It's the tail end of the wet season in Cambodia when "everything goes sideways, all the canals are full of water, all the rivers are full and everything stops and there’s water flowing everywhere." Joannès Rivière giggles as he describes the effects of the recent heavy rains that have affected much of the country. You might be forgiven for thinking this chef from a small village in the Loire Valley is a fish out of water in the melting pot of Southeast Asia, but this jovial Frenchman has proved the contrary - it's exactly where he belongs.
Rivière has called Cambodia home for 17 years and has no plans on leaving any time soon. The fluent Khmer-speaker opened his Cuisine Wat Damnak restaurant in the heart of Siem Reap’s Wat Damnak village with his wife Carole Salmon a decade ago, and they have three children, each with a Cambodian middle name.
It’s the time of the annual Cambodian water festival or Bon Om Touk, a celebration that marks the switching of the flow between the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers, signifying the end of the rainy season, and most excitingly for Rivière, marking the beginning of the fishing season. "We’ll have a lot of very cool fresh water fish. I really look forward to that," he says.
In the rural surrounds of Wat Damnak village, Rivière's Cuisine Wat Damnak restaurant can be found in a traditional Cambodian timber house set in a lush tropical garden, where he serves hyper-local cuisine. It might feel a long way from the raging coronavirus pandemic - and they have avoided having to shutter thus far - yet the ripple effects have still been strongly felt.
While the country is 'officially' Covid free, his restaurant still complies with standard safety measures, like social distancing, mask-wearing and taking customer contact details. But business has tailed off dramatically in recent months, in a restaurant that relies on international tourism for 99 percent of its custom. "There are no flights coming in and the port is closed. Tourism is closed. Here everything’s open, it’s just completely empty. We have automatic social distancing in Cambodia," he laughs, despite his plight.
"We cannot really leave the country either, if we leave back to France we might we might not be able to come back. We have to work and be resilient and make the best of it."
Image: The kitchen at Cuisine Wat Damnak
Rivière's was one of the first restaurants to put Cambodia's growing culinary scene on the map, having featured on The World's 50 Best Restaurant's list and garnering an international clientele. His restaurant was also a recent recipient of the 50 Best for Recovery Fund, providing essential financial relief for restaurants worldwide in partnership with S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna.
He says the donation helped them to "breathe, basically,” allowing him to pay a month's salary for the entire team and secure his staff. "The most important thing is to keep our staff, because we know them very well and we work with them for a long time. That money was assigned to our staff, to keep them for as long as we can, until we can find another way to pay their salary," he explains. "It’s very important to understand that tourism is a new industry in Cambodia, and when people lose their job and have to move back to their village they lose faith and they never come back."
As it stands, he says "people don’t have money any more to come to our restaurant, or they went back to their country to find a job. We’re just trying to make it work day by day." He's already in the midst of discussions to open a second restaurant in the capital, Phnom Penh, which will be just as elegant, but maybe with more casual fare. Here the market is as buoyant as before, with people still eating out, and he's still welcoming holidaying tourists from the capital.
Rivière arrived in Cambodia as a culinary teacher for a non-profit organisation. Cooking was already in his family's blood, his father was both a vegetable farmer and restaurateur in France when he was a kid. He'd grown up hearing about Cambodia from his father, uncle and aunt, who'd lived there before the war, sewing the seed in his mind as he naturally gravitated towards combining the two.
After a couple of years working as a pastry chef in New York, he took up a volunteer opportunity in Cambodia. "I changed my military service to a civic service, and I stayed, like seventeen years ago. Seventeen years ago nobody wanted to come here," he jokes. He first devoted his time to training underprivileged Cambodian youths and writing the school's cookbook, Cambodian Cooking. "It’s very, very difficult to understand, especially in countries like Cambodia where you don’t understand everything, you don't have all the data in your hands. It gave me a very good inside view and training on all those development questions which are still very important here," he explains.
Joining Siem Reap's Hotel de la Paix as executive chef, he honed his skills for a further five years. It was here that the he thought his journey might be about to end before a chance meeting changed his destiny. "We were about to go back to France when I met David Thompson, and he told me you should stay and open a restaurant. I told my wife and she was a bit upset that I'd changed my mind again, but that was 10 years ago."
Image: The upstairs dining room at Cuisine Wat Damnak
He instinctively learnt Cambodian food at the same time as learning the language. "I first used the topic of Cambodian cuisine to learn the language, so it was easy as that’s what I was doing.. Then it becomes like a drug, you always want to know more and go further into a product or technique. It’s like a game."
Meanwhile, the local community equipped him with his culinary education. "Everyone taught me - the cooking teacher I worked with as a volunteer, the staff at the hotel, my landlord, my friend's landlord, the ladies at the market." With his cooking-style taking shape, he was "very inspired by Cambodian cuisine - classic, modern, street food - anything that makes Cambodian cuisine alive and tasty."
Rivière now cooks dishes based on local combinations of plants, spices and herbs at his restaurant, where the menu changes every fortnight. During this year's wet season he's focused on wild mushrooms and wild roots like white tuber and yams. Using a new type of catfish, one of his current dishes riffs on a traditional Cambodian bamboo soup, with a light coconut broth, chanterelles and yam.
As the cool season approaches, his selection of produce also changes. "We’ll get western ingredients we don’t usually get because it’s too hot, like tomatoes, coriander and fresh onions, and that’s also very exciting," he says.
Image: Caramelised palm sugar braised pork shank with star anise, bamboo shoots and crispy breast
Cambodia has yet to attract the Michelin guide, unlike neighbouring Thailand, whose infrastructure reflects the kingdom's culinary wealth. "First of all you come to Cambodia for the country and for Cambodians," he reflects. "The market is too unpredictable, unstable, for Michelin. There’s not much done for Cambodian cuisine in Cambodia, there’s not a proper cooking school or much of a food culture. Nobody learns about Cambodian food, it's just assumed people know about their food. But very often they don’t. They learn how to make thousand island dressing, club sandwich and cordon bleu. They will not learn properly about their own food, and that’s a bit sad."
Image: Grilled Sanday fish in wild betel leaf, ripe and pickled green papaya salad (left). Purple dragon fruit, Passion and vanilla, sorbet, meringue and curd (right).
Nevertheless, speaking the local language has given Rivière inroads into the culture, and insight into a people who are passionate about their cuisine, which they can happily debate for hours. Seventeen years, one book and a restaurant later, he says he stopped thinking about what Cambodian cuisine is a long time ago. When asked, he won't be drawn on the question and instead giggles apologetically. "Because I don't think it’s very relevant," he says. "It’s rice and fish-based, rustic, a lot of herbs and spice and things like this. It's a trick question. It’s like French food, how would you describe that?"
"When you come from outside with an outside eye and an open mind you don’t have the burden of representing the traditional gastronomy of your own country, it’s very interesting," he continues.
"The best comment I get from Cambodians is that it doesn’t look like Cambodian food, but it tastes like Cambodian food. It’s quite good... the other way round would be an issue." he laughs. And with that, it would seem that Rivière has understood exactly what Cambodian cuisine is.