My journey to Cambodia began last November. I had just finished a gruelling week at Sydney’s Quay and found myself sat with restaurateur John Fink enjoying a long lunch that extended well into the evening. I should’ve been writing. John should’ve been working. But I had just reached half way and was in the mood to celebrate. Reflecting on the jobs completed and jobs to come, John’s eyes lit up at the mention of Cambodia. If I wanted to witness something truly remarkable, he told me, I should visit Jaan Bai in Cambodia’s Battamabang: a social enterprise restaurant he consulted for along with Asia’s best chef David Thompson. So 14 weeks later, I found myself on a 16-hour bus ride from Vietnam with nothing but a bag of deep fried insects for company.
Throughout my trip, I have worked in and encountered many social enterprises. But this week was entirely different. This was my first experience of a kitchen charity in a third world country suffering problems of mass poverty. Jaan Bai, (Khmer for rice bowl) operated by the Cambodian Children’s Trust, regards this issue as the focal point for the restaurant. They believe that only through training, education, and employment can the people of Cambodian hope to break away from this cycle of poverty.
The working day began with a trip to the morning market to buy produce for the day’s service. Having hitherto only worked in restaurants that had produce delivered, the experience of shopping added a certain romantic charm to the culinary creative process. Trailing Jaan Bai’s Head Chef Mohm, I received a full intro into Cambodian produce with ample time for feasting on market snacks such as sticky rice cakes stuffed with jack fruit and wrapped in banana leaves and evil little fish sticks packed with sinister amounts of chilli.
Opening the Jaan Bai menu you may wonder why a restaurant championing Cambodian people and local produce isn’t serving exclusively Cambodian food. But this is a training kitchen and teaching staff a load of dishes they already know sort of defeats the object of the Jaan Bai project. This is why you will find an eclectic mix of pan-Asian dishes that require a diverse range of culinary techniques. Education, education, education. The staff were so geared up towards training that in the space of three days I had prepared, cooked, plated and served every dish on the menu. Where else could I do that?
You will find odes to old Cambodian flavours, such as khmer yellow curry or chaa kdam kampot pepper crab, using bright green and aromatic kampot pepper; contemporary Asian classics such as the slow cooked 5 spice pork belly bao with Cambodian slaw; and re-appropriation of Western techniques to Eastern flavours, such as mushroom tortellini masquerading as a Cambodian dumpling.
Outside the kitchen walls, staff took part in morning coffee master classes to make flat whites that wouldn’t look out of place in one of Melbourne’s hip cafes. There were also lessons in craft cocktails to master tipples that are far from the weak sugary concoctions you find in most of Cambodia. And said cocktails certainly make for great conversation starters to learn a few ‘local’ lessons – on one fateful evening, odd-job man Buffalo informed me you can cure malaria by drinking rusty water and if you need a tattoo the best homemade ink is created from 50% battery acid and 50% breast milk (I couldn’t make that stuff up if I tried)!
Of course a training kitchen produces many additional challenges. Staff members have little to no experience when they first start and there are language problems and cultural differences. Mistakes are made. Yet despite this the chefs are forever patient, calm and deal with matters with grace and decorum that I’ve hereto not encountered in a kitchen. You won’t find many Ramsay temperaments in this kitchen.
In light of the above this week really was not a story of food but a story of people. Of Buffalo who knocked a window into the restaurant wall when all others expected such a feat would bring the building crashing down. Of Tom & Sam giving every waking moment of their lives to work and train the staff and yet still find the energy to sink a ‘few’ beers with me after work. Of the waiting staff who rushed between shifts to English lessons to become better servers. And of Mohm, who overcame unimaginable hardships in life to lead Jaan Bai as head chef and inspire generations to come.
If Jaan Bai were in London, New York or Paris, it would be a resounding success. But the fact they achieved such a high standard in Battamabang is all the more remarkable. You may expect their slickness to be a result of years of perfecting a winning formula, however they have only been open just under a year. But it is amazing to witness what can be achieved when people come together in search of triumph over adversity. For the people of Jaan Bai, food represents the key to a brighter future.