Kek Soon’s Cambodian Kitchen is an exciting story, a foodie story unique from the regular crop of cooking shows. It tells how Kek Soon and her young chefs are building their own futures and doing this by visiting high-end resorts, hotels and hospitality ventures, through to traveling to remote villages, coastal fish markets, and indigenous communities in the highlands.
None of our young team of chefs has ever been to the city before. Each of Soon’s students are daughters of fishermen and have rarely had the opportunity to travel much beyond their small village communities. Needless to say the Thalias offer to host this group is incredibly exciting but still, parents would need to understand more about the project and learn for themselves and the sake of their kids, why such an experience is so important for young ones striving for a future.
Arriving at the splendid Arunreas Hotel was an eye-popping experience for all as we rolled out the mini-van door. It’s a wonderfully appointed storied Hotel and a place that was once upon a time the US Embassy in Phnom Penh. Flash cars surround the entrance and once inside, you are in a sanctuary and a real escape from the bustling city outside. We were immediately welcomed and felt very much at home. Wonderful rooms and super-size bathtubs, a couple of the kids thought these might actually be little swimming pools! Not only was it their first time in the city but first time experiencing a luxury hotel and a place where they were made to feel very welcome as guests, not just a group of aspiring young students.
First and perhaps the most important stop was Malis Restaurant. This is a legendary part of the Cambodian cuisine story and of course, it’s the restaurant right at the heart of the Thalias story.
Malis was the first step in an incredible, 26-year partnership between founders Arnaud Darc and chef Luu Meng. It’s a journey that really mirrors Cambodia’s own remarkable development story and is very much at the centre of the Kingdom’s return to a sophistication and a quality of hospitality that had all but vanished during the decades long civil war in Cambodia.
Today, Thalias Hospitality Group’s famed restaurants, delis and bakeries and luxurious Arunreas hotel are jewels in the crown of the hospitality industry in Cambodia.
Malis is at the centre of the contemporary Cambodian cuisine story and a must-do dinning experience for any gourmand visiting Cambodia, so it’s no surprise it’s seen long list of famous and distinguished guests. But today we were all made to feel like VIP’s and our young chefs loved this experience, especially Luu Hong’s launch example, taking typical rice noodle dish found everywhere across Cambodia and explaining how Malis has pioneered contemporary Cambodian cuisine through carefully considered and highly creative rewordings of traditional flavours and ingredients. Through sitting down to a delicious lunch of steaming hot noodle soup and an in person explanation from Sous Chef Luu Hong, our young team understood they were on a trip like no other, a really exceptional chance to learn.
Day two provided an action packed tour of Khéma Pasteur exceptionally organized all-in-one bakery, café, deli and gourmet restaurant. This was especially exciting for our young team as many have already spent the last year learning to bake at FICAC’s little countryside kitchen. Now to see a fully professional French bakery in action was a real eye-opener. Trays of delicious French pastry classics flying out of ovens while baking staff, worked dough into delicious fresh bread and a front of house worked a well-stocked delicatessen, and showed how Khéma’s free flow breakfast makes it one of the cities most popular dinning experiences.
Next stop was Topaz and a chance to see a high-class Phnom Penh restaurant the genuine French fine dining experience its renowned for in action. The feel of Topaz and it’s vast open space in the middle of a bustling city is the first experiential effect that meets you on arrival but then it’s also the professionalism of staff and management. On this occasional we were met with founder Arnaud Darc alongside Topaz general manager Lina Hak and Sous Chef Sopheak Pov who each took time to introduce the story behind Topaz and show how a dedication to staff training and the working environment makes this a place where Michelin-starred chefs have come to visit and share their own experience with local staff. We also came to see and understand more and more how local NGO PSE – Pour un Sourire d’Enfant underscores everything in the Cambodian hospitality industry. Not only at the Thalias group but also at other leading resorts, we found that most of the staff had started out at PSE and had moved into real careers. We also learned that part of this story includes a rather remarkable individual know simply at Papa Chef – a larger than life character whom we’d had a wonderful encounter with early that morning.
Alain Darc, affectionately known as Papa Chef loams large in the story of Cambodian hospitality. Alain, father of Arnaud Darc, has spent a lifetime in kitchens and comes from a long line of cooks and cuisine heritage going way back to French Royalty. In Cambodia Papa Chef is best known for his years of voluntary teaching at PSE as well as commercial kitchens where he is both revered and loved for this contribution to training many young Cambodian who have literally come from nothing to achieve real success and to build their own careers. Overall this has been an essential part of the success of today’s hospitality industry success in Cambodia.
I think our young group of cooks may have caught Papa Chef by surprise but together they made for a great picture as Alain Darc recounted his own experience from an early age “it’s good you kids are starting early… you must start learning young… I was already cooking the French Fries at just 8 years old!” French Fries was certainly popular with our kids from Fish Island during their stay at Arunreas but later, as each hand wrote a short story in Khmer about their experience and who they’d met, it was clear the passion of Papa Chef had already made a real impression.
Perhaps the most memorable food tasting moment for the FICAC group was getting to tour cheese making at Topaz and to meet the Chef and try a delicious cheese board for themselves. Well, delicious to some perhaps but not immediately to our young group. Aside from low quality pizza this group had rarely had a tasting experience like this – a very nice section of quality cheeses and a very friendly chef guiding us through the process of cheese making, including holding in his arms a huge round block of Grana Padano and describing how the daily nurturing and months of waiting was akin to this cheese being like his baby! The expressions on our junior chefs’ faces were priceless as each nimbly sample the cheesy delicious they relate to in Cambodia at “Prahok Barang” – fermented fish – after all, the experience of any one new to either of these taste sensations is usually illustrated by colourful reactions and facial expressions. Needless to say this was great fun! And a-real-learning-experience.
By the end of our stay courtesy of Thalias, we had seen and done much more than we’d expected. For Kek Soon, bringing her young students to means so much, as she explains:
“It’s like they can see and learn from just 4-days, as much as they would learn in 12-months if they only stayed in the local village… this is so amazing for our students and the experience will stay with them in their memories and dreams for the future”
Our group of 12 young hopefuls from the countryside is just the beginning of a wonderful new part of hospitality training in Cambodia. With the support of all at Thalias, not least the many staff members who treated our young team with care and attention, we can all work towards building a great future. This is a story that we are also documenting in a pilot series Kek Soon’s Cambodian Kitchen to share with the world but most importantly to inspire others through an inspirational culinary journey across Cambodia.
After all, It’s not just about food, it’s about the people, their resilience, love for their craft and their desire to leave a good legacy as they build a future in a rapidly changing world.
Written by Julien Poulson