Cuisine Wat Damnak in Siem Reap, the restaurant of Chef Joannès Rivière, became the first Cambodian restaurant to land on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, the regional edition of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, where it was named Best Restaurant in Cambodia in 2015. In 2016 the restaurant moved up the list to #43, before falling off the list in 2017.
Cuisine Wat Damnak, the Best Restaurant in Cambodia
This was great news for Cambodia back in 2015. The award reinforces Siem Reap’s place on the global culinary map. An entry on the prestigious international restaurant list has proven time and again to have a positive impact on tourism for cities with restaurants at the top of the list, and destinations entering the list for the first time, such as Cambodia.
Some expressed surprise on social media at the time that a Cambodian restaurant — and a Siem Reap restaurant at that — sneaked onto the list, when it placed at #50 in 2015. People seem to presume that the country’s finest restaurants would be found in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, where the movers and shakers and the money is. And that in a prime tourist destination such as Siem Reap, there are only going to eateries aimed at tourists.
While there are undoubtedly countless restaurants targeted at tourists and an abundance of mediocre eateries, Siem Reap is also home to some outstanding spots to dine, one of the finest of which is Chef Joannès Rivière’s Cuisine Wat Damnak.
Cuisine Wat Damnak topped our list of recommended restaurants people should eat at when they come to Cambodia and I always included it in the Savour Siem Reap itineraries I curate for visitors, especially if they’re chefs, restaurateurs or food-lovers. However in 2018, there are other restaurants we recommend.
We first dined at Cuisine Wat Damnak a few weeks after its doors opened in April 2011, when we were on assignment for a magazine, doing a ‘Siem Reap beyond the temples’ story. When we first moved here, we at there at least monthly, thanks to two menus that change weekly according to what’s in season.
That first trip to Siem Reap, we had a great introduction to Cambodian cuisine. We ate some of the city’s most delicious food at Amansara, where we initially stayed. We feasted on the traditional, authentic, home-style cooking of The Sugar Palm. We grazed on Cambodian-Asian fusion dishes at AHA (now sadly closed). And we savoured the contemporary Cambodian cuisine that Chef Jo first developed at Meric restaurant at the Hotel de la Paix (now the Park Hyatt), where he’d been the hotel’s executive chef.
Chef Jo hadn’t originally come to Cambodia to work at a five-star hotel. He came to work as a volunteer cooking instructor at Siem Reap’s Sala Bai Hotel School, teaching European cuisines.
At Meric, Chef Jo created a form of creative Cambodian cuisine that has been much copied since in Siem Reap, but rarely with success. In keeping with culinary fashion, he designed a degustation meal of small plates of tapas-sized dishes, each offering an inventive take on a traditional Cambodian dish, and each packed with flavour and texture.
Those who have taken ‘inspiration’ from Meric’s style of presentation haven’t quite worked out that some thought, ingenuity and technique went into the dishes. Instead, most chefs simply create tiny portions of Cambodian standards: a thimble of soup in a shot glass, a tablespoon of banana blossom salad in a teensy bowl, spring rolls half their usual size, miniscule beef skewers, and so on, prettily arranged on a platter decorated with pink frangipanis.
After opening Cuisine Wat Damnak, Chef Jo took a step back, revisiting traditional Cambodian dishes, while leaping forward by approaching the recipes in a way that could only be contemporary.
“I always have one or two very traditional dishes on each menu,” Chef Jo told us when we returned to interview him again following the Asia’s 50 Best announcement.
“But what’s really interesting to me these days are combinations. Many dishes are actually combinations of local Cambodian dishes, which, with a small twist, become completely contemporary.”
“Now, I like to work on ingredients,” he elaborated. “I don’t have as much time to travel around now, but I still find new products every once in a while or a new technique and then I work on that. When I find something that works I like to keep developing it.”
One example is the Mekong langoustine in rice paddy crab curry, pictured above. Based on a traditional paddy-crab brain soup, the dish is prepared without the crab shells that are used in the countryside (Cambodians love texture, especially anything that crunches), and with the addition of fresh coconut milk and sweet, meaty Mekong langoustines.
Although the dish still retains the essence of the original, it’s much more elegant and more accessible. Foreigners don’t find the struggle of biting through those hard shells enjoyable in the way that Cambodians do.
