A Postcard from Ambootia

During my last few days in I Darjeeling I visited the Ambootia plantation, one of the first tea gardens established by the British in the mid-19th century. Here are a few pics from my time there.

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Hand picked tea from previous day's work.

Hand picked tea from previous day’s work.

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First Flush Foodish

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People often ask why I wanted to work my way around the world. There is no simple answer to this. Trust me I’ve tried. With every new job, hostel and travel companion, I attempted to answer this question, always getting lost in my reasoning and ending up making little sense at all. Perhaps I should work on a suitable soundbite or an answer in 140 characters? But the difficulty is that with each new experience my motives for working, as opposed to ‘food tourism’, became increasingly complex. My week in Darjeeling proved no exception.

After spending the first few days in Darjeeling, picking the finest first flush on the Happy Valley plantation, the estate manager hurried over to announce an opportunity few people ever get to experience. I would be joining the men in the factory to manufacture the leaves I had picked the previous day into my own tea. This was truly a rare honour – even the most important clients of the company simply observe the production. However, with time on my side, and my willingness to work hard over the week, the chaps felt it only right to allow me the privilege of following my tea from leaf to cup, assisting in every step of the way.

Hand picked tea from previous day's work.

Hand picked tea from previous day’s work.

Yesterday’s tea, had been laid out over night and blasted with warm air to wither and lose roughly 65% of moisture. Happy Valley use little technology in the process, with everything produced in similar way to that of the 1850s. The test for the correct moisture levels? Grabbing a handful of leaves and testing it by touch. Three separate workers came to assess the tea, all independently giving the same percentage of moisture loss. Production was ready to start.

Our withered tea leaves were then rolled to allow for the cell walls to break thereby starting fermentation (the process in which the green leaves turn black). Rolling is crucial as it releases the tea’s aromas and gives colour and strength to your cup. The rolled leaves were then laid on the floor to ferment – in this instance just for 40 minutes. (Imagine cutting open an apple and leaving it. Over time you will see the white of the apple turn brown. This is exactly what happens with tea.)

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Finally the leaves were dried and roasted in an oven that is over 160 years old to stop any chemical reactions and extend the shelf life of the tea. The whole process took barely two hours, quicker than I had ever imagined. The tea I had picked yesterday would be ready to drink just 24 hours later.

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One final task remained which was the sorting of leaves into different sizes of leaf. Some factories do this by machine. Happy Valley insisted I do it by hand to gain a better understanding of the different types of leaf size. So there I sat cross legged with the tea ladies sorting our baskets as the sun beamed in through the factory windows. After several hours straining to see the slightest difference between leaves, came the moment I had been waiting for – the tasting of my hand-picked tea.

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An old woman shuffled into the factory with a pair of scales and a kettle. As the water boiled we weighed out the freshly roasted tea leaves. As soon as the hot water hit the leaves, tea aroma immediately filled the air. They say a watched kettle never boils, so imagine the suspense of waiting for that first taste while the leaves steeped and the liquor cooled.

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Finally the moment had arrived. I raised the cup to my mouth, inhaled the aromas and slurped a big gulp. It was like nothing I had tasted before. The liquor was light and brisk with hints of fresh jasmine and a slight smokiness from the fermentation and roasting stage. There was no bitterness, no lingering after taste – just a smooth finish that felt almost medicinal in its effect. Was I drinking the elixir of life?

It is now some weeks since I visited Darjeeling but as I sit here writing, the tea from that day in the factory steeps in my mug. As I sip the brew, I am instantly transported back to Happy Valley. The aromas of the freshly picked leaves being laid out to wither, the sounds of the antique oven clattering as it roasted the leaves, and the dull ache in my legs at the end of the day picking up the mountainside. Why do I want to work my way around the world? In the case of Darjeeling, there are few things more beautiful in life than enjoying something you have created and the memories made in doing so.

The Return of the Tea Guru

Open my wallet and you will find a shabby business card from my former life when jobs lasted more than a week. Alex Nazaruk, teapigs, tea guru. I’m still unsure why this keepsake has such sentimental value. Perhaps, as my first career after University, it captures the zeitgeist of young adulthood? Perhaps it is a reminder of all stories from being part of a small business that grew rapidly from minnows to market leaders (like the time we realised an order for the states required a 13 digit bar code forcing us to drive to our warehouse to hand sticker 100,000 packs in -2°C). Or maybe it reminded me of unfinished business. Because for all the experiences, lessons learned, and biscuit runs to Brentford Morrison’s (I still hold the record at 4:10 secs) there was one major problem that trivialized my title as tea guru: I had never visited a tea plantation.

