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. It put Siem Reap on the map as a dining destination and remains a must-do.
Cuisine Wat Damnak, the Best Restaurant in Cambodia Puts Siem Reap on the Culinary Map
It was great news for Cambodia when chef Joannès Rivière’s Cuisine Wat Damnak landed on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list. The award put Siem Reap 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, especially for destinations entering the list for the first time, such as Cambodia.
Some expressed surprise on social media that a Cambodian restaurant — and a Siem Reap restaurant at that — had 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 money and movers and shakers are, and that in a tourist destination such as Siem Reap, there are only going to be eateries aimed at tourists.
While there are undoubtedly countless restaurants targeted at visitors and an abundance of mediocre eateries, Siem Reap is also home to some outstanding restaurants to dine, one of the finest of which is chef Joannès Rivière’s Cuisine Wat Damnak.
Cuisine Wat Damnak has topped our list of recommended restaurants that people should dine at when they come to Cambodia since it opened in April 2011. (And I include it on the Savour Siem Reap itineraries I curate for food-loving travellers.)
We first dined at Cuisine Wat Damnak a few weeks after its doors, when we were on a magazine assignment in ‘Temple Town’, as expats in the tourist industry call it, doing a ‘Siem Reap beyond the temples’ story. When we moved to Siem Reap two years later, we ate at the restaurant at least once or twice a month, so eager were we to sample the new dishes on the two menus that changed weekly according to what was in season.
On that first trip to Siem Reap, we were fortune to get a fantastic introduction to Cambodian cuisine. We were spoilt eating some of the city’s most delicious Cambodian food at the exclusive resort, Amansara. We feasted on traditional home-style cooking at the Sugar Palm, owned by chef Kethana Dunnett, considered the godmother of Cambodian food. And we savoured the contemporary Cambodian gastronomy that chef Joannès Rivière’s had 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’, as he’s fondly called, hadn’t come to Cambodia to work at a five-star hotel or open a restaurant where he’d transform Cambodian cuisine. He came to one of Southeast Asia’s poorest countries to work as a volunteer cooking instructor at Siem Reap’s Sala Bai Hotel School, teaching European cuisines.
After moving to Hotel de la Paix and opening Meric, chef Jo began to experiment with 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.
The hotel chefs who took inspiration from Meric’s new style of presenting Cambodian food, didn’t appreciate that considerable thought, ingenuity and technique went into the dishes. Instead, most chefs simply created tiny portions of Cambodian favourites: a thimble of soup in a shot glass, a tablespoon of banana blossom salad in a tiny bowl, spring rolls half their usual size, mini beef skewers, and so on, prettily arranged on a platter decorated with pink frangipanis.
After opening Cuisine Wat Damnak, chef Joannès took a step away from those small creative plates and began to revisit traditional Cambodian dishes, while at the same time approaching other recipes in a way that could only be contemporary.
“I always have one or two very traditional dishes on each menu,” the chef 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,” chef Joannès 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 crab brain soup, the dish is prepared without the crab shells that are used in the countryside — Cambodians love texture, especially anything they can crunch between their teeth, but foreigners don’t find the struggle of biting through crustacean shells enjoyable in the way that the locals do — 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 more refined, more elegant and more accessible.
For chef Joannès — 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 Michelin-starred restaurants — quality ingredients are key.
At Cuisine Wat Damnak, chef Joannès 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 Joannès tell us. “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 all be lost.”
Put Cuisine Wat Damnak at the top of your restaurant list when you visit Siem Reap, but do also book tables at some of these other Siem Reap Cambodian restaurants we recommend, established by an exciting new generation of creative young local chefs.
By Lara Dunston
In the Kitchen at Cuisine Wat Damnak, Cambodia’s Best Restaurant
Chef Joannès Rivière, 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.
The couple could be making a killing by opening for lunch and dinner seven days a week, or opening a satellite branch of Cuisine Wat Damnak in the heart of Siem Reap’s Old Market area. The restaurant is on a dusty road a 5-minute tuk tuk ride from Pub Street. 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 the chef 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 in the kitchen for the first couple of hours of service, making photographs of the team at work, and chatting to the chef when I could about his tasting menus and the guests that come to sample them.
Chef Jo knows that his flavours are authentic, but he also knows that the bitter, sour and pungent flavours favoured by Cambodians do not usually appeal to a ‘Western’ palate. Yet they are the essence of Khmer cuisine.
The chef has spent years researching Khmer dishes — and he is one of the only chefs in Cambodia who knows the difference between Khmer cuisine and Cambodian cuisine. The latter includes ‘foreign’ dishes, such as beef loc lac, a dish that travelled here from Vietnam and China.
One dish that Joannès 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 that is so beloved by locals, which generally proves to be a challenge for visitors.
On this night the amuse bouche was pork mince with prahok, chef Jo’s version of a traditional Cambodian specialty, prahok k’tis. The chef handed me a little tasting spoon of it to try — 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 Cambodian flavours, and diners who aren’t familiar with the cuisine, need a little education.
While Chef Jo’s cuisine is firmly rooted in Khmer tradition, 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 of the kitchen, 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.
By Terence Carter.
Cuisine Wat Damnak
If you’re a food-loving traveller heading to Cambodia, 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. Lara also creates bespoke cuisine and culture focused itineraries.