Meet the young Cambodian chef cooking local food for people who travel for food. We chat to chef Mork Mengly of Pou Restaurant and Bar about cooking strange things, beautiful plating, and taking Cambodian food to the world.
The young Cambodian chef cooking local food for people who travel food is chef Mork Mengly, the 29 year-old co-owner of Pou Restaurant and Bar, one of Siem Reap’s best Cambodian restaurants. Pou is one of a handful of exciting eateries in Cambodia’s main tourist destination Siem Reap – the departure point for excursions to Angkor Wat – ran by creative young chefs driving what I’ve called the New Cambodian Cuisine movement.
We wrote about these homegrown young Cambodian chefs and their restaurants for DestinAsian magazine early this year, and as Asia Editor of Truth Love and Clean Cutlery, a new series of guides to ‘good’ restaurants around the world, I included them among the top ten Cambodian restaurants focused on using fresh local organic produce, that are also eco-conscious, sustainable and ethical.
I recently introduced you to the Kimsan ‘twins’, the two Cambodian female chefs helming Siem Reap fine dining restaurant Embassy, which offers a tasting menu that changes monthly and is rooted in the women’s passion for seasonal produce, and today I want you to meet Mork Mengly, the young Cambodian chef cooking local food for people who travel for food. I’ll introduce you to more chefs in the weeks ahead.
Mengly is plating up Siem Reap’s most stunning Cambodian food. Yet while it looks rather avant-garde at first glance, it’s actually very traditional at heart. It’s also coming out of a very rustic kitchen in the old wooden house on a dusty street that serves as Pou Restaurant and Bar.
‘Pou’ means ‘uncle’ in the Khmer language. ‘Father’, ‘Brother’ and ‘Sister’ are often used in restaurant names to evoke a sense of hospitality, familiarity and warmth, in the same way Cambodians call older women ‘aunty’, older men ‘uncle’, and so on. It’s an unlikely name for an eatery operated by a chef in his twenties – even if that chef is cooking with fire on a clay brazier of the kind his mum, grandma and ancestors before them used.
As a young Cambodian chef cooking local food, Mengly’s success has been rapid, although not surprising, considering his good-looking plates with their grids of sauce and licks of colour, and delicious flavours to boot. I’ve been eating at Pou since it opened, taking my Cambodia culinary tour groups there and often including it in the bespoke itineraries I craft for clients, so in some ways I feel like a proud aunty. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
As with the women from Embassy, I sat down to chat to chef Mengly earlier this year for our DestinAsian magazine story on New Cambodian Cuisine. Below, you’ll find the out-takes from that interview.
The Cambodian Chef Cooking Local Food For People Who Travel for Food – Meet Chef Mork Mengly
Q. In Cambodia, cooking skills and recipes are passed down from grandparents to parents to children – what age did you learn to cook and who taught you?
A. I was born in Siem Reap and grew up in Siem Reap but my mum sent me to Damdek (35 kms from Siem Reap) twice a year for holidays to stay with my grandma. I watched my grandma cook – we made all kinds of strange things like banana pickle with fish. She was always making lots of pickles. They do a lot of pickles out there. I started helping mum cook at age six.
Q. Was there something your mum cooked that you loved? Did your dad cook?
A. My mum’s best dish was samlor korkor (Cambodian ‘stirring soup’, a thick vegetable soup). Every time she made it, it always tastes the same. Dad also cooked. He made drinking food – mainly char (sir-fry), but also soup. But he would change his version each time he cooked.
Q. Was there anything from your childhood that you think inspired you to be a chef?
A. Mum was always picking vegetables around the garden. I helped her. My dad took me fishing for crab and fish, and foraging for leaves and other things in the forest.
Q. As a Cambodian chef cooking local food, have you been inspired by other chefs?
A. Chef Luu Meng of Malis has inspired me a lot as a chef and a person – he’s such a nice person and he does a lot of amazing work to promote Cambodian food and to promote good food. Osman (the former director of EGBOK, the NGO behind Spoons, a Siem Reap hospitality training restaurant) took me eating to restaurants like Cuisine Wat Damnak, Malis and Mie Café.
Q. You went to the École d’Hôtellerie et de Tourisme Paul Dubrule in Siem Reap. How well did that prepare you?
A. My first job was on the front desk of Rambutan (a boutique hotel in Siem Reap) and the manager there, Tommy, got me a job at their new hotel in Phnom Penh. I wanted to cook and work in the kitchen, so I started the kitchen there. They had nothing so I had to buy the pots and pans. For only three months it was just me. Then I got one cook to help. Slowly I built a team.
Q. When did you decide you wanted to become a chef?
A. In 2013 I won a cooking competition in Phnom Penh. I created a dish of pounded crab with fish wrapped with kroeung, a taro sauce, palm fruit, and sugar cane juice. They loved it and that gave me more confidence and finally I felt that I wanted to be a chef in the future.
Q. But it was an overseas experience that really motivated you?
A. The Cambodian Chef Association selected me to be a representative of Cambodian cuisine with another friend, Bora, for a week in Hue, Vietnam. I was very proud. After that I started to read more about being a chef, and to research other chefs and their restaurants and food in books, magazines, newspapers, and online, especially Instagram. I also went on a Singapore research trip eating at street food places in the Michelin guide.
Q. Yet you cooked Italian, Mediterranean, French… when did you decide to focus on Cambodian food?
A. After I was recruited by Spoons in 2016 and I worked with our team of chefs to develop the Cambodian menu, and began playing around with street food. Cambodian street food is my passion. It was Michael (a consultant at Spoons), who really taught me about presentation and that “we eat with our eyes”. That opened my eyes.
Q. From Spoons, where you cooked refined street food as appetisers and created classic Cambodian dishes with a creative twist, you left to open your own restaurant. How do you describe your food at Pou?
A. It’s Cambodian food. It’s very local food – the kind of food you find in the countryside and on the streets. I’m just presenting our local ingredients that foreign people don’t normally see, like bee hive and red ants, and I’m presenting these ingredients in new ways. I’m trying really hard to make delicious local food but with beautiful plating.
Q. Are you worried about the evolution of Cambodian cuisine and loss of Cambodia’s culinary heritage?
A. A little. People are not using as many pickles as we used to use, and they’re not using as much prahok (fermented fish) or dried fish anymore. I want to keep using these kinds of ingredients.
Q. As a Cambodian chef cooking local food, what excites you most?
A. I really love going to the markets and seeing good quality, colourful ingredients. I really get excited by that: seeing first and then smelling.
Q. Any challenges?
A. I want to spend more time in rural areas. I want to work with local farmers more but that’s hard because as chefs we need to be in our kitchens.
Q. Future dreams?
A. I want more people around the world to know about Cambodian food and I want to be the one to take Cambodian food to the world. I have a dream of being a celebrated chef. A lot of people travel for food and I want to serve them local food.
Pou Restaurant & Bar
Wat Damnak Road, Siem Reap
++971 (0) 96 971 80 88
Have you eaten at Pou Restaurant and Bar and met this young Cambodian chef cooking local food for people who travel for food? We’d love to hear your feedback in the comments below.
By the way, we’re currently running a Truth Love and Clean Cutlery book giveaway. Click through to that link for more details. Just tell us how you choose the restaurants you eat at and whether it matters that the restaurants are ‘good’, as in sustainable, eco-conscious, ethical etc, when you’re deciding where to dine.