So last year, when I set about planning my culinary adventure, I sought to rectify this by working on the Dragonwell tea plantation in Hangzhou China. Pretty quickly, though, I realised my timings were a miss and I ended up arriving to find snow covered tea bushes. Undeterred I set about making new plans, re-routing my trip via Darjeeling so that I would arrive during the ‘first flush’ season in which the spring rains produce the very finest and freshest tea leaves of the year.

In China - too cold for tea!

In China – too cold for tea!

My second attempt to work on a tea plantation started badly when my lift from the airport was no-where to be seen. My phone had died, my card had stopped working and I hadn’t a cent of cash to quench my thirst in the blistering heat. Hours passed and still my lift failed to arrive. I took a gamble and hiked my way from the airport in a bid to find somewhere with internet (anyone who has visited Bagdogra will know just how difficult this is). In a strange twist of fate, a local sporting an England cricket hat raced towards me on the dirt track. By the virtue of the fact I was a. English, b. knew who Kevin Pietersen was and c. had actually been watching the T20 world cup, he escorted me to his mates hut where I sat between two cows, using their computer to call the plantation. A replacement car was on its way. Believe it or not KP had saved the day!

As we ascended the mountains to the town of Darjeeling, the delay in my car’s arrival became immediately obvious as we picked up not one but two flat tyres from the ragged road. The first caused little trouble, a quick change on the mountain side as the sunset in the distance on some of the most breath-taking scenery I had encountered on my travels. The second however, required us to drive slowly till we stumbled across a road side garage where, unsurprisingly, we joined a long queue of others who suffered a familiar fate.

After a long 36 hour journey, from a Thai tropical island to 7000 ft into the Himalayas, I finally arrived at my hotel in a world that time forgot. The lack of sleep only served to heighten the illusion I was a colonial Englishman in the 1860s. An elderly Indian chap plonked out show tunes on the piano as I sat by the fire-place sipping cherry brandy, surrounded by oak panelling, teak furniture and Daniell lithographs. I lasted all of two minutes until I drifted fast asleep.

The following day began at the crack of dawn. Still weary from the trip I put on my headscarf, attached my basket and trudged down the mountainside to start my day’s work. I would be spending the day with one of teapigs suppliers Happy Valley, who are the oldest and highest plantation in town established in 1854. Altitude, antique trees and heritage translate into excellent quality tea, with some batches fetching over $100 a kilo at auction. Imagine the grand cru champagne of the tea world and you’re somewhere close.

I greeted the Happy Valley tea ladies who unlike me were in good spirits for such an ungodly hour. They explained it was important we picked early as even a few extra hours of sunlight can impact on the quality. My task was to pick only the youngest and most tender two leaves and a bud on the tea trees, some of which were so fresh they had yet to lose their tiny white hairs all along the leaf – a bushy sign of quality. I trailed the ladies as they sang their way up the mountainside, picking with just the one hand until I mastered the skill, and lobbing the fresh leaves over my head into the basket behind. I paused to close my eyes and draw in a deep breath. The early morning dew had accented the aromas of the fields and the air was filled with aromas of freshly mown grass only sweeter and more floral. I would not forget this moment in a hurry.

 

We darted across streams, through woodland, and up, down and along the mountain side all while the smiling ladies giggled away at arguably the first man, let alone foreigner, to spend a day working with them. After several hours picking I had built up some appetite and so I was thrilled to stop for a lunch of homemade pickles, chapatis and dhal. With great pride the plantation manager, Arun Sharma presented me with some homemade chili sauce – one the finest I had ever tasted.

The afternoon continued by ascending over 1000ft while picking, something that proved exceptionally challenging at high altitude when the heat of the day broke through the clouds. At the end of tiring day despite my best efforts I returned to the factory having only picked 500g – a far cry from the 3kg of my mentoring tea ladies. I helped the men of the factory bring the tea leaves inside, where we scattered them in troughs to wither over night.

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A long day’s work

Exhausted doesn’t begin to cover it, but in spite of this, the satisfaction of finally living out an experience I used to dream about so often from my desk at teapigs had me beaming with delight. Tomorrow I would take my 500g of tea and manufacture it into some very special hand produced first flush tea. But for now, time for some rest. Someone put the kettle on.

