In October 2013, we went behind the scenes at Jaan Bai restaurant in Battambang to cover the opening of the Cambodian Children’s Trust‘s new social enterprise hospitality training restaurant, which has been supported by Australians Chef David Thompson of Nahm Bangkok and restaurateur John Fink of Quay restaurant in Sydney. We spent a lot of time in the kitchen. This is a story I wrote about the experience.
The second the chef turns off the gas, spoons are swiftly whipped from shoulder pockets of stained chef jackets, dipped into the pot of pungent curry, and promptly popped into mouths. Eyelids close, brows arch, eyes roll, and lips curl up at the corners in delight.
Yet there’s one nose of the dozen or so in the restaurant kitchen that twitches and scrunches. “Too spicy!” the young Cambodian cook declares, when I look at her. Screwing up her pretty face, she flaps a hand in front of her mouth, yet dips the utensil in again.
While the girl’s colleagues lean against kitchen benches and freshly painted walls, jotting down recipe notes into small spiral pads, scrappy pieces of paper, and even a kitchen napkin, the aspiring young chef with the big smile and shiny black hair spoons more fiery sauce into her mouth, which she frantically fans, rapidly sucking in cool air. “Too spicy!” she exclaims again, continuing to dip her spoon, until the sauce has all but disappeared.
Chef David Thompson’s uncompromisingly authentic Thai food — gleaned from old family recipes in heritage ‘cookbooks’ (in fact, funeral memorial books) that he has long collected and long-lost dishes which he has travelled Thailand to seek out — has that effect on people. While the young cook, used to gentler Cambodian curries, makes her notes about Thompson’s famously fiery jungle curry, her friends gather around the legendary chef for the next lesson.
Thompson turns a colossal live crab over on a bench, its back down and legs wriggling in the air, before stepping aside. Cambodian chef Mohm Meah, the young woman who will head this new kitchen, has just spent one month training at Thompson’s Bangkok restaurant Nahm, voted number one on the 2014 edition of the highly regarded Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list, collated by Restaurant magazine.
Without hesitation Chef Mohm takes the cleaver and with a loud “THWACK!” kills the crab instantly. Thompson throws the crab into the wok, shell and all, along with ingredients Chef Matthew Albert has been preparing.
Albert is a former head chef of Nahm London, another of Thompson’s enterprises and the world’s first Michelin-starred Thai restaurant. He is soon to helm Thompson’s new Singapore restaurant. In the interim, he has been here a week teaching the young staff in this Cambodian kitchen.
Sparks fly and flames shoot into the air as Thompson continuously shifts the wok over the burner, ensuring the crab is smothered in sauce and evenly cooked. Feeling the blazing heat scorch my cheeks, I step back through the glass doorway onto the footpath outside. The young cooks, who have encircled the chef to watch his every move, don’t flinch.
We are in the kitchen of Jaan Bai, which means ‘rice bowl’ in Khmer, a day before the opening of the stylish new hospitality training restaurant, bar and gallery in the Cambodian city of Battambang, the capital of an agriculturally rich province regarded as the country’s rice bowl.
The stainless steel of the new kitchen gleams in the late afternoon light, its clean lines and sparkling glass wall in stark contrast to the gravelly street outside that sends dust our way each time a tuk tuk or motorbike crunches by.
Around a two and half hour drive from Siem Reap and five hours from Phnom Penh, the riverside city, which feels more like a country town, might seem like a strange place for a chic new eatery in a renovated French colonial-era shop-house.
Perhaps more surprising is that the restaurant has such high profile advisors. Not only Thompson, a celebrated Australian chef who has made a career from cooking some of the world’s most authentic Thai cuisine, but also John Fink who is also in the kitchen, photographing and videotaping the action while tasting dishes and testing drinks. Fink is the owner of Sydney’s Quay, one of Australia’s finest restaurants, on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for five years running.
Jaan Bai is the brainchild of Battambang-based Australian Tara Winkler, founding director of NGO Cambodian Children’s Trust (CCT), established with Cambodian Jedtha Pon in 2007, after the two rescued 14 abused children from an orphanage. Since then CTT has assisted hundreds of vulnerable kids through foster care, family outreach, and a youth centre.
“We want to expand CCT’s work to include social enterprises that provide training and create jobs for underprivileged youths,” Winkler tells me, “And in time, help generate funds for CCT, reducing our reliance on donations. We decided on a restaurant as our first social enterprise, thanks to Fink, Thompson and Rolando Schirato from Vittoria Coffee, to create a public face for CCT, help boost the local economy, and bring more visitors to Battambang.”
It was Winkler, a friend of Fink’s, who got the restaurateur involved, and Fink who persuaded Thompson to contribute expertise to Battambang’s first training restaurant. They came for the launch and plan to return regularly to assist with the restaurant’s growth.
