Within moments of meeting Joannes I knew I would be in good hands. At the crack of dawn, while the backpackers slept off their bucket drink induced hangovers from a night on ‘Pub Street’, Jo greeted me, wad of cash in hand, with a beaming grin outside Siem Reap’s Old Market. Like a king of the traders, Jo zipped from stall to stall shouting out orders in Khmer, pausing only to explain the various exotic Cambodian ingredients that flanked our paths. “This is garcinia leaf, it’s sour like sorrel…there’s elephant ear leaf: great taste but the sap has calcium crystals that can deliver a mild sting…smell that? It’s maam, Cambodian fermented fish paste we’ll use later.” While I pushed through market crowds attempting to digest all Jo’s knowledge, local men came out of nowhere to take the bags from our hands and bike them back to the restaurant. An entire shop for a 60-cover restaurant in 20 minutes? Jo meant business.
After treating the locals to the amusing sight of two big blokes bumbling on a tiny moped while balancing bags of pork ribs in our laps, we arrived at Jo’s restaurant, Cuisine Wat Damnak which is housed in a beautiful, traditional Khmer house. Of French heritage, Jo and his wife Carole serve Cambodian haute cuisine using only the finest Cambodian ingredients. They offer two 6 course-tasting menus that change every week according to market availability and are open only for dinner 5 days a week. “Vive la France!” Jo exclaimed. To no surprise I soon discovered Jo’s other favourite pastime includes ridiculing the French which is, well, very French of him.
After witnessing the morning shop came my second surprise when I arrived to an empty kitchen. Not a commis in sight. Not only was Jo the first to arrive, but as I later discovered, he was also the last to leave. Under his watchful eye we set about our misse en place. Dashing around preparing stocks, while sipping coffee and munching on pastries, you could be forgiven for thinking we were in France. But this was Cambodian food, with Cambodian flavours. We salted with fish sauce, sweetened with palm sugar and you can forget butter. The nearest thing we could muster was pork fat. I joked with Jo that people must pigeonhole him into the ‘local cuisine with a French technique’ category. “Maybe Alex” came the response, “but what sane minded French man would boil an aubergine?”
As the ingredients came together new flavours began to fill the kitchen with their aromas unlike anything I had encountered in Cambodia. Jo told me of the travesties of the Khmer Rogue period when a quarter of the population were worked, starved or tortured to death. Inevitably this destroyed Cambodia’s culinary tradition. All cookbooks were burned, diversity in agriculture destroyed and people were too worried about trying to survive than to learn how to cook. This regime changed the culinary landscape forever. Soon tourism became Siam Reap’s main industry and dishes were adapted for western tastes. Jo is nothing short of a French Indiana Jones, discovering treasures of old and giving them a platform for the future.
The fermented fish (maam) from the market reared its ugly face again in a dish paired with pineapple and confit pork shank. A stinking Cambodian take on a Hawaiian pizza, this sounded like my idea of food hell. But the mamm, like many ferments such as miso, was rich in umami and when twinned with the sweetness of the pineapple and the rich fatty pork the flavours balanced. A selection of accompanying crudities of elephant ear, Asian basil and black sanif oregano gave a crunch and aromatic intensity to finish the dish. I could not believe I was enjoying this. I’m sure this is in part why Jo only serves a taster menu because otherwise people may shy away from experiencing such dishes.
Another unusual, but traditional Cambodian flavour combination combines palm sugar braised tomatoes and fresh green mango with a perfectly cooked fillet of Sanday fish. But the killer punch to this dish came from the fresh green kampot pepper corns. Like Vietnamese cuisine, Cambodian food often contains five key flavours all of which were present here: sweet and sour from the tomato chuntey, bitterness from the mango, savoury from the fish and spice from the kampot peppercorns. The plate was elegantly presented in that classic French plating structure of sauce, protein, garnish, the 4-4-2 formation of haute cuisine.
Many of the other courses offered unique Cambodian flavours with a hint of va va voom. A mekong langoustine curry with pumpkin and tamarind leaves. The boiled aubergines reappeared paired with tiger prawns, coral and prahok emulsion- a sauce not dissimlar to a spiced prawn bisque. Then there were the pork ribs that would have any pork lover drooling at the mouth. We marinated the ribs in palm sugar, garlic, chilli and fish sauce and seared them on the BBQ before serving with a jungle style soup, cut with bitter wild sour leaves. Naturally when we ran out mid service this had nothing to do with the fact Jo and I, like two naughty boys, snacked on half a kilo of freshly grilled ribs earlier that day.
But of all the dishes one truly stood out: red snapper with glazed turnips, crisp ginger and deep-fried garlic and a beef and clam jus. This brought surf and turf to a whole new level. I can imagine my experience of eating this akin to a Cambodian trying boeuf bourguignon for the fist time. Sometimes I wondered if Jo had re-invented the wheel.
Working at Cuisine Wat Damnak over two weeks gave me the privilege of tasting four menus in the kitchen, which certainly gave a new meaning to the concept of a ‘chef’s table’. But for all the feasting it was my time spent with Jo that was most memorable. “Alex, I’m adding oil to the prawn stock because the red pigment isn’t soluble in water… I’m using a touch of xyntham gum because it adds a thickness only recognisable in the mouth…we are going to balance this sauce using fire ants a Cambodian alternative to souring with vinegar.” And at every step, it was taste, taste, taste. My spoon rarely spent a minute in my chef apron.
Throughout my travels I have often observed France’s unrivalled influence on global dining and cuisine, an influence that extends far beyond my countless experiences of fine dining based on the rigor of French technique. In Mexico, they popularised bread, in Mendoza they transformed the wine industry from quantity to quality and the Vietnamese national dish, pho? Well it just wouldn’t taste the same without the rich French meat stock.
Over a long lunch in São Paulo, chef Alberto Landgraf, a Gordon Ramsay student, emphatically told me that without the French, and in particular Pierre Koffmann and the Roux brothers, us Brits would still be dining in Little Chefs on gammon and chips. At the time I thought he was mad, but now I’m not so sure. Perhaps in time Jo will be held in the same regard as the French masters. Not only has Cuisine Wat Damnak ensured the survival and transmission on what was in danger of becoming a lost culinary tradition, but Jo’s infectious passion for food will rank Cambodian cuisine among the world’s best and surely inspire a generation of Cambodian chefs to come.
Huge thanks to the Gran Tourismo duo Lara and Terence for hooking me up with this opportunity.