Award-winning restaurant Cuisine Wat Damnak has expanded to the capital after its successful 10-year stint in Siem Reap was affected by the pandemic.
Founded by French Chef and cookbook author Joannès Rivière, Cuisine Wat Damnak was the first Khmer restaurant to have made it onto Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
It quickly climbed to fame after opening about a decade ago, offering fresh food on a set menu that is changed weekly.
On a Thursday night, the cuisine in its latest Phnom Penh venue included red mullet sour soup with green mango and water lily stem, herbs, soft boil egg and clam broth – Asian food, given a Western spin. Cuisine Wat Damnak
When the pandemic swept across the world, Siem Reap was one of many tourism-based destinations that was hit hard by the closure of borders. As customers started to dwindle, Cuisine Wat Damnak decided to target local clientele and open a Phnom Penh branch, offering Cambodian cuisine with a Western spin.
“I think it will take time for local customers to understand, I have started to see new faces,” said Nguon Vengchhay, 39, co-owner at Cuisine Wat Damnak on Street 228. “When we came to Phnom Penh, they were happy and excited. They bring new faces, new friends.”
Nguon Vengchhay is from Battambang and has a wide range of experiences in the food and hotel industry. Nguon Vengchhay and Rivière met when they worked together at a hotel.
Nguon Vengchhay has always been passionate about fine dining and in 2019 described meeting his business partner Rivière as “luck.” Working as a waiter in 2003 in Siem Reap after graduating from high school, Nguon Vengchhay said those days were not a dream job, it was just to fill up his rice bowl.
Nguon Vengchhay then moved on to working with different international establishments and fell in love with the industry. He got a job in Singapore in 2007 and received a diploma in hotel management there.
He returned to Cambodia in 2010 and then moved to Fiji to work in a resort for a year.
Overseeing business in Phnom Penh, Nguon Vengchhay intends to change the perception of local customers and introduce them to Cuisine Wat Damnak’s food. However, he admits there will be challenges along the way.
“Our food is a little bit sophisticated. It is not straightforward; it involves very complicated cooking techniques and ingredients. I think it takes time for people to understand the work we do,” he said.
He added that while the restaurant has been a hit with international customers, it hasn’t been popular among Cambodians. For Cambodian customers, he said they don’t like to book in advance or do research.
“They drive past a restaurant, they see it and go in. For our restaurant, it’s destination dining. This means people know about us, the whole experience is good from when you enter the restaurant to when you depart it.”
“This kind of experience, they can never afford in Singapore or New York, they probably pay five times the price.”
Nguon Vengchhay said the trend in Cambodia is fast food and franchises; there are no locally-owned brands. Cuisine Wat Damnak is one of the first and is determined to cook high-end Khmer food and create an experience people can have in French and Japanese restaurants.
At the Cuisine, he said: “We reconstruct the dishes, and we reinterpret the food so there is nothing that looks like Khmer food.”
“The look is very Western… because you cannot represent Cambodian home-cooked food in a restaurant. There is no value at all because you can cook at home, you can do the same, why go to a restaurant?”
He said the only way to bring Cambodian food to a fine-dining level is to source high-quality ingredients and adapt cooking techniques. For example, for some Cambodian beef, he said it is hard to cook to make it tender.
“Will you spend 10 hours to cook at home? No, so the idea is to have Cambodian food represented in a very refined way and you cannot do that at home, that’s the only reason we can put next to French cuisine, next to Japanese prices,” he said.
“We call it a dining experience, it’s a whole journey of dining; it’s not like you come and eat. You come to my house, my job is to look after you, my hospitality is to make you happy.”
Seven to eight dishes are offered between $34 and $38, Nguon Vengchhay said, adding that the menu in Phnom Penh is changed monthly, depending on season and freshness of food found at markets.
He added there is room to grow for the business because the concept is unique and out-of-the-box. “People tend to be well travelled, educated, and are also willing to spend money on an experience, rather than just for food.”
For the future of Cuisine, he said he has no plans to expand more in the country but is looking to set up shop abroad.
“I’d like to see Cambodian fine dining restaurants run by a Cambodian representative in Sydney, Melbourne or even Hong Kong and Singapore.”