“This woman has the best bananas; very sweet,” chef Joannès Rivière confides, pointing to a fruit seller as he buys a bag of the ambarella leaves that Cambodians love to eat young and raw. “This is my coconut supplier,” the chef announces when we pass a man making fresh coconut milk at a rustic grinder. We are hurrying along the wet, slippery, cement alleyways of our local market, Phsar Chas or Old Market, in colonial Siem Reap, Cambodia’s main tourism destination thanks to the spectacular Khmer Empire temples of Angkor Archaeological Park, including stupendous Angkor Wat, just down the road.
Rivière is in a rush. He must buy some sweet, meaty Mekong langoustines from the diminutive Cambodian lady he calls “the lobster mafia”, before she runs out. The French chef and owner of Cuisine Wat Damnak – recently named Cambodia’s Best Restaurant at number 50 on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list – sources seafood from several suppliers, including a middle-aged woman wearing mismatched pink floral pyjamas at the adjoining stall. All of the seafood the chef uses is Cambodian. The freshwater fish comes from the nearby Tonlé Sap, the largest lake in Southeast Asia. The colossal crabs trying to escape from a mountain of crushed ice have travelled the longest distance – a day’s drive away, from Kep on the south coast, where they’re famously stir-fried with Kampot’s legendary pepper, long considered the world’s finest. Rivière’s warm smile temporarily fades. In a stern voice, in fluent Khmer, he chastises the vendor for selling the fish she’d promised to save for him. A similar scene occurred a few minutes earlier in the fruit and vegetable section where another merchant had sold some herbs Rivière wanted. There, the woman chuckled affectionately at the Frenchman’s annoyance, as if she might at an uptight husband who was taking life too seriously.
The chef has a cheeky sense of humour, with which she’d be familiar (Rivière is a frequent shopper at the market), however, he takes his job seriously. Each Tuesday he changes his two tasting menus (there’s no a la carte), based on what’s in season and available, so he needs to ensure he has a week’s supply for the carefully balanced dishes on the menus. It’s Rivière’s commitment to using only fresh, local, seasonal produce, his passion for authentic flavours and hard-to-find ingredients, and his creative approach to traditional cooking that has made his contemporary Cambodian restaurant the country’s best. “I’d like to see the award as a message to Cambodian chefs,” Rivière tells me in the dining room of the atmospheric old Khmer teak house that’s home to Cuisine Wat Damnak, named after the nearby Buddhist pagoda. “It proves that you don’t have to use imported products like foie gras; that it’s possible to do a world-class restaurant with local produce.”
Rivière sources other ingredients from a cooperative of local farming families, who were earning $2 a day before Danish NGO Agricultural Development Denmark Asia (ADDA) came to their aid. He also works with different families for specific things, like wild ginger leaf and tree cucumbers. His wonderful pork and delicious free-range chickens are also raised in Siem Reap province. “I really like to work on ingredients,” reveals Rivière, who was born in Roanne, France, to a family of organic vegetable growers who supplied some of the area’s Michelin-starred restaurants. After graduating from culinary school, he honed his pastry skills in the USA, before volunteering in 2003 as a cooking instructor at Siem Reap’s Sala Bai Hotel School, where he wrote a Cambodian cookbook. From 2005 to 2010 he was Executive Chef of five-star Hotel de la Paix (now Park Hyatt), where at restaurant Meric he developed the first form of contemporary Cambodian cuisine based on compact creative interpretations of local dishes. “I don’t have as much time to travel around Cambodia now as I used to,” Rivière admits. “But I still find new products every once in a while, or a new technique, and then I work on that. When I find something that works I just keep developing it.”
Rivière has a repertoire of some 300 dishes, many variations of the same dish. Each menu features his take on a couple of traditional dishes, such as his rich, spice-heavy Saraman curry, a Cambodian Muslim curry in the same family as Thai Massaman, as well as dishes that might taste quintessentially Cambodian but no longer resemble the dish that was their inspiration. “The black sticky rice porridge,” Rivière says, grinning, when I ask for examples. “It’s exactly the same ingredients as the boborporridge your find everywhere for breakfast at the market, with turnip, rice and dried calamari. But when I do it with black sticky rice it takes on the texture of risotto, but it really tastes like bobor, but doesn’t look like it at all.” I ask the chef what ingredients he’s experimenting with right now and whether he follows global food trends. “I like fermentation,” Rivière admits, although dismisses foraging, which was normal for a boy growing up picking wild mushrooms and berries. “That’s interesting to me because there is a huge culture of fermentation in Cambodia, so I’m finding plenty of cool things to do. I made my own fermented chilli sauce – my own Sriracha! – and it worked really well. But being here in Cambodia for 12 years keeps you away from the trends going on in the world!"