It’s a reasonably quiet pre-high-season night in Temple Town, but at the Cuisine Wat Damnak restaurant, the joint is packed to the rafters, primarily with expats, all buzzing and ready to enjoy another rollout of the special guest chef’s nights, the second edition of this culinary treat.
Tonight the featured chef is high-profile Malaysian chef and restaurateur Darren Teoh, a molecular gastronomy lecturer at the KDU University and author of the 2010 book, ‘Molecular Cuisine: Traditional Recipes through a Modern Kaleidoscope,’ about modern Malaysian cuisine.
Chef-wise, he learned the culinary arts as an apprentice at Michelin stars restaurants including Noma in Copenhagen, considered by many as the best restaurant in the world, and the three-starred-Michelin nosh house Amador in Germany. He also worked with the Singapore-based Les Amis group.
In March 2015 he opened his own restaurant, Dewakin, on the KDU University campus, which instantly became one of the most raved about fine dining restaurants in Malaysia. In March this year, Time Out wrote, “Kuala Lumpur’s most exhilarating restaurant to emerge in what seems like years is Dewakan, buried deep in the campus of KDU.”
He’s been invited to do his head chef thing with Wat Damnak Cuisine chef and owner, Joannès Rivière, who himself packs an impressive CV.
Joannès graduated from cooking school in France, worked as a pastry chef in the US for two years, and in 2003 came to Cambodia as a volunteer cooking teacher for the Sala Bai Hotel School in Siem Reap, where he wrote the cookbook, ‘Cambodian Cooking’. He worked for five years as executive chef at Siem Reap’s Hotel de la Paix before teaming with his partner to open Cuisine Wat Damnak, which became the first Cambodian restaurant to be named on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2015, and again in 2016.
Just as musicians get together to trade licks and have a jam, chefs get together to trade tips and to create more than just jam – and Joannès and Darren did a session together at the Bangkok restaurant Quince as part of a food forum.
“I’ve known of Cuisine Wat Damnak when they were included in one of the Asia 50 best Restaurants list,” Darren says, “But we met only when we were paired together to cook as guest chefs at RE Food Forum. We were also panel speakers at the time.”
Joannès adds that the paired performance with Darren at Quince kicked off the idea of inviting guest chefs to do a culinary performance in Siem Reap.
“We decided the guest chef nights last spring,” he says, “After I was invited to cook for an event that went so dramatic that I thought we too could invite chefs to cook at my restaurant.”
The first guest chef night was held in September, introducing Ivan Brehm from Nouri, a Singaporean Michelin-one-star restaurant, followed by Darren a week ago. The next guest chef is yet to be confirmed, but it will probably be a chef from Indonesia or Thailand, most likely at the end of January.
Joannès says the functions are an extra challenge because visiting chefs from other countries have to quickly familiarise themselves with Cambodian fare for their big night.
“The whole event is actually a big stand out because we ask the chefs to come with only very little of their own produce, so as to have them spend some time at the local market and come up with the menu,” says Joannès.
“Believe it or not, the plurality and variety of ingredients available in Cambodia is very thrilling for most chefs. “So it is great to work with them, introducing them to things they’ve never seen and explaining what to do with them, and then see the menu coming out in a different way of what I would have done.
“Darren, for example, got very excited with cooking with scallops from Koh Kong because there are no fresh local scallops easily available in Malaysia.
“Here in Cambodia you can find them all year round but they are only good at this time of the year when they are big and sweet from feeding on all the sediments running down from the Cardamom Mountains, from September to mid-November. The rest of the year they are quite mediocre.”
While the special guest nights are a buzz for the chefs and the cooking team, there’s a bigger buzz for diners who get to graze through a seven-course set menu with exotic fare such as, rosella glazed grilled pork ribs, spicy peanut, sambal black pudding, pineapple palm sugar and maam emulsion, Cambodian herbs roll, bilimba salsa and fermented sebania flowers.
But the rub is patronage on the night is strictly by invite only.
“The reason d’être of those guest chef nights are mostly to thank our good regular guests and longtime supporters,” Joannès says.
“We don’t communicate about them except to our mailing list and we are booked out within a week.
“We charge the same price as our normal menu and we refuse to get any sponsoring in order to be completely free. Honestly, because we do it mostly to entertain people and to bring something new and fun to the team. I thought at one point calling the nights ‘cooking for glory,’ but it is a title that actually requires too much explanation.”