 

Cocktails and Dreams

Don’t worry, I have already anticipated your disapproval. It doesn’t matter how many 16-hour shifts I put in at kitchens around the world. Nor how many times I find myself in tough working circumstances. Whenever I take my foot off the gas and work a job bordering on a holiday, I’m accused of hypocrisy. Look, it’s not my fault that I had the opportunity to shake cocktails on some tropical Thai island. It’s not my fault they insisted on putting me up in a $500 a night luxury beachfront villa. Perhaps I should have worked one of those grimy jobs you sadistically take pleasure in reading about me suffering in? But in my situation you would have done the same…and you don’t even share my little guilty secret I’m about to confess to.

You see when ‘tropical island’, ‘cocktails’ and ‘bartending’ are ever mentioned, one thing springs to mind – Tom Cruise and the 80s movie Cocktail. You can stop sniggering, but for some time now I have had grand delusions of a Brian Flanagan based fantasy set in a bamboo hut, where I would find myself in a floral shirt, the fountain of youth, shaking drinks “so sweet and snazzy” to exotic women in leopard print bikinis. Maybe I would meet my Jordan Mooney? Maybe there was a nearby waterfall to live out another type of fantasy? Maybe…Maybe I’ve confessed too much.

When He Pours, He Reigns

When He Pours, He Reigns

So yes, no matter how odd your dreams are, it pays to follow them because there I found myself, at the Belmond Hotel in Koh Samui, ready to start my week of bar tending. Clearly all those stories of missed flights and general bad behaviour had not dissuaded the Belmond staff from giving me access to all areas to everything beverage related. Drinking was part of the experience I was told (although they did assure me that should I have one too many daiquiris then the groundsman had a suitably sized net to catch me in before I disturbed the other guests).

Factor 50 at the ready, there have been few easier commutes than a short walk along my private beach to the ‘chefs on wheels’ bar. There stood a small food truck affixed to a moped where I would spend my day hacking the tops off coconuts, and topping them up with enough local rum to help the many honeymooners turn the resort into a swingers party. Strictly in the interest of professionalism, I had to sample each concoction to make sure I knew what I was talking about and after all it was rather hot and I needed to keep hydrated. Trouble soon followed when the general manager caught the local barman and me conspiring how we could break out of the complex with our ‘booze on wheels’ truck to find some local night life. It was soon decided that it was perhaps for the best I spent the following day at a bar that I couldn’t take ‘on tour’.

The next day at the beach bar, the real challenge began with a long cocktail menu inspired by homegrown herbs, Thai flavours and local spirits to master in a short period for the day’s service. But I had a good incentive. If I did well, and learned the principles of cocktail making I could spend the evening creating cocktails of my own.

Ko Samui - Thailand

After some good behaviour, it wasn’t long before I had commandeered the bar to play around with a few ‘alternative cocktails’. Thankfully by this time, the Cocktail fantasy was making good progress having found my very own Jordan, who was a much more seasoned professional in the cocktail department than I was. Much to the confusion of the other bar staff a cocktail battle soon broke out between the two of us. Her take on an Manhattan, with smoked Chase vodka was a winner, as was my exceptionally camp rhubarb martini. A twist on a Mojito by muddling kaffir lime leaves, palm sugar, watermelon and tequila, proved successful but by the time a whisky, passion fruit and ginger thing made an appearance I was in a cocktail induced state of giggles and ready to ease off the experimenting in favour of an ice cold Chang. Surely not all bar tending is this much fun?

As you may imagine, the days at the Belmond continued in much the same manner but for all the cocktails consumed, it was another drink that caught my eye. But how could it not when at $100 a cup it is the world’s most expensive coffee? What makes it so expensive? The coffee cherries are fed to elephants who digest the fruit but excrete the bean. These beans are then washed, sorted, roasted and ground. The coffee is then brewed using an 18th-Century Austrian machine – somewhere between a French Press and a syphon.

At first I dismissed this as nothing but a gimmick, paying for the novelty over the quality of the coffee. After all, what coffee can really be worth $100 a cup? Having spent a week coffee farming in Brazil I was certain the experience wouldn’t compare. But on tasting the brew I was surprised. The ‘Black Ivory Coffee’ was not like any coffee I’ve tried before, an exceptional light body, slightly sweet, with hints of lemongrass and other such zesty notes. No caramel, chocolate or malt flavours here. If you have enough money, and drinking animal excrement is your thing then you know the place to go!

