Teaching underprivileged teenagers in Cambodia to cook was the starting point for this French chef to open an exquisite restaurant experimenting with the local bounty of Siem Reap.
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Joannès Rivière established his elegant restaurant Cuisine Wat Damnak in Siem Reap in 2011. Rivière had arrived in the historic city eight years earlier as a young volunteer for the French non-profit organization, Sala Bai. As a qualified chef who had studied cooking near his hometown of Roanne, in the Loire, he slipped naturally into the new role of teaching culinary skills to underprivileged Cambodian teenagers. In 2010, after a three year stint as Executive Chef in the famed Hotel de la Paix, he and his wife Carole Salmon decided to set up a restaurant that could celebrate the extraordinary local produce while pushing the envelope to address Joannès’s skills and creativity. The food is innovative and splendidly presented, and has won accolades from the likes of Raymond Blanc.
Cuisine Wat Damnak (named after the local temple near the Old Market) is situated in a traditional Khmer style two level timber house.
“We always wanted a traditional house with a garden for the restaurant, so we could feel at home,” says Joannès. “We designed the place ourselves, making a few mistakes along the way, but I’m happy to say it is more or less the same idea I started with.”
The aim is to steer away from traditional Khmer food such as amok, and to instead celebrate local, sometimes rare, foods. Fruits such as ambarella, Java feronilla and shellfish unique to the vast Tonle Sap (the massive inland lake) are combined with edible flowers, seeds and stems.
Joannès has made strong and loyal relationships with his suppliers at the local markets. “Going to the Old Market [Phsar Chas] myself keeps me in touch with the seasonality of the ingredients as well as making me part of the community.” Excellent degustation menus are devised according to ingredients bought in Phsar Chas, and from the local gleaners and foragers. The menu changes weekly, with such temptations on offer as Mekong langoustine clear sour curry with water lily stem or fresh and candied pomelo salad, crispy pork and Siem Reap sausage, chrysanthemum and cosmos sprouts.
The aim is to steer away from traditional Khmer food such as amok, and to instead celebrate local, sometimes rare, foods. Fruits such as ambarella, Java feronilla and shellfish unique to the vast Tonle Sap (the massive inland lake) are combined with edible flowers, seeds and stems. With a staff of 14 and busy opening hours, Joannès’s guiding rule in the kitchen is “to try to make it until the end of the service”. Precious time off is spent playing lego and drawing pizzas with his 3 year old son.