With its modest surroundings and dozen or so red plastic tables, restaurant Bong Rith Bok Lahong Piseh behind Phnom Penh’s Chhouk Meas Market may not stand out at first glance. But this humble eatery has attracted many customers for two reasons; the food’s great taste and its friendly chef who found fame on competitive cooking reality television show MasterChef Khmer.
Wearing a black apron, chef Eang Darith has a seemingly permanently happy demeanour as he stands in the open air kitchen in front of his restaurant – whose name translates to ‘Brother Rith’s Special Papaya Salad’.
Phnom Penh native Darith has been passionate about cooking since he was a boy. The 38-year-old was taught by his mother as she prepared family meals.
His break in the food industry came when he was a teenager and moved to Siem Reap town in search of work, where he was hired in a restaurant and would observe the chef prepare food for patrons.
On quiet days when there were not many diners, Darith would have a chance to enjoy his favourite cooking show on television.
“When I was working as a waiter at a restaurant, I always loved to watch people competing on MasterChef in other countries. I was so excited when I saw how they cook in a very creative way on the television screen,” he recalls.
“At that time I wished that this cooking competition would come to Cambodia. I was already determined that if there was a MasterChef in my country, I would definitely apply to compete.”
Darith would go on to quit his job as a waiter and sell papaya salad on the sidewalk in Siem Reap town, before then returning to Phnom Penh armed with his food cart.
But last year, Darith felt as though his dream had come true as television channel CTN announced they were holding auditions for the first season of MasterChef Khmer.
“I had hoped for this show to come to Cambodia for a very long time. I thought to myself I must join no matter what. I had made up my mind already that this was the best chance to get experience from a world class kitchen,” he says.
Master Chef Khmer
During the first season of MasterChef Khmer – which ran from August last year to February this year – Darith impressed the TV show’s three local judges with his Western and Khmer dishes.
“I couldn’t believe that I passed the audition out of thousands people and continued to the top 12 before I was eliminated,” he says.
Even not winning the competition, Darith walked away from the show with pride holding his apron and a certificate which is now displayed in his small eatery.
The competition helped elevate his cooking expertise, inspiring Darith to turn his dream of opening his own restaurant into a reality.
“When I was selling papaya salad on the street, I didn’t think I could make it taste outstanding. After I joined MasterChef, I learned a lot from other contestants and chefs,” he says. “I know more people in the restaurant industry and the audience also know me through the TV screen.”
‘I didn’t expect this support’
Last month, after the show had ended, Darith decided to upgrade from a food cart to his small eatery Bong Rith Bok Lahong Piseh.
On busy days, Darith has people lining up to taste his papaya salad in the evening.
“As my food cart and a few chairs could not meet customer demand, I decided that I should try looking for a bigger place. I knew papaya salad had become a popular snack in Cambodia, but I didn’t expect that many people would support me like this,” he says.
With prices ranging from 1,000 to 35,000 riel for his dishes, Darith’s eatery serves local favourites papaya salad, corn salad, spicy noodles, mango with seafood salad, mushroom soup, deep fried fertilised egg, grilled shrimp and barbeque squid.
For people with a sweet tooth, Darith has various flavours of ice cream served in a coconut shell.
His menu is not hugely distinct from other places nearby, but it’s the taste and the chef’s personality that draws people’s attention.
Darith hopes to expand his restaurant, but he notes that selling papaya salad is just a means to save money for his real dream.
“My long term goal is to open a restaurant serving Western food. I really love the art of cooking this food. I cannot give up this dream even if it’s such a big investment. Now I’m saving up and I’m planning to enrol in a Western cooking course,” the father of two says.
He says he believes he has passed on his cooking gene to his eldest daughter, with the 11-year-old already displaying a good knowledge of spices and ingredients.
“There is no one in my family that likes cooking. It’s only my daughter that loves working in the kitchen like me and I’m happy about that.”
Darith also does charitable work in his spare time, and this month he and fellow contestants from MasterChef Khmer cooked a meal for children at Coconut School Kirirom, as well as for children waiting to receive treatment at Phnom Penh’s Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospital.
Bong Rith Bok Lahong Piseh is located in Po Senchey district’s Damnak village in Phnom Penh. It is open daily from 12pm to 9pm. Darith can be contacted by telephone (09690338838 or 093810340).