As the sun set on my last evening at the Belmond, my time in South-East Asia came to an end. With 5 jobs, in 4 weeks across 3 countries, I was pleased to have escaped my project for a short while and lose myself as a barman in a tropical paradise. So what if my attempts to emulate Mr Flanagan had actually resulted in a slightly sunburnt and tipsy Englishman dishing up ropey cocktails by the pool? I had a damn good time doing so in such a world of luxury… it really was the stuff of ‘Cocktails and Dreams’. I leave you with the words of the last (Thai) barman poet…

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I am the last barman poet.
I see Thailand drinking
the fabulous cocktails I make,
Ladyboys getting stinky
on something I stir or shake.
 
The Sex on the Beach,
the schnapps made from peach,
the Velvet Hammer,
the Alabama Slammer!
 
I make things with juice and froth,
the Pink Squirrel,
the three-toed sloth.
 
I make drinks so sweet and snazzy,
the Iced Tea, the Kamikaze,
the Orgasm, the Death Spasm,
the Singapore Sling,
the Ding-a-ling.
 
Thailand, you’ve just been devoted
to every flavor I’ve got.
But if you want to get loaded,
why don’t you just order a shot?!
 
Bar is OPEN.
Prices at Belmond Napasai start from £201 per night, including taxes, based on two sharing a Sea View Hill Villa or £322 per night, including taxes, based on two sharing a Beachfront Villa with breakfast. For further information or to make a booking, call the Belmond UK Reservations team on 0845 077 2222 or visit www.belmond.com

Asia’s Best Restaurant

You would assume that by starting more jobs than most experience in a lifetime, I would’ve become immune to first day nerves. Nothing can compare to the terrifying moment I first stepped inside a professional kitchen, but when I walked into Nahm, Asia’s best restaurant, the feeling certainly came close. It was not, however, the intimidating prospect of cooking in a restaurant of this calibre that caused me concern. As I entered the kitchen a grubby print-out caught my eye. Twinned with a portrait of a young Marco Pierre-White, arguably the most anxiety inducing figure to chefs, the headline read “How Chefs Feel About Food Critics and Food Bloggers”. I froze in terror. Had I entered the lion’s den? Surely this did not serve as a good omen for the week ahead.

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Before I could read the accompanying article, I felt a tap on my shoulder. This was it, the moment I would be thrown to a band of angry chefs where I would suffer a tirade of abuse on behalf of my industry. “Welcome chef, I brought you a coffee, one of the waiters is fetching you some fresh fruit juice. Have you had breakfast? We can make you a snack if you like?” What? Me? Was there some confusion? The chef glanced towards Marco, then to me and smiled, “don’t worry. Look at where you are. Look at your whites. While you’re with us you’re a cook not a blogger”. Despite my heart still racing, I now felt at ease. I had a feeling this was going to be a good week.

Whereas my last kitchen Issaya reinvented ‘Thai classics’ with modern techniques and international influences, Nahm takes the opposite approach. Chef David Thompson plays the role of culinary scholar, creating food from old world Thai recipes that serve a taste of authentic Thailand. David respects traditional techniques, honours forgotten ingredients, and a gives a voice to regional and specialist cuisine. No sous vide, no fancy foams and certainly no liquid nitrogen puddings. The menu consists of salads, soups, relishes, curries and desserts. As an Australian it must take an awful lot of bollocks to preach of authenticity to Thais on home turf, but with such critical acclaim, David has proven through his skill and scholarship that with great risks comes great reward.

The Nahm Chefs in Action

The Nahm Chefs in Action

Working in such a revered restaurant I had anticipated reacquainting myself with my favourite pastime of herb picking. But on this occasion head chef, Prin, volunteered me as the saucier’s apprentice assisting with the curry station. Thai food is arguably the most complex I’ve met on my travels and with David’s intricacies and fanatical attention to detail it become mind-blowingly complex. Spices are roasted individually, pastes are made by hand, the meat is cooked twice prior to combining it with the sauce and the potatoes and shallots are pre-grilled over coals with aromatics. All of the ingredients are slowly combined in a methodical process, adjusting the seasoning with fish sauce, palm sugar and tamarind, and sprinkling ground spices for added aroma (note not flavour).

