A team of young Phnom Penh chefs, with barely more than 35 years of experience between them, will be looking to take on the world tomorrow when they compete in the global finals of the MLA Black Box Culinary Challenge in Australia.
The MLA Black Box Culinary Challenge is a team chef competition showcasing the culinary talent of young chefs from around the Asia Pacific region.
Since its inception in 1996, the contest has seen more than 3,500 current and potential five-star chefs taking part in over 86 affiliated events.
This year, 15 teams from various five-star hotels, restaurants, culinary schools and catering companies across the globe will participate.
These include The Westin Chosun Hotel from Korea, The Henry Jones Art Hotel from Australia and the Intercontinental Cairo City Stars from Eygpt.
This will be the first time Cambodian chefs compete in the final cook-off.
“It is an honour to be able to represent the country against world-class chefs from around the world,” Sopheak Pov, executive chef of Topaz Restaurant, said. “It is a very heavy responsibility. But I believe we can pull it off.”
The quartet, comprising Sopheak Pov, Sun Chanrotana, Sek Sivanthonn and Hem Phyra, made history last year when they captured the gold medal at the national stage of the Black Box challenge held in Phnom Penh.
The victory granted the team from Topaz Restaurant a ticket to compete at the biennial competition, which will be held tomorrow in Hobart, Tasmania.
“When we applied to join the challenge, I thought it would be a good experience for our team,” recalled Arnaud Darc, managing director of Topaz Restaurant. “It was a pleasant surprise to have won against teams that had the experience of earlier contests.”
In a black box competition, each team is provided with a black box filled with mystery ingredients including prime Australian meat, goat meat and sheep meat as well as seafood, spices, dairy products, fruits and vegetables.
The teams are then given one hour to devise a four-course menu using all of the ingredients before preparing the meal for a panel of international chefs and guests.
The top three teams will receive gold, silver and bronze medals and cash rewards.
“In a black box challenge, there is no way of knowing what dishes to prepare beforehand,” Sopheak Pov said. “But I am confident of getting the silver medal because with my experience, I can get the flavours and taste out of the food.”
Two years ago, the former Comme à la Maison and River House Restaurant chef was sent to France for four months to work with Michelin-starred chef Alain Dutournier.
“The important thing is that we have to work as a team,” Sopheak, who has 10 years of experience at the restaurant, added. “It is like football, you can’t win if you play it alone.”
To prepare for the competition, the quartet has gone through two dry runs simulating the black box format, followed by a four-day study trip to Singapore to review the creations of some of the top restaurants.
This has resulted in several new Topaz Restaurant dishes created to popular acclaim such as tuna tatare mixed with wasabi and jasmine rice and lobster ravioli in Kampot green peppercorn.
“I am grateful that our young chefs have been given the opportunity to gain experience on the world stage,” Darc said. “In the future, I hope to create more of such opportunities to widen their horizons to new achievements and to bring in some fresh ideas and techniques.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Calvin Yang at [email protected]