Led by a police car and a chai yam band playing traditional music, 27 chefs made up part of a long procession of vehicles driving through Siem Reap town, with national flags waving and participants proudly showing off their medals as they made a triumphant return home.
They were Cambodia’s participants at the Thailand Ultimate Chef Challenge 2019 – last year known as the Mekong Food Challenge – held from May 28 to June 1 in Bangkok.
The chefs returned home with three gold medals in the Best Asian Gourmet Challenge category, along with a further six silver medals and 17 bronze in different categories.
“We were very warmly welcomed by Siem Reap authorities, especially Tea Seiha, the governor of Siem Reap, who allowed us to meet him and hold a huge parade to celebrate the winners. He also encouraged all members of the Cambodia Chef Association (CCA) to strengthen their professions for better local cuisines,” CCA president Long Bunhor said.
Bunhor, who also owns the Angkea Dei Restaurant, told The Post: “Actually, our team went to Thailand to gain individual certifications, honour, knowledge and to see various food from different countries. But most importantly, they want to show Khmer food on the international stage and have people know our food’s richness.
“These awards are so important for the Cambodian food industry as well as our professional chefs. Our food industry is becoming well-known internationally.”
With 265 members, the CCA’s mission is to gather all professional chefs in the Kingdom to promote Khmer food on both the national and international stages, and it also supports junior chefs through education and training sessions.
“To help with the expense, the association assisted with travel, accommodation, registering and chef uniforms through sponsors. The rest, the teams had to cover through their own expense. I helped with a small amount of money after receiving sponsorship because I love being a chef,” the CCA president said.
Chhorn Bunchhou – a chef from the Golden Temple Group, that served as captain on a sub-team that won a gold medal – showed his passion to promote Khmer food.
“With love and desire to promote our Khmer food, I, with my team members, was highly determined that whether we win or lose, we make our food well-known and get it tasted in international competitions,” said the chef with eleven years experience.
Bunchhou, who has taken part four times in the competition, added: “Being a member of CCA, I am really proud to win the Best Asian Gourmet Challenge 2019. My purpose in joining the event is to show that Cambodians have full capacity to preserve and develop our food industry at the international level within Asia and across the globe.”
Judges at the event came from Thailand, Taiwan, Malaysia and Indonesia, among other nations, and they scored the food presented by 1400 chefs from 14 countries based on appearance, flavour, hygiene and speed of preparation.
Bunhor said: “Chefs who joined the event are working at hotels, restaurants and some own their own businesses. The committee scored the candidates on their unity, and during the competition, they looked to see if candidates’ kitchens are clean and things are placed in order. They also tasted the food’s flavour and scored it.”
Bunchhou said that during the competition all three members of his team had to work well with each other and pay close attention in preparation.
“Though sometimes we had some disagreements, we tried to compromise with each other because we have the same goal and the same dream,” he said.
Transport to the competition in Bangkok proved challenging for the Cambodian chefs, with border checks almost stopping them from entering.
“Our teams had to transport a lot of materials by our own means, from different sizes of pans and other useful culinary tools that weighed around 100kg. At the event, they provided a few large bits of equipment, such as a meat chiller, microwave and the cooker,” Bunhor said.
“Of course, we spent a lot of money on travel, accommodation and food. And sometimes there were problems from Thai authorities at the border checkpoint.”
There were nine dishes and one dessert prepared by the Cambodian chefs that brought home medals. Dishes that earned winning scores included river prawn with pomelo salad, roast beef with fish paste sauce (teuk prahok), smoked fish praheur soup, fish amok, chicken curry, stir-fried frog with fresh green peppercorns and deep-fried clams with young mango.
The chefs found difficulty finding all the condiments and ingredients needed for their dishes in the Thai markets.
“When they arrived, they had to go to many markets to find everything they wanted for those 10 food dishes. In fact, for the stir-fried frog with fresh green peppercorns, our chefs packed fresh green peppercorns from home and went to the market to buy frogs in Thailand,” said Bunhor.
Bunhor said that besides Thailand, Cambodia’s chefs have also joined competitions in China, Vietnam, India and Singapore.