Not long ago, Savour BlackBookAsia had a small chat with master-chef and Malis co-founder Luu Meng about the things that are important to him and continue to influence him today as he continues his mission to define Living Cambodian Cuisine and bring it to the world.
Below is a transcript of the interview:
The chef whose name has become synonymous with the research and revival of Cambodian Cuisine, Luu Meng is one of the founders of Malis restaurant in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, together with numerous other enterprises. Meng started his career at a hotel school in Thailand, before building on his training across the region. He returned to Cambodia to take up a position with the Sofitel Cambodiana in Phnom Penh, before moving to Siem Reap in 2002 as part of the opening team for Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra Golf & Spa Resort, the first five-star hotel in Siem Reap.
Meng and his friend Arnaud Darc founded Malis in 2004 in response to the lack of options for anyone wanting to dine out and eat Cambodian food in Phnom Penh. While popular in people’s home, very few restaurants in the city offered local cuisine. Seeking to address that, Meng went out on a six-month discovery mission across the Kingdom, and built on the knowledge gained to create Living Cambodian Cuisine, an expression of ancient Cambodian traditions recreated with modern equipment, techniques and understanding. Living Cambodian Cuisine is at the core of Malis’ mission.
Despite his exceptionally busy schedule as a lynchpin of two restaurant and hospitality groups and member of numerous associations, Meng still cooks at Malis in Phnom Penh several times a week.
1. What is your philosophy when it comes to food?
When we developed Living Cambodian Cuisine it was with the very clear idea that no cuisine is unchanging or does not evolve. Cambodian cuisine represents a truly unique combination of influences from all over the world — from the native Khmer, as well as India, France and China — and is a living testament to the dynamic way a cuisine absorbs ideas and develops through time. That said, certain principles remain the same, and with Cambodian cuisine it is the freshness, vitality and seasonality of the ingredients that intimately links each dish with its cultural and geographical origins.
When we started Malis, we had no resources defining Cambodian Cuisine or the principles that bind it to work with. We started from scratch, and my research took me all over the country, where I met and talked to the people who were making the best versions of their local dishes. I took that knowledge back to Phnom Penh with me and, with the advantages of a modern kitchen and modern techniques, adapted those recipes to suit modern tastes. This is Living Cambodian Cuisine. We don’t cook for the past, or the future as that’s too far away, but for today and how people like to experience things now.
2. Name your most Favorite dish on the menu? And why?
That would have to be the Young Bamboo Soup. The dish has a lovely mineral-herb flavour, and also uses smoked fish, which brings quite a unique flavour.. it is seasonal, as the fish are only smoked for two to three months of the year, and can then be used throughout the year. I especially love the sweetness of the young bamboo, which give such a natural fullness and balance of flavour. It’s a soup that can be eaten any time of the day.
3. Main considerations when it comes to choosing your ingredients?
I need to know where it comes from. In Cambodia, a coconut is never just a coconut. It is a product of the land that created it and each source is different. For me, when I’m choosing ingredients for a particular dish, I look at where I can find the best particular fruits and vegetables, because they are all different. Even the ducks in Phnom Penh taste different from the ducks in Siem Reap. To get the real flavour of Cambodia, you have to know that the best coconuts and durians come from Kampot, and that the best rice comes from Battambang, etc.
All Cambodians are like this. It is impossible to cross the country in a car without stopping 100 times so we can pick up our favourite foods along the way, and we know where all the best ones can be found.
4. How do you see the growing demands for sustainable produce affecting the food world?
We have to protect the world we live in because without it we have nothing, and as chefs it is our duty to adapt to that reality. It’s also good for what we create as the more natural the processes that produce food, the more natural the flavours. Chefs have tremendous influence on the market, and can make it more profitable for companies to deliver better, more sustainable produce if they worked together on this.
At Malis, we are lucky that almost all of our ingredients come from Cambodia so we do not have to import many products. Also, many of them are de facto organic, even if there is no real certification system here. But that doesn’t mean we are complacent and we always look for ways of improving our sourcing and waste management.
5. If you weren’t a chef, or in the food business, what would you be?
I’d be reading many books and teaching people the values of my experience. I never thought about this before to be honest. I like the idea of teaching people. At this stage, I’ve learned a lot of lessons, from good experiences and bad ones. The lessons from the bad ones tend to stick the most though, of course. It would be nice to teach others so they don’t have to make the same mistakes.
6. Do you have a memorable food experience that impacted you as a child or young chef?
My mum always cooked good food. She was such a great cook and had a huge impact on me. When I was eight, I used to help her make her kuy teav (noodle soup), and it always tasted so good. I think that through her, being able to eat a good kuy teav before going to school is something that has gone deeply into my DNA.
7. What do you enjoy most about being a chef?
I love a good challenge, and of course, it’s always wonderful to receive feedback from guests that makes you feel happy and proud. It’s very encouraging. Sometimes they give you feedback that allows you to see where you can improve, and that is part of the challenge I enjoy as well.
8. Other than creating good food, what are the most important qualities that make a successful chef?
There are no short cuts. Follow the basics. Respect the ingredients. Understand the balance of flavours for each particular ingredient.
9. If you had a choice of anything for your last meal, what would you choose to have?
I think it would have to be a great dessert. A light one.
10. Do you have any tips for budding chefs or restaurateurs?
For young chefs, when you are young, make sure you get the best professional experience that you can. Go find the best kitchen to work in and learn the systems of management and hygiene and everything that you need to know to run a great kitchen. Travel to different countries and discover new ideas and techniques from the ones you grew up with. Then you will have the solid basis from which to get creative and have lots of fun.
For restaurateurs, no matter how passionate your interest in food, to run a restaurant is another step. You have to question if you are passionate enough — yet able to stand back too and view things objectively. Do you have the time Are you able to find the people who reflect your values. To love good food is one thing. Running a good restaurant is totally different.