Cambodian chef Pola Siv helms the kitchen of Mie Café, one of Siem Reap’s best restaurants, where the 35 year-old chef creates an elegant and inventive contemporary Cambodian cuisine rooted in local produce and European cooking techniques.
Cambodian chef Pola Siv has a great story. Like the northern Cambodia city of Siem Reap’s other talented young home-grown chefs, Pola hails from a humble rural background in a rapidly developing country, which despite strong economic growth sadly remains one of Southeast Asia’s poorest.
Chef Pola went overseas to work, put himself through Swiss culinary school, trained in a Michelin-starred restaurant, and then, after returning to Cambodia, used his savings to remodel a traditional wooden house that would become home to his Cambodian fine dining restaurant, Mie Café. While renovations were underway, he sold breakfast noodles to bring in some income. Hence the name: ‘mie’ means ‘noodles’.
Now, the 35 year-old chef’s restaurant is a modern fine diner with polished concrete floors, quirky vegetable grater lamps and tables dressed in white linen. Upstairs the dining room retains the house’s traditional atmosphere. Romantic tables are set on the breezy veranda overlooking the garden where organic herbs grow in high boxes. One day, while picking herbs as Terence took the chef’s portrait, Pola declared: “I want to be a farmer”.
But I want to tell you another story first.
It’s rare that I tell the back-story to our stories that get published, but I thought I’d share this one as an intro to this interview with Cambodian chef Pola Siv of Mie Café. Because it was Pola’s dishes that made me so determined to get a story published on the talented young Cambodian chefs reinventing Cambodian food, who are part of what I’ve called the New Cambodian Cuisine movement.
Siem Reap is best known as the departure point for day-trips to Angkor Archaeological Park and its star attraction Angkor Wat, but it’s also home to many superb Cambodian restaurants – Sugar Palm, Malis and Chanrey Tree to name a few – which serve up a highly misunderstood and under-appreciated cuisine, about which many myths exist.
I first fell in love with Cambodian cuisine when we visited Siem Reap in 2011 from our base in Bangkok to do a story for in-flight magazine Fah Thai on ‘the other side’ of Siem Reap, that is everything there is to do ‘other than’ explore temples, namely shopping, eating and drinking. In that story, we covered Sugar Palm and Cuisine Wat Damnak, along with Meric and AHA (which sadly no longer exist), as there were few other interesting Cambodian restaurants to write about then.
When we shifted our Southeast Asian base to Siem Reap in 2013, change was afoot. In early 2014, having had a long culinary travel feature published in Australia’s Delicious magazine, I pitched some stories on a few other Southeast Asian destinations with fantastic food, including Siem Reap. Secretly, that was the story I really hoped the editor would commission. Instead she contracted us to do a piece on Phuket’s cuisine.
A year later, Siem Reap’s restaurant scene was flourishing and a handful of chefs I’d been observing began to emerge as talents to watch, experimenting in interesting ways with Cambodian food. I pitched a food story focused on Siem Reap’s best Cambodian restaurants to Australian Gourmet Traveller, which I’d been writing for occasionally. The editor commissioned a Siem Reap city guide instead.
I continued to pitch similar stories to editors, but even after I’d had a piece published on industry website Fine Dining Lovers on Siem Reap’s Cuisine Wat Damnak, which had landed on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list at #50 and been named the Best Cambodian Restaurant, there was still a view among editors that Siem Reap wasn’t ready yet. One London based editor told me just that.
Taking foodie clients and culinary tour groups to eat at the establishments I considered to be Siem Reap’s finest restaurants on a fairly frequent basis, I was able to see how the chefs, their cuisines and dishes were evolving. It was after a few consecutive tasting menus at Cambodian chef Pola Siv’s Mie Café that I became convinced that Siem Reap was there as a dining destination. Diners just had to know where to go and we had to get something published.
Cambodian chef Pola Siv is one of those cooks who continually tweaks dishes and there were a few that I’d become smitten with, one of which is pictured above of sweet plump tiger prawns, creamy avocado from Cambodia’s remote Rattanakiri province, fresh mint, rice paddy herbs, bitter leaves, and yellow mustard flowers. It’s a beautiful dish if a bit surreal-looking, appearing to sprout from the black plate it’s served upon.
