
Mongkul said he expects that the global situation of Covid-19 will continue to improve and he’s come out of the pandemic feeling more confident than ever about the future of his business and the future for tourism in Siem Reap.