It's clear from the opening salvo that Inès Samaai has decided to take some chances on her new menu when a savoury squid-ink macaron with basil cured trout, chive and lemon crème fraiche, topped with caviar, hits the table. But this is just the amuse bouche.
“I love macaroons in general, so I thought, why not turn it into something savoury to start off with? It confuses people’s palates,” she explains.
Five months ago, Samaai took over the kitchen at Chinese House, one of the capital’s most celebrated fine dining restaurants. Her new menu launched last week. In it, she says, are the elements of her culinary upbringing, and an experimental mix of French, South African and Asian cuisines.
Samaai is a native of Paarl in South African wine country, and she has spent years working in nearby Franschhoek, the “food and wine capital of South Africa” with deeply ingrained French cooking traditions.
Coming to Cambodia was in large part motivated by a desire to learn more about Asian cooking and to incorporate those elements into her recipes. For evidence of that look no further than her favourite dish on the menu, the beef tataki ($9.75), a Japanese-influenced tender beef carpaccio flavoured with ponzu sauce, togarashi spice and wasabi aioli, and garnished with sesame and seaweed crisps, a sprinkling of fried garlic and violets and sticky rice.
A pastry chef by training, the 26-year-old took the job after receiving a phone call with the offer from then-Chinese House chef Amy Baard, a former high school and chef school classmate.
“I knew I was ready for this . . . . When Amy rang me up I was over the moon, overjoyed because I knew I could bring something different to the table,” she says.
She then faced the entirely new project of designing a menu from start to finish,
“If I stayed in South Africa I would just be Inès the pastry chef, when now I get to be executive chef and explore more with food,” she says.
Her years as a pastry chef show in her elegantly plated dishes, baked breads, and the gamut of sweets on offer, from Turkish delight to mille-feuille and sorbet. She’ll also be incorporating pastry techniques in savoury dishes, like the aforementioned macaroon or potentially a baked mushroom crème brûlée custard.
Homesick South Africans can get their fix of vetkoek and biltong – a deep-fried pastry and dried, cured meat, respectively. For those looking for the unfamiliar, there are steamed New Zealand mussels prepared in Pastis rather than white wine ($11.50), with accompanying bruschetta to soak up the creamy sauce.
“This is my first time experimenting with foods, to pair unusual ingredients together on a plate . . . This was a very risky menu for me. It’s a playful menu.”
She picked up this willingness for risk at her last job, in the kitchen of Richard Branson’s Mont Rochelle Hotel. The flamboyant British magnate left a lasting influence on her cooking, she says.
“Out of all the bosses, he was the one that always pushed me . . . on creating the most bizarre desserts and pastries ever,” she says. “He’s a foodie . . . [and] he knows what he’s talking about.”
In part by randomly entering the kitchen to offer criticism, Samaai says he pushed hard on her.
“He was a pain in the a—, but I still love him,” she says. “He always said the most bizarre ideas are the ones that paid off.”