Cambodian Chef Tim Pheak has probably travelled more than most Cambodian chefs his age. Yet he says he is finally living the dream as an executive chef in Cambodia’s Siem Reap, where he’s cooking elegant renditions on traditional Cambodian dishes with organic local produce.
Cambodian chef Tim Pheak – Cambodians put family names first, so you’d call him Pheak Tim – is an emerging young Cambodian chef to watch for his light contemporary take on traditional Cambodian food, as much as for his commitment to using organic Cambodian produce, supporting local farmers, and telling the world about Cambodian cuisine.
When I first interviewed Cambodian chef Tim Pheak early last year he was helming the kitchen of Jaya House River Park’s elegant Trorkuon restaurant, one of the best Cambodian restaurants in Siem Reap, gateway to Angkor Wat and home to a misunderstood and under-appreciated cuisine about which countless myths exist. We chatted about everything from his tough childhood growing up in Takeo to his global travels alongside an experienced chef who took him under his wing.
What was fascinating from the perspective of travel writers who have lived abroad and travelled the world for 21 years and are used to being told we’re “living the dream” because travel the world for work, is that despite having travelled more of the globe than most Cambodian chefs, Pheak says he finally has his dream job at home in Cambodia’s Siem Reap.
Located along a quiet stretch of the Siem Reap river, in the luxurious whitewashed boutique hotel, Trorkuon welcomes diners with swinging tables and seats with black and white striped cushions, and an enormous mural of Cambodian pop icons, Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea, stars of Cambodia’s Golden Age of the 1960s. Yet its cuisine under the guidance of 28 year-old Tim Pheak, perhaps one of the country’s youngest executive chefs, was anything but nostalgic.
When I first dined I found myself munching into piping hot, French-style savoury bread rolls before a tasting menu of contemporary Cambodian food. They came in a rainbow of colours and flavours, scarlet-coloured rolls made with dragonfruit, purple from taro, yellow tinted with turmeric. It was a playful, modern idea. They were delicious to boot.
The prettiest dish of the five course tasting menu was Pheak’s delicate take on a traditional Cambodian beef and red ant stir fry, pictured above. While it tasted authentic, it was more elegant to the eye, strewn with seasonal edible flowers. And it melted in my mouth, Cambodia’s tough local beef (cows aren’t sent for slaughter until they can no longer work the fields) having been replaced by premium Australian beef.
Along with the Kimsan ‘twins’, the two female Cambodian head chefs of Embassy restaurant, chefs Mork Mengly of Pou Restaurant and Bar, Pola Siv of Mie Cafe, and Sothea Seng of Mahob Khmer, Cambodian chef Tim Pheak is part of what I’ve called the New Cambodian Cuisine movement, a group of home-grown chefs reinventing Cambodian food.
I interviewed the chefs early last year for a story on their experiments with Cambodian cuisine for DestinAsian, one of Asia’s finest travel magazines. As the Asia Editor covering Southeast Asia for Truth Love and Clean Cutlery, a new series of guides to ‘good’ restaurants, I also included their restaurants as five of ten Cambodian restaurants that are ethical, eco-conscious, and sustainable.
Because these chefs are not only creative, they care: about the future of Cambodian cuisine and Cambodia’s culinary heritage, about the farmers and producers growing the produce and making the ingredients they use, and about the community and environment around them.
These are the restaurants we dine at when we eat out, that I take participants to on the Cambodia Culinary Tours and Food and Travel Writing and Photography Retreats I occasionally host, that I typically include in the bespoke itineraries I craft for clients, and that I recommend to food-loving travellers visiting Siem Reap.
Since our interview, Cambodian chef Tim Pheak has moved to boutique hotel Templation, where he’s continuing to cook his refined take on Cambodian cuisine, and use as much local produce and support as many Cambodian farmers as he can. I’d still encourage you to eat at Trorkuon and I’ll report back on what they are doing there now soon. We’re filing this interview with Cambodian chef Tim Pheak in our Local Knowledge series of interviews with local experts and insiders from around the world.
Cambodian Chef Tim Pheak, the Travelling Chef Living the Dream at Home
Q. In Cambodia, cooking skills and recipes are passed down from grandparents to parents to children – was your mum a good cook?
