Raffles executive chef, Australian Joel Wilkinson, directs one of the sous-chefs working on a plate of his. “Straighten the carrot,” he instructs, before the fourth and penultimate course of the evening – beef cheek with an assortment of steamed vegetables and a baked ball of truffled potatoes – leaves the kitchen.
Meanwhile, Frenchman Olivier Guillon, the executive chef at the Plantation’s La Pergola restaurant, is assembling his dessert: a contemporary presentation of chocolate, rooibos tea ice cream and truffles of layered caramel, chocolate mousse, raspberry jelly and other flavourings. The dish resembles a piece of modern abstract art more than it does a dessert.
Meanwhile, Patrice Guibert, Amy Baard and Frank Sampéré – the executive chefs of Sofitel’s La Cupole, Chinese House and Open Wine, respectively – are pre-emptively toasting their wine glasses to the success of the evening. Half a dozen sous-chefs scramble around them to double-check each plate as it leaves the kitchen.
This was the scene on Wednesday night for the first of a series of dinners involving some of Phnom Penh’s top five foreign culinary talents. On a rotating basis, they will host each other in their respective kitchens throughout the year. This week’s meal cost participants $95.
The idea for the series came from Wilkinson and the Raffles food and beverage manager Thomas Bianco.
“The idea was to bring the Cambodian or the Phnom Penh culinary scene together, and that’s why we introduced this five chefs series, to showcase some of the local talent,” Wilkinson says.
It’s also an opportunity, he adds, for the Cambodian sous-chefs who work alongside the quintet to learn through an exchange of ideas and best practices. As Wednesday’s host, it was Wilkinson who assigned the courses.
“Joel just sort of told us what he wants dish-wise and we created our own recipes,” says Baard, a South African, who decided to serve her country’s national animal: the springbok.
“We paired the wines that have gone with it as well,” Wilkinson adds.
According to the chefs, this collaboration is the first of its kind in Phnom Penh. For Wilkinson, it’s the first time he’s allowed other chefs (and the media) into his kitchen. Nonetheless, aside from the inherent risks of having too many cooks in the kitchen, it’s already a challenge for the chefs to be working outside their own domains. “Weird, so weird,” Baard describes it. “[It’s] even frustrating, a bit, you know? You have your habits in your own kitchen.”
Guillon – originally a pastry chef and at 24-years-old the youngest in the room – was trying to soak up the experience. “It’s super amazing for me to see other chefs working … [Because] I don’t have any mentors in my kitchen,” he says.
The chefs have designed the evening around an efficient methodology. Cooking a set menu for a full house means that the dishes mostly revolve around the concept of assembly, with just a few central elements being prepared during dinner service. For many, it was a full 12-hour-day’s work beforehand.
“We pre-made all of our sauces, all of our purees, and now here we go!” says Baard.
Sampéré opened the night with his cold starter: a marinated crab concoction wrapped in homemade smoked salmon atop crispy bread. “I designed this for tonight,” he says.
Guibert, with over four decades of experience under his belt, brought a contrast to the younger chefs in the room with his vegetarian dish, a delicate assembly of thinly sliced vegetables, olives and ricotta cheese.
“There are many differences between us; first of all we are not from the same region of the world, we are not the same age, and we don’t work for the same kind of places… so we don’t do the same job,” he says.
The next dinner is not confirmed but is expected to be held in late March at Hotel Sofitel.