Food for thought

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 April, 2011, 12:00am


Cambodian-born Armand Gerbie's life and loves read like the movie scripts that made Narie Hem, his film-star mother, famous.

When he moved from Phnom Penh to Paris, France, he became immersed in a whirl of premieres, parties, celebrity and champagne. His first marriage, in 1960, to Princess Sisowath Kalyan Devi, the present Cambodian king's niece, was his passport into the upper echelons of aristocratic high society. His second marriage was to a statuesque and leggy chorus-line dancer, who moved with him to Sydney, Australia. They, too, divorced and he opened Armand's Cafe a few yards from Fox Studios in Sydney, where his list of regulars included Keanu Reeves, Val Kilmer, Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor.

With that kind of glitzy goodwill he had no problem selling for a handsome profit. He then returned to Cambodia, where he opened Armand's The Bistro near Phnom Penh's open-air weekend night market, fell in love with a Cambodian beauty and now has a bouncing baby boy.

'I have reverted to my days at the Lido [a Paris restaurant], where we put on a show for the diners, with our steak flambe,' he says. 'My restaurant here is only the width of a single shophouse, but my customers are embassy staff, ambassadors, businessmen and lovers who want a bit of flaming excitement with their romance. And when movie stars like Angelina Jolie and Matt Dillon stay in town, they know they can come to me for a quiet meal.'

Phnom Penh's culinary spotlight is currently on the recently opened Sofitel hotel, with its eight restaurants and bars, but if you look further afield, the capital has much else to offer the gastronome - and fast-food lover.

At Malis, on Norodom Boulevard, known by locals as 'restaurant row', Cambodian food is the star. Entered through a striking entrance of natural stone with water running in channels cut into the footpath, it is owned and run by Luu Meng, who can rightly be called the country's first celebrity chef. It's a reputation that caught the attention and imagination of Gordon Ramsay.

The British restaurateur with the four-letter-word attitude spent time at Luu Meng's elbow to record a British television series on Southeast Asian cooking. It's a compliment Luu Meng accepts with self-effacing charm, knowing that the resulting television exposure on the other side of the world is another building block in the steady progress of Cambodian cuisine. The chef/gastro-entrepreneur has reached his current pre-eminence through hard work and gentle single-mindedness, as was displayed at a food forum in Brunei last year.

'We took 20 boxes of herbs and spices. We had to take care of them more than we would a baby. The menu focused on the uniqueness of our food. The starter was a scallop salad with five mixed herbs and chilli palm sugar sauce. Then we served samlor thnorng leaves with chicken followed by amok fish and a dessert of taro dumpling with coconut sauce.

'I am constantly looking at and tasting traditional dishes with a view to making minor alterations to improve or modify their taste for the modern palate.'

Song Teng, Luu Meng's former boss at the capital's Cambodiana hotel, has been exploring the country's culinary nuances for the past 20 years. The hotel is set among gardens with a swimming pool, tennis courts and terraces running down to the Bassac River and, although he works out of a tiny office in the basement, he has become the ultimate go-to chef when visiting diplomats, presidents, kings, prime ministers and special envoys pay their respects to the Cambodian royal family.

'A man comes from the palace to tell us when the party is and who it's for,' Song says. 'We then prepare several menus that he takes to the palace. The royal family then look at them and tick the things they like.

'We know that the king father [Norodom Sihanouk] enjoys champagne, spring chicken and duck. Foie gras is also a favourite, as are Kobe tenderloin with Kampot pepper sauce and sorbet. Those dishes often feature on our menus, too' at L'amboise, the hotel's high-end dining room, and the Mekong Garden restaurant.

'The king father has written to me to thank me, but it's not in our culture to become too familiar with royalty. I am here, after all, to serve.'

Service with a cheery chuckle is Chenda Im's trademark at Mike's Burgers, on a petrol station forecourt off the road to the airport, about 10 kilometres from the centre of Phnom Penh. He creates burger banquets in a tiny kitchen at the back of an eatery that has seating for no more than a dozen diners.

It is a wonder Chenda Im is in the country of his birth at all, after his experiences with the Khmer Rouge in 1975.

'Me, my father and two sisters were herded into the countryside, where I was put to work in the paddy fields. It was hard, back-breaking labour and we were only allowed a few hours' sleep a night. There was little or no food and many people died or were taken away, never to be seen again.'

The family found their way back to their village but then, in 1979, heard that the Vietnamese were coming.

'We feared the Vietnamese, what would they do to us? Would they think we were Khmer Rouge? So we packed what we could and headed for the Thai border, where, we were told, people were waiting to be sent to another country and freedom.'

After about two weeks in a chaotic camp just inside Thailand, Thai soldiers forced about 10,000 people on to buses at gunpoint.

'When they stopped we found ourselves at Preah Vihear mountain [on the Cambodian border], where the soldiers told us to get out. We were tired, hungry and terrified. We huddled together on the sheer cliff face on the very edge of a [525 metre] drop into the jungle below. We were frozen to the spot until the Thai soldiers moved forward and started pushing at those nearest the edge of the precipice with the butts of their rifles.'

His eyes brimming with tears, he says he still hears the screams of the people who fell to their death, a chilling sound punctuated by explosions as others made it to the jungle floor to be blown apart by landmines.

'The Thai soldiers opened fire on those scrambling down the cliff and threatened to turn their guns on us if we didn't start our descent. We made it to the bottom and followed the path made by people ahead of us. Sometimes we used the bodies of the dead as stepping stones.'

When they returned to their village, Vietnamese soldiers distributed food parcels, but the prospect of living under a communist regime was too much for Chenda Im's father. A second escape attempt took them to a Red Cross camp on the Thai border and within a few months they gained passports and flew to California, and new lives.

Chenda Im says he left to experience the American dream and has returned to Cambodia with a symbol of it - burgers.