The 43-year-old Kampot native, Chef Luu Hong, has a rich store of resources for thrilling the taste buds of those who pass through the doors of Malis.
At a young age, Luu Hong was already immersed in the life of spices that emanated from his parents’ small family restaurant and, passionate about culinary arts, he is still engaged in a constant search for new flavours. Now, and even on weekends, he makes the most of his free time to concoct delicious dishes that delight the senses of his wife, two children and friends in his beloved garden. When he wants a little respite, he escapes to his guitar or somewhere where the water is quiet so he can bathe and swim, his favourite sport.
Born during the Khmer Rouge era, Hong has an independent and autonomous character. At the age of six, he learned Chinese at home, without being schooled in the language. From the age of 13, he worked as a young watchmaker when, in between repairs and making new models, he took the time to observe his mother in the kitchen in the company of his brother, the celebrated Cambodian chef, Luu Meng.
“I loved watching her, she was an incredible inspiration. I still call her when I need advice about my preparations,” he said.
At this time, a particular interest in TV cookery shows also fed his curiosity. The spirit of an emerging Cambodian chef was already measuring his horizons.
When he was old enough, but without any qualifications, he took his first steps into the restaurant world in the kitchens of The Red House in Phnom Penh. Founded by a big Singaporean chef, he built his experience at this establishment, where as a commis he set about mastering the rudiments and multiple techniques of cooking.
“The years I spent at The Red House brought me an enormous amount of knowledge of the basics. With a varied menu, I had to learn to master the different ways of cooking, taste profiling, and my time,” he said.
Later, in 2006, he joined Malis in Phnom Penh as Second de Cuisine. Here he perfected his knowledge under the direction of his brother, and enjoyed the sage advice of his family and of French chef, Alain Darc. Today, he manages the brigades at two Malis outlets, in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
Under a Chef’s Skin
Far from relaxing, a chef’s day is always busy. At 8am, they start with a first meeting with the general director in order to work out their strategies, plan events, etc… Next, he gets together with his team to talk about organisation and the preparation for service. When the first clients arrive, the brigade leaps to action: The clattering of utensils and the crackling of seared food mingles with the scent of spices. The ovens are hard at work so as to satisfy the hungry palates of the regulars. At the same time, this chef is thinking of new flavours and new combinations to exploit. The first service ends at around 2pm.
“Covid has meant fewer tourists, and as a result we’re quieter. We’ve had to reduce working hours and put part of our team on vacation. It was a difficult decision to take, but we had to do it in order to stay open,” he explained. At 6pm, the second service begins and Hong dedicates himself to preparing the dishes, assisted at different stages by his team, gives instructions to his commis chef and ensures that everything runs smoothly until the ovens are switched off at 9pm.
The clients at Malis expect the best, and are always on the look out for a flavour journey that will surprise their palates. To achieve that, the chef has an array of secret weapons. “One of my specialities is Kulen Pig, well known for its unique flavours. I like to grill it, covered in honey and kroeung (Khmer curry paste made from lime grass, kafir leaves, turmeric and galangal). I recommend cooking it slowly. It needs two hours on each side, and then another two hours on the spit. I also particularly love seafood, especially Mekong Lobster. Our customers love them with Prahok Sauce and sticky rice”.
The Golden Rule: High Expectations
Cooking is not an easy world. In the restaurant world, it is necessary to be rigorous, careful and precise. The dishes should arouse desire with an attractive presentation and a service that is synchronised so that even a large table can dine together. In order to direct an efficient brigade, a chef needs to know his environment, the tools he will use and his ingredients like the back of his hands. Everything must be like clockwork.
“Expectation remains essential. I wish to refine our customers’ palates, and for them to leave with a smile.”
But that is not all. This profession brings with it a lot of stress. Among the people that he has met during his career, Hong has cooked for different prime ministers, Thai royalty and other representatives of Asian and other countries throughout the world. He has also fed cinema stars such as Jackie Chan and Michelle Yeoh, and prepared dishes for well-known athletes such as David Beckham. He has even shared his ovens with Gordon Ramsay, the three-Michelin-starred chef. “My greatest challenges are often tied to precision. We often welcome important people such as politicians and artists from different continents. I’ve also been brought in to work for special events at embassies. Obviously, our standards are the same for everyone, though our reputation can be put at stake.”
Always on the lookout for novelty, from Singapore to Hong Kong, and passing through Laos, Thailand, Japan and Vietnam, Hong has expanded his range of flavour experiences. He has showcased his creations in known establishments abroad, all while representing Cambodia as he travels. “I remember cooking at the Ladies’ Recreation Club in Hong Kong where there was a charity sale of football shirts, books and records signed by influential people. The money raised was donated to the Cambodian NGO Pour Un Sourire d’Enfant (PSE).
With regard to his projects, Hong wishes to continue with his culinary journey and to specialise in seafood, not forgetting his favoured grill.