For Chef Jo — who was born in Roanne, France (a region famed for its gastronomy) to a family of organic vegetable growers who supplied their produce to some of the area’s finest restaurants — the ingredients are key.
At Cuisine Wat Damnak the chef only uses local products, mostly from Siem Reap province, along with rare ingredients that aren’t found on a lot of Cambodian menus or even in homes these days.
“I’d like to see the award as a message to Cambodian chefs,” Chef Jo declares.
“This proves that you don’t have to use imported products like foie gras and so on, that it’s possible to have a world-class restaurant with a menu based on local products.”
“Young Cambodian chefs need to start to pay attention to their grandmother’s cooking and the products around them,” Jo implores.
“The Government should also support farmers to grow local produce and in restaurant schools there should be a Cambodian culinary curriculum controlled by the Government,” he suggests. “Otherwise, in 20 years time, it will be lost.”
Another perspective from Terence:
In the Kitchen at Cuisine Wat Damnak
Chef Joannès or ‘Chef Jo’ as he is known is Siem Reap, only opens Cuisine Wat Damnak five nights a week so he, his staff and his wife, Carole, who takes care of front of house, are fresh for every service.
They could be making a killing by opening for lunch and dinner seven nights a week, or opening a satellite branch of Cuisine Wat Damnak in the heart of the Old Town (the restaurant is on a dusty village road 10 minutes from the centre), but Chef Jo is an old-school chef who believes that the chef should be at the pass every service.
Lara and I have spent countless hours in Chef Jo’s kitchen and the other night, the last night before Jo headed to Singapore to sit on a panel about the future of Asian food — and, little did we know at the time, accept his place on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list — I stayed for the first couple of hours of service, making photographs of the kitchen team at work, and chatting to the chef when I could about the menus and the guests that eat them.
Chef Jo knows that his flavours are authentic, but he also knows that bitter, sour and pungent are not flavours that generally appeal to a Western palate. Yet they are the essence of Khmer cuisine.
Jo has spent years doing research on Khmer dishes — and he is one of the only chefs in Cambodia who knows the difference between Khmer cuisine and Cambodian cuisine, which includes ‘foreign’ dishes, such as beef loc lac, a dish that travelled here from Vietnam and China.
One dish that Chef Jo had as an optional sixth dish on the tasting menu that night was not flying off the pass. Most likely the reason was that it uses prahok, the local fermented fish so beloved by locals, which generally proves to be a challenging taste for visitors.
On this night the amuse-bouche was pork mince with prahok, Chef Jo’s version of prahok k’tis. The chef handed me a little tasting spoon of it — it was fantastic, the kind of flavour combination that sets Khmer cuisine apart from the cuisines of Cambodia’s more food-fancied neighbours.
All of the little bowls came back empty except for a couple from one table — these are the disappointments of not compromising when it comes to authentic flavours. Not everyone is going to like the flavours, particularly when Carole is so busy seating guests that she doesn’t have time to describe the dishes. It’s a shame that the Khmer staff aren’t up for culinary chit-chat about their cuisine and simply run plates to the tables. After dozens of visits even we struggle to get more than a ‘hello’ (yes, in Khmer) out of them. Even after a few years of sending people there to eat, we get the occasional visitor who complains that the service staff don’t explain the dishes. And Khmer cuisine isn’t one — unlike Thai — that most people have any experience with.
Back in the kitchen, while Chef Jo’s cuisine is firmly rooted in Khmer traditions, the kitchen runs like a relaxed version of the French brigade de cuisine with each section knowing their role as soon as an order is placed and the Chef asks for a course to be fired.
The kitchen’s mise en place is always completed before the staff dinner at around 4.30pm, at which time the chef takes a break from the heat and humidity and heads home to shower and change before service begins.
With over 500 dishes leaving the pass every night in the space of around three hours, it’s an intense service when the restaurant is full. At the end of the night, Jo’s chef’s jacket is soaked through to his skin again.
Cuisine Wat Damnak
If you’re a foodie traveller heading to Cambodia, consider Savour Siem Reap, a bespoke culinary travel experience I offer, in which I include Cuisine Wat Damnak as well as other mouthwatering experiences and delicious secrets. Need further ideas as to what to eat in Siem Reap? See our Culinary Guide to Siem Reap and Cambodian Street Food in Siem Reap from our Footpath Feasting series on street food around the globe.
UPDATED: March 2016