The second dish is a ceviche of raw Kampot scallops, young palm fruit and seaweed, marinated in virgin olive oil with a zest of lemongrass and galangal, and a subtle kick of chilli. When I last tried the dish it was served with a cooling broccoli ice cream but the kind of ice cream changes. It’s sprinkled with miniature mauve star-fruit flowers and served in a shell-shaped ceramic dish on a bed of pebbles in a wooden box. It’s easily Siem Reap’s prettiest plate and you can see the dish here.
The last dish is chef Pola’s light, modern take on a rich and pungent Cambodian favourite called prahok k’tis. Traditionally made from Cambodia’s much-loved prahok (fermented fish), minced pork, fresh creamy coconut milk, and pea eggplants, chef Pola judiciously adds fresh prawns, slivers of wing beans and cucumber to add crunch, and – with even more restraint – fragrant basil, kaffir lime zest, sesbania flowers, water hyacinth buds, and bitter leaf to add bite, and serves it in a fresh coconut half.
Early last year I finally had that story published, illustrated by Terence’s stunning images, in DestinAsian, my favourite Asian travel magazine. We focused on the most ambitious and most creative of the young Cambodian chefs, each of whom has a strong, singular vision of what kind of cuisine they want to create that sets them apart from other Siem Reap chefs, which is why I see them as forming a New Cambodian Cuisine movement.
Apart from their creativity, another thing that distinguishes the chefs helming these Siem Reap restaurants is their commitment to the environment and their community. So I was pleased to be able to include them in the Cambodia section when I got to work as Asia editor on the World edition of Truth Love and Clean Cutlery, a series of guides to the world’s most eco-conscious, ethical and sustainable restaurants. And I’m determined to get more stories published on these special people and their food.
In recent months I’ve been publishing outtakes of my often hours-long interviews with the chefs here on Grantourismo, starting with the Kimsans, two Cambodian female chefs helming fine diner Embassy, who are creating monthly seasonal-focused tasting menus; then chef Mork Mengly of Pou Restaurant, who cooks local food for people who travel for food; and Mahob Khmer chef Sothea Seng, who is determined to redefine Cambodian cuisine while preserving its culinary heritage. Next up: the final chef, Tim Pheak, formerly of Trorkuon, now at Templation.
In the meantime, meet Cambodian chef Pola Siv of Mie Café.
Cambodian Chef Pola Siv on His Mum’s Cooking and How to Open a Restaurant
Q. In Cambodia, cooking skills are passed down from parents to children –– did you mum and dad teach you to cook?
A. Yes, my Mum taught us – I have five siblings. I was born in 1982. I don’t have a father – after the Khmer Rouge, around 1985, my dad was a driver… he delivered food from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. One day he went to work and never returned. My mother raised us.
Q. Is your mum a good cook?
A. My mum is a great cook. I love her cooking so much.
Q. What’s your mum’s best dish or your favourite dish that she cooks?
A. My mum’s best dish is her samlor proheur (Ed: ‘samlor’ means soup/stew) made with bamboo shoots, ant eggs, pumpkins, leaves foraged from the forest, herbs from her yard, dried fish, kroeung… whenever she cooks it, she makes some for me and my family brings it here to me at the restaurant. It never changes. It’s the same as always. It’s so good.
Q. And you use some of your mum’s food in the restaurant?
A. Yes, she makes very good prahok (fermented fish), palm sugar and sticky rice crisps, which we use here in the restaurant.
Q. Your first job was in a restaurant, but you weren’t dreaming of being a chef back then, were you?
A. No, I was dreaming of tips! I worked as a dishwasher at a hotel but I wanted to be a receptionist. I wanted to go to the Paul Dubrule School (of Hospitality and Tourism in Siem Reap) but I was earning just US$30 month. That was in 2004. An agent was recruiting for jobs at the Novotel in Bahrain and I left in December that year. I worked as a server for two years and learnt a lot of new things, but it was hard living in Bahrain.
So I started making online applications and I got a job on the Cayman Islands – as a beach boy! I went just to make money and made a lot of money – in 17-22 hours working, I’d make US$500. I was at the Westin and moved to their 3 Diamond restaurant. Many celebrity chefs would come to cook at special events and I got to meet them and watch them work. That’s when I decided I wanted to be a chef. I heard about culinary school and restaurant internships from students who were working there.
Q. So you worked hard, saved your money, and put yourself through Swiss culinary school? Why Switzerland?
A. Switzerland chose me. I applied for countless culinary schools all around the world. I can’t remember how many. I had finished high school in Cambodia but they didn’t recognise that qualification. I applied for some Swiss culinary schools and I was accepted by the César Ritz Culinary Arts Academy Switzerland (Ed: as in hotelier César Ritz of the Paris Hotel Ritz fame).