Such attention to detail results in curries of striking distinction and depth of flavour. Too often Thai restaurants in the UK serve curries with a homogenous taste drowned in coconut milk and overtly sweetened with excessive amounts of palm sugar. Chef Prin also told me that over the past 50 years a similar thing has also occurred in Thailand which is why they are so concerned with history and tradition. Whether it be the Guinea fowl curry with rare shampoo ginger, or the spicy jungle curry of salted beef and fresh green peppercorns, each curry at Nahm presents a different taste sensation. And don’t even get me started on the umami rich smoked fish innards curry with chicken liver, prawn and cockles that oozed of salty goodness and spice. Here is one dish that was close to extinction before David put it on the menu – now you have restaurants all over the world taking inspiration from it.

While the curries celebrated a slow and low approach, my time on the soup station was the opposite. The soups were cooked to order in a matter of minutes to beguile diners with their freshness and fragrance. From the clear soup of tender duck, slippery young coconut and thai basil, to the richer coconut, chicken, green mango and red chili, the soup chef had me tasting at every stage to see how each one appealed to the Thai tenets of sweet, spicy, salty and sour. And when something falls into the spicy group, such as the Tom Yum of chicken mushroom and blue prawn, I’m talking toilet paper in the freezer type spice.

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David makes no apologies for the level of spice used. To him, taming of spices would be akin to asking a French wine maker to water down their Bordeaux. An evening on the salad station highlighted this with the buckets of fresh chilies and spicy sauces coating the salads. A chef portioned off a sample of the wagyu beef with cucumber mint and sour leaf which was so spicy I could feel the previous night’s Chang instantly sweat out of my pores. Other less spicy offerings included crayfish salad with asian pennywort, minced pork, roasted coconut and coriander root and a cured hiramasa kingfish salad with lime, mint and ample helpings of finely sliced tender lemongrass.

With so much to learn I barely had any time to work on the stir fried, grilled and steamed, canapé, and relish sections but I was able to sneak into the pastry kitchen at the end of most nights. It was here I met my food hell – the Durian fruit. I don’t want to say too much because I think you should all give this one a try at some stage. All I’m going to say is they have warning posters banning it from Bangkok transport due to its stench. (If you have tried it, let me know how you found it in the comments below.)

While writing this post Nahm was awarded 13th place on the World Top 50 Restaurant list. While such lists are not without criticism, the chart toppers certainly influence how people view and cook food. In the case of Nahm, David Thompson has led a renaissance of thai cuisine, from within the homeland in which it was born. Not only will this inspire generations of chefs (indeed many have left to open successful restaurants) but Nahm’s place in the world top 50 provides the perfect platform to spread the taste of authentic Thai food internationally.

On my last night I stopped to read the article that had induced such dread the first moment I walked in the kitchen. At the core of the argument it suggested bloggers would do well to step inside chef shoes for a minute to appreciate how much work goes into making a meal. Thanks to the generosity of David, Prin, Chris and all the rest of the team at Nahm I was able to find out.

Ladybirds and Ladyboys

“All things truly wicked start from an innocence.” The wise words of Hemingway seemed to sound on repeat during my first week in Thailand. Each day started the same. A band of giggling girls welcomed me in the pastry kitchen of Issaya, one of Asia’s leading restaurants. Thai pop music filled the air to partner drifting aromas of tempered chocolate, candied sugar and freshly baked financiers. Around me the girls delicately pipped macarons, sculpted cheesecakes into ladybirds and sculpted tiny cotton trees with freshly spun candy floss. I stood in due reverence of the sweet delights being assembled in their unmitigated beauty. This kitchen was a nirvana of all things sweet and lovely, a return to the innocence of youth.

But when service finished a different story began to unfold. This was Bangkok after all. With temptation at every turn it’s all too easy to lose a grip of reality in a daze of hedonistic glory. You may well have good intentions, but not for very long. Even a quick drink in my local dive bar, Wong’s Place, descended into a night of debauchery that saw the Bangkok underworld witness night become day to the tune of vintage MTV tapes, Chang beer and ladyboys. I could tell you more. I would tell you more. But Mother’s friends at the tennis club read this and as I’m soon to return home a penniless man I need an excuse for you to buy me a beer.

Maybe I am viewing this wrong? Perhaps the atmosphere of the pastry kitchen did not stimulate a dichotomy between night and day. Surely it kept everything under control? Work with play: the ying to Bangkok’s yang? Okay, okay, I’ll shut up now. you probably want to hear about the food. That is, after all, the reason I traveled to this city in the first place.

