Khmer Times/Youth Today supplement’s Say Tola recently interviewed Chhoun Udom, 28, winner of the Phnom Penh’s Best Gin & Tonic award at the local Gin Jubilee 2017 competition, beating contestants from 20 other bars. Mr Udom is currently employed as head bartender at the Elephant Bar at Raffles Hotel Le Royal in Phnom Penh. As the winner, Mr Udom now has a chance to compete against bartenders from four other countries in the regional competition in Singapore at the end of November in the Gin & Tonic category.
YT: What is it about your gin & tonic that allowed you to win this award?
Mr Udom: I think it’s because I make gin & tonic using Raffles’ own gin, which contains Khmer ingredients such as jasmine, Kaffir lime, and lemongrass, as well as cinnamon. Then, in the competition, I add ingredients to give the drink a bitter edge.
Also, in my presentation I added chocolate and presented the drink on vintage tiles with wine, a lemon leaf, and chocolate. I gave it a lot of thought; it also had a kind of retro, 1960s Raffles Hotel Le Royal theme.
YT: How did you develop your original flavours and where did you learn about this?
Mr Udom: I have worked here for about five years. So I have trained a lot with both Khmer and foreign professionals. So when they promoted me to head bartender, I decided I should create a new, Khmer-style G&T.
The gin & tonic is originally from Europe, but I wanted to innovate and make something new out of it, something uniquely Khmer. The resulting drink is one of our best-sellers. Another popular drink is a cocktail first brought to Cambodia by former US first lady Jacqueline Kennedy [during her visit to Cambodia in 1967]. She drank [Femme Fetale] here, which has a special taste. I can make this one too nowadays.
As I am a bartender here, I create new flavors and recommend them to Khmer and Asian customers because I think they will find them easier to drink. But for Europeans, I tend to follow their preferences. Staying flexible like this lets us cater to many customers; my team and I are happy to hear any feedback.
YT: What is your expectation of the competition in Singapore?
Mr Udom: I’ll be representing Cambodia. I want to learn how other contestants make their special varieties of gin & tonic to represent their countries [Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, and Thailand]. I will analyse them and share that knowledge with people here. If I get the chance, I will take a tour of bars and restaurants there as I am curious to learn how things are done in a developed country.
YT: How do you like your job?
Mr Udom: I’m very happy. I never think I would be selected represent Cambodia in making gin & tonic in Singapore. I couldn’t have done it alone; it would never have happened without the support of my team at the Elephant Bar. Without them, I wouldn’t have gotten to where I am today.
To thank them, I plan to share my new knowledge with them. I am also grateful to Raffles Hotel Le Royal for creating the Gin Lane Party and allowing me to show my potential.
YT: Have you ever being criticised for doing this work?
Mr Udom: As a Khmer, inevitably some people will criticise my profession, but I know the reality of it. Everyone has to be responsible, myself included. I do not encourage my customers to drink irresponsibly; my team and I clearly understand our duties.