Q. How did you like culinary school and what did you learn that stayed with you?
A. I loved it so much. I remember it was so clean! I learnt all the basics of European cuisine; everything – about service, operations, how important timing is, hygiene, and how they care so much about food.
Q. Was it tough living in Switzerland? We love Switzerland, but it can be expensive.
A. I got a scholarship that covered 50% of the course so I could keep most of my savings. After classes, I worked at the school providing residency assistance, helping students to settle in, like an advisor or guidance counsellor. Some students experienced depression, committed suicide even – some were like birds free from cages and they went wild. I helped them. Five or six students had to do this role each term, but I did it the whole time I was there until I finished my degree.
Q. After Swiss culinary school, you trained at Michelin-starred Domaine de Châteauvieux in Satigny in Switzerland. How was that?
A. It was the hardest job of my life and I enjoyed it so much. But as the dishes were coming out of the kitchen, all I could think of was how I could replace some ingredients with Cambodian ingredients. I was so inspired.
Q. So you returned to Cambodia?
A. Yes, at the end of 2011. The visa situation changed so I had to leave. I had an opportunity to work for Hilton, so I decided to take three months holiday first back in Cambodia. But when I got home I decided to stay. I went to Touich restaurant. The food was simple but I loved the fact that it was hidden and everybody was talking about it. I decided to start a restaurant.
Q. What did you do next?
A. I found this house (which is home to Mie Cafe). I heard about this abandoned wooden house and I liked the spirit of the house. It had been an office and house for a social community and people had been living here. I told people about my idea and nobody supported it. (The chef laughs). So I started working straight away to renovate bit by bit and the house design evolved. It was a gradual evolution.
Q. You were still renovating when you started serving food and that’s how Mie Café got its name, right? (Ed: ‘mie’ means ‘noodles’.)
A.Yes, we opened with just five tables as a café doing noodle breakfasts – just 3-4 kinds of noodles, so I could make have an income while we were renovating. We started opening for lunch, doing sandwiches and salads, then eventually for dinner. I did this for almost a year. I was such hard work, I was ready to die, and we stopped doing noodles. When we opened properly, it was simple. The menu and wine list were on a piece of paper, handwritten.
Q. The restaurant has come so far since then. For one, it’s no longer a noodle café and is now one of Siem Reap’s best restaurants. So what have been your sources of inspiration?
A. My mum. (Chef Pola smiles). After we opened, I started eating out more at restaurants to see what they were offering. Six or seven months after we opened, Joannès (Chef Joannès Rivière of Cuisine Wat Damnak) came to the restaurant to eat with his family. He became like a mentor. I was inspired by his passion for food and how he cares about his ingredients. He knew where people picked things like vanilla beans at Banteay Srei. Now we share some suppliers.
Q. Do Cambodia’s ingredients inspire you? Tell me about the produce you’re using.
A. I’m using mostly Cambodian ingredients – 99% local. The only imported ingredients are some condiments, olive oil, tuna, sometimes beef. I’ll only use ingredients from outside Cambodia when I can’t get the quality here.
Q. So what makes Cambodian cuisine special?
A. The ingredients. Cambodian food is unique. Thai, Laos and Cambodian food are a little similar but different to Vietnamese. Cambodian food is more healthy than Chinese. But Cambodian is different. You can’t find these flavour combinations anywhere else.
Q. Some Cambodian chefs express concern about Cambodia losing its culinary heritage.
A. I don’t think Cambodia’s food heritage will be lost. When you go out to the villages they are still cooking the food that they have always cooked. Even when the new generation of Cambodian chefs experiment, it’s with local ingredients. The base will still be the same – the roots are the same..
Q. What next? Future dreams?
A. Only to keep doing what we’re doing. Since Switzerland I have wanted to do the Cambodian food I am doing. Now I want to keep doing more of this. And I want to inspire a younger generation of chefs.
85 Treng Village, between River Road and Charles de Gaulle Boulevard
(If coming from Siem Reap centre, turn right after the Sofitel)
Siem Reap, Cambodia +855(0)12 791 371
Wed-Mon 11am-2pm & 5.30pm-9.15pm (start of last sitting)
Have you eaten at Cambodian chef Pola Siv’s restaurant and tried his food? We’d love to hear your feedback in the comments below.