Siem Reap chef Joannes Riviere says he is very comfortable talking about Cambodian food at the recent launch of his new cookbook, Cambodian Cooking
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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.
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
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
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
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
"Every student comes from nowhere, from very poor backgrounds, so everyone is a success story," Riviere said.
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."
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.
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."