It does not take much to make a schnitzel. The recipe, of Viennese origins, is simple: take a slab of meat, flatten it, batter it, then cover it in breading and drop it into hot oil – guten appetit! Serve with a slice of lemon.
Still, Germans and Austrians regard schnitzel with no small amount of national pride, similar to America’s hamburger or Italy’s pasta. So Kim Jae-hyeong, 35, the South Korean owner of Phnom Penh’s newest schnitzel restaurant, Big Board Kitchen, has some right to worry: What will the purists say?
The smiley owner, who goes by Jae, adds what he calls an “Asian” twist to the central European delicacy. It’s Vienna meets Seoul (No, there is no kimchi here.): the gravy is ketchup-based, the batter is heavily infused with pepper and instead of lemon, he uses lime. It is how schnitzel, which is called donkasu in Korean, is often prepared back home, said Jae.
Jae does not know how schnitzel made its way to the Korean peninsula (maybe by way of Japan, he says, where it is known as tonkatsu and was introduced from the West in the late 19th century), but he knows when he first encountered it.
It started with his father, “a mountain man and farmer”, who lived atop a peak outside of Jeonju, an historic city in southern Korea. His father made everything himself, including his mountain home.
There, Jae remembers as a child helping prepare loads of cutlets: flattening them, breading them and stockpiling the donkasus into a freezer – an alpine schnitzel supply that would take weeks to exhaust. It was Jae’s introduction to what would become his current livelihood.
Jae’s new schnitzel restaurant sits at sea level, in the heart of Russian Market. Big Board Kitchen is open to the street, a house converted into a restaurant, with high ceilings and light yellow walls adorned with homey trinkets. With several tables and a modern soundtrack, it is a pleasant place to dine in a popular part of the city.
Jae’s journey to Phnom Penh was circuitous. In South Korea, he worked in the restaurant business for several years, first with a chain restaurant that specialized in rice porridge and then with his own cafe, called Big Mug, which he ran in Seoul’s trendy Itaewon neighborhood for two years.
But the coffee business bored him and he sold the cafe. In late 2014, he travelled to Europe with a friend. There, in Germany, at a traditional restaurant in Düsseldorf, Jae was reminded of his childhood taste for schnitzel.
“As soon as it came out of the kitchen, I thought: ‘This looks exactly like what we eat back home,’” Jae remembered. It would become the seed for Jae’s schnitzel enterprise.
But first there would be another job – a rescue mission. After his European tour, Jae relocated to Hanoi to resuscitate his brother’s fledgling Korean-Chinese restaurant located inside a department store. After several months, Jae managed to bring it up to speed.
But it was not making enough money to sustain his salary, he said, so the restaurant let him go. Jae would have stayed in Hanoi, but strict visa laws made it almost impossible for him to open up his own restaurant there. He looked elsewhere.
Phnom Penh, where he had visited six years earlier and had friends, struck him as a promising place. Jae had his two cats shipped over from Seoul and set up shop in the Cambodian capital.
Once here, he brainstormed eatery ideas – a noodle bar, wraps – but stuck on schnitzel. Phnom Penh already boasted schnitzel options – at German cultural centre Meta House, for example – but none, the Korean foodie reasoned, that did schnitzel like he does schnitzel.
There are six schnitzel options on the menu of Big Board Kitchen, if you count the vegetarian eggplant option (all from $6.50 to $8). The others are made with pork or chicken sourced from the local market.
The cutlets check off the right boxes of what Meta House manager Nico Mesterharm described as the ideal schnitzel: “large, thin and crispy”.
You will not go away hungry after eating Jae’s schnitzels, which are served with homemade coleslaw, tangy brown sauce and a hefty serving of crispy french fries on a big, beautiful cutting board (handmade by Jae from palm wood). And there are other options too: cheese spring rolls with blueberry sauce ($3.75), croquettes with soy sauce dip ($6.50), deep-fried veggies ($6).
There are also noodle schnitzel combos for $4.75, and a few fried rice options ($2.50-$4.50), along with coffee, tea and beer. He also plans to introduce cocktails.
But for now, it is all about the schnitzel at Big Board Kitchen, and happily so – just make sure to bring an appetite.
Big Board Kitchen is located at #33 Street 123. It is open from 11am to 3pm for lunch and 5pm to 10pm for dinner. They can be reached at 017 841 258.