Last Saturday evening at The Ivy II, Som Sovannary, Vann to her friends, celebrated the launch of a brand new cookbook bringing together some of her favourite recipes collected over the last 16 years, during which she has worked for and come to be the owner of the long-running guesthouse and restaurant.
The book, Vann’s Shared Secrets, was collated and illustrated by Lisa-Marie Gibbs, a British artist who first came to Siem Reap 10 years ago to work at the Angkor Hospital for Children. Over the course of numerous returns, she came to know Vann and her husband Karl Balch, and was taken into their family. One night, over a few beers, she made a promise to Karl.
“Karl was talking to Lisa one night – she always stayed here while she volunteered at the AHC. This night, she decided to make a cookbook with my recipes and stories in it and promised Karl that she’d do it,” said 36-year-old Vann.
Sadly though, Karl won’t see the final result. He died suddenly in September 2011, leaving a devastated community and Vann to run the Ivy II and raise their children virtually on her own.
“The sad part of the story is I used to sit with Karl having a beer at The Ivy and I had said on a couple of stays to both Karl and Vann that I would make a cookbook for Vann,” said Gibbs. “On leaving him the last time, I saw him I said I promised I would make the book, so this is my kept promise.”
While those in the know have long beaten a path to the Ivy II in order to enjoy Vann’s cooking, especially her vegetarian dishes of which there is a huge selection, Vann herself stills seems slightly abashed at the attention.
“I’m not a professional you know. I just started to learn because when Al Schaaf [who is now executive chef at The Exchange in Phnom Penh] was passing through in 2000 he agreed to teach our kitchen staff how to cook better in exchange for room and board, but none of them spoke English.” Vann, who normally worked in the bar but was roped in to translate, discovered she had a passion for it.
Vann’s curiosity and inventiveness have been at the heart of The Ivy II’s success, especially the $1 tapas nights they host each Friday evening. “I taught myself a lot as well because I didn’t go to school for this. I get a lot of ideas from Jamie Oliver – I love his recipes,” she said.
The cookbook, which is beautifully illustrated by Lisa-Marie’s paintings, incorporates some of Vann’s favourite dishes, including pomelo and prawn salad, her own family’s Khmer curry with chicken and potatoes, and her famed chocolate mousse. Classic Cambodian dishes are in there too, such as mee chaa (fried noodles), chaa k’dow (spicy fry), and Khmer curried chicken wings.
There are also a couple of unusual turns, such as asparagus wrapped in beef, tangerine and carrot salad, and a Number 90, the Ivy’s famous breakfast of potato, egg, cheese, ham and green pepper.
Vann’s Shared Secrets is $19 and available for sale at The Ivy II. Fifty per cent of the proceeds from the sale of the book go to supporting The Lake Clinic, a mobile medical service for villagers living on the Tonle Sap lake.