In the kitchens of the Malis of Siem Reap, everyone calls him “Chef Sokha”. From his stoves, Heng Chan Sokha watches over the reputation of a restaurant that showcases all the flavours of Cambodian cuisine, a daily challenge that this lover of gastronomy takes up with undisguised pleasure.
What makes a dish balanced? What is the right balance between the ingredients that make it up? How do you properly dose the multitude of spices that make up the salt of Cambodian cuisine? On this, and many other culinary questions, chef Heng Chan Sokha is inexhaustible. This former student of the Paul Dubrule school, who also worked there as a teacher, has dedicated his entire career to gastronomy in all its forms.
A radio programme as a trigger
Before the end of high school, nothing suggested the young Sokha would work in a kitchen. “I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do later,” he says, “and the more time passed, the more the question preoccupied me. Luckily, when I turned on the radio one day, I came across a cooking show that literally captivated me. Every day, the presenters would detail a recipe and little by little I tried to reproduce their advice. With more or less success, I must admit! But it doesn’t matter: thanks to them, I had found my vocation!”.
After completing a general second cycle at school, Heng Chan Sokha decided to go to a hospitality school and learned about Paul Dubrule. Founded in Siem Reap in 2002, this NGO has trained a large number of the actors who work in Siem Reap tourist and hospitality industries. To do so, you still have to pass the entrance exam. “When I was called for a first interview, I got on my bike and anxiously rode the 17 kilometres that separated the school from my parents’ house. Once I arrived, I was asked to cook an omelette. I didn’t even know what it was! I improvised as best I could, and even if the result wasn’t necessarily up to scratch, the organisers had to see that I was doing my best to avoid a total failure. Three days later a phone call announced the good news: I was selected.”
A matter of taste
“It was then that a new world opened up for me, a world that was sometimes confusing. I will always remember the first day, when I was given the jacket and the cooking hat.
“I got used to it very quickly, but I was surprised to say the least. I remind you that my “apprenticeship” had until then been through the radio, and I had no idea that cooks could wear such a special costume.”
The year of training went well, and Sokha left with a memory of a period rich in teachings. “Everything interested me, every aspect of the job was fascinating in more ways than one. The teachers were able to keep us on our toes, which is quite a challenge when teaching young adults. I would soon find out something about it when I became a teacher at the same school later on. One thing that struck me more than anything else, and gave me a real understanding of what cooking was all about, is the day a teacher told me that to be a real chef, you have to know how to taste as well as how to cook. And he was right! I have never lost sight of this advice, as well as all the advice I received during my training there.”
You don’t need to see the chef in his jacket and toque to understand that cooking is a very important part of his life. You only have to ask him about it to see his passion for the alchemy of food, a passion that he also shares with his family and he frequently exchanges knowledge with his wife and mother. This is not to mention the many meetings between chefs, which allow him to broaden his range of skills. “Cooking is a permanent exchange; it’s a field in which we are constantly learning”, says Sokha.
This openness manifests itself on the plate, where Sokha has made a name for himself in Cambodian and Italian cuisines, the latter being another of the specialities that he was able to develop in his first job. “When I finished my training at Paul Dubrule, I was immediately hired at the Méridien Angkor, where I stayed for four years, gradually climbing the ladder. Clerk, game manager, deputy manager… After a while, I felt the need to share the experience I had acquired. So, when Paul Dubrule School contacted me for a teaching position, I did not hesitate to respond favourably to the request”.
Kep crab and its fried rice, Bor Bor soup, Samlor Korko and Amok
There, for five years, he taught his students the discipline that must reign in the kitchen. “It’s not a job that only consists of preparing recipes. It’s also about knowing your exact place, you have to be rigorous while showing initiative, speed and presence of mind. Not forgetting hygiene. The very first thing I do when I arrive in the morning is to make sure that the premises are impeccably clean, without that, it is impossible for me to cook. When everything is ready, I can then start making my favourite recipes: Kep crab and fried rice, Bor Bor soup, Samlor Korko, and not forgetting Amok.
Cambodian cuisine is an extremely varied cuisine, though unfortunately still too little known. It is however of a rare complexity. Judging by the diversity of the ingredients used, be it spices, plants, herbs and flowers, or pastes such as prahok. It is a cuisine that demands a great deal of respect. Without it, the dish will at best be bland, or even completely missed. It is also a gastronomy that has evolved greatly in recent years, thanks to the interest it has aroused among both consumers and cooks. Ancestral recipes are reappearing, and often very interesting experiments are taking place alongside them.
The Malis adventure
When Malis opens its doors in Siem Reap in 2016, Sokha was immediately invited to join the team. His vision of Khmer gastronomy, deeply respectful and faithful to tradition, could only lead him to find his place here.
“I remember being contacted even before the building was constructed. Luu Meng, the chef of the Malis in Phnom Penh, received me under the plastic sheeting and asked me to work with them. I obviously couldn’t refuse such a challenge!”
And then, to offer the best of Cambodian cuisine in a setting such as Malis is a great honour. Heng Chan Sokha is one of the most in-fashion chefs in a city that is particularly rich in top-of-the-range restaurants. Something to delight the taste buds of those who consider that Khmer gastronomy is undoubtedly on the same level as that of its neighbours.