Phnom Penh’s Luu Meng – the chef and partner at renowned Topaz and Malis restaurants, CEO of Almond Group and vice-president of the Cambodia Tourism Federation – says food is in his DNA. He sat down this week with Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon to talk about the places in the capital that have marked his life and career.
The Cambodiana Hotel
I grew up in a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand, like many Cambodians who left during the time between 1975 and 1979. My family came back in the late 1980s and I enrolled in a local Chinese school, not a brand-name [international] school. I then began working at the Sofitel Cambodiana – now The Cambodiana – and this is how I met Arnaud Darc [his partner in Topaz and Malis]. I was asked to join him in his family business. I was a trainee cook at The Cambodiana and he was a cost controller. We decided to open a small business – we’re talking about 20 years ago… We did not imagine that growing every year would continue like this to what it is now.
The Royal Palace
My grandmother was a cook in the Royal Palace kitchens. I know a number of chefs who have worked there and who work there [now]. It is very important to value what they are doing and continue to pass on the knowledge of the cooking [to the next generation]. When you say cooking is an art, and put all this effort into how the food looks, I call this eating by smartphone. But if people really love food, then you’re talking about people who already know what a good recipe is.
La Ferme de Bassac Butchery
[Phnom Penh] really needs a centralised slaughterhouse. For the meat at our restaurants, 90 per cent is Cambodian. Imported meat is just a different quality; it is already slaughtered, so [the need for an industrial slaughterhouse] is a separate question. This is about good common sense, for Cambodian people to get meat from a clean and proper slaughterhouse. We get our meat from selected local butchers, but also from a French butcher [at La Ferme de Bassac]. His name is Thierry, and I like to support him and work with him. [It is] a small butcher and he has a good selection of quality. The [wholesale] Cambodian butchers I go to are one in O’Russey Market and one in Phsar Damko – so just two, and that is for specific cuts.
Fresh Produce Markets
I work with a lot of people with agricultural passion; the best idea is to cook with those products. In every province they have something in the markets that is like that, and sometimes I go out of the country to find things. In Phnom Penh, Central Market is one of the best in terms of access and hygiene, cleanliness and air circulation. It is probably the best market for daily use in the country. But then you have wholesale markets for professionals like O’Russey and Phsar Damko. In the private sector and government, we need to do a lot of work to improve the conditions [in those markets].
Bun Xiao Shop
My mother’s shop – which [before the Khmer Rouge] was located on Sothearos Boulevard opposite what is now the Smart shop – specialized in bun xiao, the Cambodian-Vietnamese thin-pancake dish. Her name is Diep Cheang, but back then she was known as the bun xiao king, and the people called her shop the empire of the bun xiao. If you ask people who are over the age of 65 or 70, they will know it. She was really famous and cooked with seven different woks. Her method is how my staff are taught. I asked my mom to teach her bun xiao method. Cooking is the same as driving: you need to know how to handle different stoves and ovens like different roads. Now for bun xiao, you can get it on Sokhok Street; if not [there] then at the Food Court on the second floor at World Dining at Aeon Mall [one of Meng’s ventures].