“Cambodia is a post-colonial, post-war country populated by some of the warmest and happiest people I have ever met in the world,” Fink explains. “Before that horrendous time with the Khmer Rouge, Battambang was a creative and cultural powerhouse, and there’s an East Berlin-feeling of enthusiasm emanating from the artists rebuilding their lives and careers.”
Home to the country’s largest performing arts school, the quirky Phare Cambodian Circus, and several art galleries, Battambang is an emerging arts destination. Jaan Bai’s exterior has been decorated with vibrant murals by local artists and their paintings hang inside.
“It is simply the right thing to do,” says Thompson. “I mean these kids need a hand. History and politics has been cruel to the country and to them and their families. And yet they remain un-embittered and have a genuine gentle and hopeful attitude. I find that remarkable. I hope I could display such fortitude.”
Rolando Schirato doesn’t have the high profile that Thompson and Fink do, but as a senior executive of Australia’s 50 year-old Vittoria Coffee, he’s hugely respected. While tastings are underway in the kitchen, front-of-house is busy. The builder is still working on the electrics, a cocktail trainer is organizing the bar, volunteers are decorating shelves, and Schirato is setting up a shiny new espresso machine.
The coffee machine is one of two that Vittoria Coffee has donated. The other will be installed at a new barista school CCT is planning to open at Sammaki Gallery, thanks to Vittoria Coffee. The company has donated Jaan Bai’s first year of operating costs, helped set up the restaurant, and provided training to staff, locally and in Australia.
Schirato befriended Winkler after approaching her about volunteering. “We spoke about projects we’d been involved in,” he explains, “including one where Vittoria helped a rural Australian town build a community centre and cafe to build youth skills, in particular barista training. Tara hoped to do something similar in Battambang. That’s where it started.”
Also at the bar, restaurant manager Tom O’Sullivan is teaching eager young Cambodians to pull beers. O’Sullivan has a background in social enterprise cafés in Melbourne, Australia’s coffee capital, working at Kinfolk and managing The Mission Café.
“I realized the potential hospitality has to empower individuals and create positive change,” O’Sullivan tells me. “At Kinfolk we raised money for projects in developing countries. To have the opportunity to work with CCT in a developing country really exposes you to the need. It’s pretty motivating.”
O’Sullivan collaborated with Fink to develop the concept when the restaurateur visited Battambang in April 2013. He was ill in hospital at the time.
“I knew John was serious about making this work,” O’Sullivan reveals. “He was my first visitor, bedside, 40 degrees, no air-con, flies, no partitions between us and other patients in ICU, notepad was out, and we had our first brainstorm. A week later John emailed the notes. That was the catalyst for our business plan.”
O’Sullivan also accompanied Chef Mohm to Bangkok. A strong you woman, Mohm raised her young siblings and their cousins after her parents and aunt and uncle died, sacrificing her education to work to support them. It’s her turn now. While Mohm learnt how one of Asia’s best restaurant kitchens works, O’Sullivan discussed kitchen design and menu development with Thompson and Albert.
“If it wasn’t for them we’d probably have microwaves stacked from floor to ceiling,” he confides, “David and Matthew were key to us using local produce (grown in CCT gardens) to create a seasonal menu that captures the best of South East Asia, whilst leaning on some Western influences.”
The idea behind a modern pan-Asian menu, rather than Cambodian or even Thai cuisine, was to diversify trainees’ skills, making them more employable, as much as to please the different target audiences: Cambodians, expats and tourists. After Schirato, Fink, Thompson, and Albert leave, it will be O’Sullivan who manages the restaurant on a day to day basis and trains staff.
“I hope to train employees to the point where they can get a job anywhere in the world,” O’Sullivan says. “I’ve quickly learnt who the trainees are who want to learn. They’re the ones with little note pads, which they’ve made themselves, who write down things like: ‘make sure I say thank you coming jaan bai to the guests’ and ‘I really like new job, want to try very hard new job’.”
The whole of Battambang seems to be at Jaan Bai’s opening the next night, including CCT workers, kids and families. There is a Cambodian band, live painting, espresso cocktails, tasting portions of dishes, free-flowing cold beer, and dancing well into the night.
A few days later I ask O’Sullivan how he felt seeing people streaming into the beautiful restaurant and trying the fantastic food. “In the days leading up to the opening I’d worked 15 hours a day,” O’Sullivan confides. “On the day it was crazy.”
“But at 7pm we opened the doors. Guests were watching the CCT kids perform a welcome dance and I was pretty emotional,” he admits. “I had to go into the kitchen and pull myself together, wipe away the tears, and get on with the night. That’s why I do it. We’re finally open and I know this space is going to have a positive effect on so many people’s lives.”
Street 2, Battambang
This is a longer and slightly different version of a story published in the January 2014 issue of Southeast Asia Globe.