A. Mum was a good cook. She made stir-fried frog with turmeric leaf – it was marinated in fish sauce, sugar and salt, then stir-fried with fresh turmeric leaf. I reinterpreted it and made it with beef instead and added butterfly pea flower. When I was young I loved my mum’s fried eggs and omelettes, also boiled eggs. But I was lazy when I was young. Mum asked me to help cook rice and I didn’t.
Q. Where were you born? And what was your childhood like?
A. I was born in Takeo in 1990. Mum had a rice farm so I grew up on the farm. We were very poor. We had a very simple house. Then my father left us when I was five years old. He left with everything. Mum went to Phnom Penh to make money to support us. She sold nom banh chok (fermented rice noodles and curries) at the market. I stayed in Takeo on the farm with my grandfather and aunt and went to school.
Q. That must have been tough – for you and your mum.
A. Yes, when I was 15 I started going to Phnom Penh to help her on my school holidays, washing the dishes. Mum didn’t have enough money for me to continue to go to school, so I left at age 16 in grade 8. My brother and I were living with mum at the market. We didn’t feel safe. The NGO PSE went to talk to home and suggested he go to school. Now Mum is in a nice house. I help her. But she still sells snacks she makes with taro and sugar at the market.
Q. So you went to hospitality school?
A. Yes, I did PSA’s 3-year hospitality training course from 2007-2010, then I trained at the Sofitel in Siem Reap for six months. I trained in every section from pizza to pastry, and then did extra training, as I wanted to learn everything I could. Then I got my first job at the Sofitel as a butcher, which taught me important skills. The chefs asked me to go to work in the fine dining restaurants, but I was so focused on butchering. I really loved it and learnt a lot.
Q. What happened next?
A. My teacher recommended me for a job on Song Saa (a luxury island resort in Cambodia) after he heard they were recruiting and I applied – I love the sea – and I was hired as a chef to cook staff meals. That was in 2011 and I did that for two years. Then when it opened, I moved to the fine dining restaurant as demi-chef, then after one year I became sous-chef. Neil Wager, the executive chef, liked me a lot and saw some talent. I learnt so much from him – different cooking techniques and styles, I learnt about seafood. I worked there from the busy pre-opening to opening and worked very hard, 17 hours a day.
Q. Then you travelled?
A. Neil took me on consulting jobs to Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Maldives. Then in 2013, he sent me to Nihiwatu resort on Sumba Island in Indonesia as a sous-chef consultant for five months to train staff. I learnt a lot about Indonesian food – I loved the food and ingredients. I also loved the Indonesians – they’re very funny – and that’s where I learnt to manage a team.
Q. After Indonesia?
A. I returned to Phnom Penh and worked at The Tiger’s Eye for chef Tim Bruyns, who also worked at Song Saa. He helped me get a job with Aqua Expeditions, where I worked with chef Matt Bazley for a year on the Aqua Mekong boat. I loved the experience, seeing the sunset every day. Then I moved to the shore kitchen at the Phnom Penh head office, dealing with suppliers, sourcing ingredients and organic vegetables, and making stocks, sauces and pastes as the preparation chef. Then in 2015 I went to Sri Lanka and worked as head chef at a small hotel with 11 rooms. Neil got me that job and I enjoyed it, training staff, and learning about Sri Lankan food, the different kinds of dishes, especially the curries – which were too hot for me. But I missed Cambodia.
Q. Yet you travelled again?
A. Neil was working in the Maldives at a 75-room hotel and took me there as a consultant chef for four months, training staff for fine dining, breakfast, pastry, every department. I learnt a lot about the food of the Maldives and the people. They taught me a lot, including how to create local dishes. I learnt so much.
Q. And finally you returned home to Cambodia?
A. In early 2016, I returned to Cambodia. I saw the GM of Jaya House River Park, Christian de Boer, posting pre-opening jobs and he invited me for an interview. He told me that the kitchen must be plastic-free, that they were going to plant many trees, and he told me that I could have my own kitchen garden. I was very excited. He hired me as executive chef of Trorkuon restaurant and gave me complete freedom.