Housed in a stunning 1920s villa, Issaya serves up some of the best modern Thai food around. The menu reads like the rise of head chef Ian Kittichai’s culinary career from a food cart seller to becoming one of Thailand’s most iconic chefs. Thai food from the streets and his childhood re-imagined with inspiration and techniques from the number of international kitchens he worked in (though thankfully, the “burger no bun” Ian was forced to cook for Paris Hilton’s dog was one item that did not the Issaya menu).

I was placed in the pastry kitchen, as the chef there spoke English (always a bonus to know what the hell is going on). And I’m pleased I was. My encounters with Thai desserts prior to Issaya, were at times disappointing with many restaurants treating pudding like an afterthought. But Issaya is different, offering argubly the best sweets in town. Far from a purist approach, the dishes range from thai classics with modern twists to modern classics with thai twists. Take for example the kanom cake. This celebrates a very traditional thai practice known as tian op where a beeswax candle with aromatics such as piney frankincense, is burnt to infuse a cream based sweet. In this case a smoked coconut cheese cake, with citrus compote and tropical fruit foam.

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The menu also offers a flirtation with street food, such as the kluay-kaek a deep fried floured banana. Only at Issaya, the dish is presented as a grilled banana eclair, with coconut ice cream to help cool down its molten banana centre. There is jasmine infused panna cotta with jasmine rice ice cream, Thai sticky rice mochi filled with black coconut and roasted cashew nut, and a selection of Thai inspired petite fours.

During service the girls drew my attention to the irony that the most expensive item on the menu. Kanom tung taek, figuratively translates as broken bucket because the original street food snack was so cheap even the bankrupt could afford it. But the heft price tag was justified by the spectacular way in which chefs perform the dish on the diners table with splatters of passion fruit foam, sour mulberry purée and shredded coconut seasoning. And, for the grand finale, chefs smash a chocolate sphere containing a coconut soufflé frozen with dry ice into the middle of the table. It’s not every day you get the opportunity as a chef to throw stuff on customers’ tables (unless, of course, you work at Chicago’s Alinea)!

Regular readers of this blog will no doubt have noticed my leanings towards the savoury side of life. Pretty little pastries don’t sing to my soul as much as crisp fried pork skin or a runny slab of stinking époisses. So on my last night I took the opportunity to sneak out of the pastry section to join the action in the hot kitchen. It wasn’t long before I was scooping out the brains of lobsters, and singeing my eye brows on the wok station. The kitchen was hot hard work, the pace ferocious and the chefs welcomed their new colleague by forcing some local banana liquor on me. I immediately felt at home.

There was a beautifully fresh ped krob salad, with slow cooked duck leg, red okra leaves and tropical fruit, given a lick of life with some fiery hot chili pepper dressing. A  poo nim tod prik pao kai kem, which if you could order without giggling would bring to you some deep-fried soft shell crabs served with a spicy egg sauce. And of course Thai classics like mussamun curry and goong pad char (tiger prawns in holy basil sauce). One customer almost ended up with no main when I saw the nua sun seaklong – a slow cooked tender beef short ribs in a chili lime sauce. I only reluctantly let the waiter take it away when he promised I could sample a rib or two later.

By the end of my week at Issaya, I was feeling exhausted to say the least. Cooking in kitchens is draining at the best of times without enjoying extra curricular ‘activities’ in Bangkok’s Soi Cowboy and Patpong districts. In the midnight heat I wearily slumped back to my hostel for a good night’s sleep. As I reached home two travellers were waiting outside Wong’s Place looking a little annoyed. “Don’t worry” I told them “it will open eventually just not for a while.” At that moment the inside red lights flicked on giving a glow of devilish temptation. Hmmm maybe just the one drink…it’s what Hemingway would’ve wanted.

Huge to thanks to all the chefs at Issaya and to Sarah and Ian for welcoming into their restaurant for the week.

Huge to thanks to all the chefs at Issaya and to Sarah and Ian for welcoming into their restaurant for the week. You guys rock.

The Masterchef

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 houseOf 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 Jonesdiscovering 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Fire ants - a nightmare to wash and clean.

Fire ants – a nightmare to wash and clean.

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.

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Jo in action.

Foodish Boy Cuisine Wat Damnak

I often look at the below photo with great happiness. Perched on the pass, brow sweating, apron mucky and spoon at the ready I ‘look’ like a chef. But thanks to Jo in that moment I felt like one.

Huge thanks to the Gran Tourismo duo Lara and Terence for hooking me up with this opportunity.