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From moto guard to top gastronomer

Kangaroo meat is one of the specialities of The Lost Room.
Kangaroo meat is one of the specialities of The Lost Room. Bennett Murray

From moto guard to top gastronomer

Just three years ago, Muong Vuthy worked as a motorbike attendant outside high-end restaurant The Lost Room. Now, after a remarkable rise, he runs the kitchen

Muong Vuthy never saw himself working in a kitchen. The 29-year-old still can’t cook rice, though he regularly sears kangaroo fillets and roasts Moroccan spiced duck at The Lost Room, where he works as head chef.

“My family never expected this for me – they are very proud,” said Vuthy, in an interview in the kitchen of the Tonle Bassac restaurant.

The soft-spoken chef, who is from Phnom Penh, has no formal training – it was only three years ago that Vuthy was outside the restaurant guarding motorbikes.

A high school dropout, he said he never had any career aspirations before being noticed by restaurant owner Wendy Lucas, who at the time owned the now closed eatery Talking to a Stranger.

“When I was young, I didn’t study and quit school. I didn’t have big dreams – I just wanted to be a driver,” said Vuthy.

Lost Room chef Muong Vuthy has a taste for kangaroo, but mostly eats Khmer food at home.
Lost Room chef Muong Vuthy has a taste for kangaroo, but mostly eats Khmer food at home. Eli Meixler

He was 26 years old when Lucas, who knew Vuthy through his British brother-in-law, decided to give him the chance to work as an extra hand in her kitchen.

Although Vuthy had never shown any interest in cooking, he showed the right attitude, said Lucas.

“The thing about Thy is that he is very consistent – he doesn’t get ruffled,” she said.

Vuthy didn’t disappoint, Lucas said, and before long she was able to let him work unsupervised.

Then Talking to a Stranger closed its doors, leaving Vuthy unemployed for a year before Lucas called him to her new restaurant, The Lost Room. After helping with the renovations, Vuthy was put back into the kitchen and worked his way up to become the restaurant’s head chef.

Vuthy’s best quality, said Lucas, is his calm manner in the face of kitchen chaos.

“Kitchens are not very nice places sometimes – people get abusive and loud, and chefs freak out when things go wrong. But he’s very easy-going – he doesn’t yell at anyone in the kitchen; he doesn’t get angry or upset.”

Vuthy himself still doesn’t cook much outside of work, and although he has taken to kangaroo and lamb, he mostly eats curry, rice and other local staples.

He doesn’t cook for his wife as he hasn’t learned the basic Khmer recipes they both love. But Vuthy said he hopes to one day experiment with the fusion dishes he has become accustomed to at The Lost Room.

“I feel happy during cooking, and it’s such an encouragement to hear from the customers that it is delicious,” he said.

“I want to try some things different, but I’m afraid of my abilities – what if my customers don’t like it?”

For now, he can relax – and bask in the respect he’s earned among his family and friends.

“It has changed me a lot, both my income and my reputation.”

BEST OF THE MENU

Seared kangaroo fillet, $11.55: The star of the menu, served with spring onion cakes, bok choy and Schezwen sauce.

Crispy pork belly, $8:50: A delicious take on the classic, braised in dark ale and caramel, served with broccoli.

Pan-fried seabass, $8.50: Tender fish served with goat cheese tartar and asparagus.

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