Chef challenges stereotypes in new Khmer cookbook

Chef challenges stereotypes in new Khmer cookbook

Siem Reap chef Joannes Riviere says he is very comfortable talking about Cambodian food at the recent launch of his new cookbook, Cambodian Cooking

Photo by: Images Supplied

Chef Joannes Riviere at the launch of his recently published English-language book Cambodian Cooking at Hotel de la Paix in Siem Reap last Friday.

DURING the launch of his

English-language book Cambodian Cooking at Hotel de la Paix on Friday,

Siem Reap chef Joannes Riviere said that while he does not consider

himself a Western expert on Cambodian cuisine, he is "very comfortable

talking about Cambodian food".

A modest comment from the 29-year-old Riviere, who in most people's

books would be regarded as an expert in his field. The English-language

volume he launched on Friday night, released by The Periplus Publishing

Group, is a variant of his classic French-language opus, La cuisine du

Cambodge avec les aprentis de Sala Bai, which was  published in 2004

and has sold more than 8,000 copies in France.

Further cred he has racked up includes consulting for  television

celebrity chef Rick Stein for a Cambodian episode on Southeast Asian

cooking for the BBC, working as the executive chef for the prestigious

Hotel de la Paix's Meric Restaurant and guiding hundreds of

underprivileged kids through the Sala Bai Hotel School.

But while he now champions Khmer cuisine, he admits at first he gave it the thumbs down.

Growing

up in the French countryside near Lyon, Riviere learned to cook in the

family restaurant and heard tales of Cambodia from his uncle, aunt and

father who had all lived in Phnom Penh during the 1970s.

I consider cooking to be an excellent

way to approach a culture.

In August 2003 he came to Siem Reap as a volunteer cooking teacher and

restaurant manager for the Sala Bai Hotel School, and a year later had

his recipes collated and published in La cuisine du Cambodge avec les

aprentis de Sala Bai, to raise funds for the school.

He said with that book, "We had to pick recipes that were easy to adapt

according to the ingredients available in France. It's not an authentic

record of Cambodian cookery, but it is a good approach to the taste of

Cambodian food."

Real local flavours

When he first

arrived he was less than impressed by Cambodian cuisine. "I found it

lacked diversity and it was not what I expected from Asian food at

all," he said.

But then he discovered through time and learning the language that

in the early days of his arrival he hadn't really tasted the true

flavours of local food.

"It wasn't until I started writing the book that I became interested in the food here," he said

"I

consider cooking to be an excellent way to approach a culture.

Basically everything revolves around food wherever you are, you start

to learn about a recipe, then you learn about the ingredients, then the

agricultural systems, fisheries and so on."

Training young Cambodians

In

2005 Rivière became executive sous chef at the Hotel de la Paix's Meric

Restaurant, but his ties to Sala Bai remain strong and he continues to

be involved in the training school.

The school takes 100 young adults from the poorest families throughout

Cambodia and provides one-year free training in restaurant service,

cooking, front office, housekeeping and English language. At the school

there is a fully functioning restaurant and a four-room hotel, offering

students skills readying them to seek employment in Siem Reap's

hospitality sector.

"Every student comes from nowhere, from very poor backgrounds, so everyone is a success story," Riviere said.

He

added that when working in the school's kitchen he was not only

preparing students to cook for tourists, but also inspiring them to

rediscover their heritage.

"I wasn't teaching Cambodian students how to cook Cambodian food, I was

showing them how to refine it without altering the taste and flavours.

It's their food, the food of their country."

Challenging stereotypes

Riviere

has some definitive opinions on the stereotypes that surround Cambodian

food, such as the theory that due to the civil war there is now a

missing element to Cambodian cuisine.

"If there was one part of Cambodian food that did disappear, it was

the food that people cooked in Phnom Penh in the 1960s. It was

influenced by France and China," he said, adding, that food from the

countryside remains the same.

But he adds that although the national cuisine didn't disappear during the Khmer Rouge era, it is somewhat endangered now.

"The

cuisine is becoming an issue because of land speculation, development

and tourism. People don't want to be growing rice. More and more people

are moving to the city and now ... young people don't want to forage

for leaves, or catch fish and frogs. I am afraid the national cuisine

could soon disappear."

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