Q. What did you do with all that freedom?
A. I decided that Trorkuon must be Cambodian. At a hotel you have to offer different cuisines, but I decided that for dinner everything must be Cambodian. I wanted to showcase traditional Cambodian cuisine, but I wanted it to look modern. I learnt on my travels that most people don’t know anything about Cambodian food. I wanted them to learn about Cambodian food, so I kept the authentic flavours but changed the presentation to make the dishes look more appealing.
Q. Your wonderful beef and red ant stir-fry is a great example.
A. Yes, the beef and red ant stir-fry is very traditional in taste but I deep-fry the red ants so they are crispy and I use less sauce. I make it a little bit spicy and I lighten it up with watercress so the dish tastes fresh and light.
Q. Tell me how that heavenly lamb dish came about.
A. Some Cambodians eat a dish with meat, banana heart, vegetables, and herbs. The meat is slow-cooked with basil, carrots, etc. Men love to eat this dish when they are tired after playing volleyball as they think it makes them strong and gives them energy. So I replaced the meat with Australian lamb. In Cambodia, we don’t have lamb, so it’s unusual, but I make it in a Cambodian style with local ingredients.
Q. It’s incredibly delicious. I adore lamb and love that dish.
A. I also make a grilled chicken curry that is marinated in curry powder, salt and pepper, and is a fusion of Cambodian chicken curry and nom banh chok. It’s both traditional and modern at the same time.
Q. Are you happy with the direction of your cuisine and the restaurant?
A. Yes, I am really happy with the menu and dishes and my team. I am doing a lot of research, eating on the streets. I develop recipes and we share ideas in the kitchen, my chefs cook the dishes and give them to me to taste, and we develop them as a team.
Q. What do you think of Siem Reap’s restaurant scene?
A. It’s great! Restaurants in Siem Reap are increasing all the time. The local chefs are developing and growing a lot. We have some fantastic Cambodian restaurants here.
Q. What about Cambodian cuisine?
A. We still have a lot of work to do to make Cambodian food more known to the world. Some people who know Cambodian food think it is just prahok. Most people know Thai food and they think Cambodian food is just like Thai food. I want people to know that Cambodian food is not Thai food. I want people to know about Cambodian food and culture and what it is. We still have spice, but it is less spicy. We also have a lot of smoked fish and fermented fish. Cambodian food is healthier. We have great local produce.
Q. Tell me about the produce you are using.
A. I grow some organic herbs, lettuce and lemongrass. I still go to the market 3-4 times a week, although that’s mainly for the cooking classes, because suppliers deliver our produce here. I really get inspired by fresh Cambodian produce, the different seasons, and the seasonal ingredients, so when milk fruit season finishes, there is custard apple and sapodilla, so I create new dishes according to what’s in season. I have a Khmer Tasting Menu, which I change as ingredients come in and out of season and I create daily specials that use that seasonal produce.
Q. Everything is organic?
A. Most. Organic produce tastes much better. People don’t like the look of it with the bugs but it tastes better and it’s healthier. I heard rich Cambodians are installing hydroponic systems at home; people are becoming better educated. In the countryside, farmers use what they grow in their village but I am worried about people in Cambodian cities using more produce from Thailand and Vietnam. Cambodia cannot grow enough for its cities so we need to support our farmers to help them grow more.
Q. How much local produce do you use?
A. Almost everything in the kitchen is local, except some imported protein, like lamb from Australia, and some condiments. It must be Cambodian for me. All I’m changing is the presentation and maybe an ingredient or two, but it’s Cambodian food so the ingredients must be Cambodian.
Q. Why is that so important to you?
A. Most people know Thai food but they don’t know our food, so I have to promote Cambodian food. No way we can lose our Cambodian culinary heritage. A lot of Cambodian chefs are very proud of their cuisine and chefs in Siem Reap are promoting Cambodian food more and more. We can always do more to promote Cambodian cuisine.
Q. Future dreams? Any plans to travel again soon?
A. No. I’ve been dreaming for years that I wanted to be an executive chef and now I am living my dream. I am very happy here. I don’t have any plans to go anywhere for a while.
Jaya House River Park
Riverside, Treang Village, Siem Reap
+855 (0) 63 962 555
Rok Rak Street, Siem Reap
+855 (0) 12 233 350
Have you sampled Cambodian chef Tim Pheak’s food at Trorkuon or Templation? We’d love to get your feedback in the comments below.