Chef Pisith Theam is the Cambodian culinary expert on 196 flavors.
Can you tell us more about yourself?
At a very young age, I already enjoyed cooking. I started cooking at home for my family with the guidance of my grandmother (Chef at The Village – wedding events) and my father whose passion is also cooking. Following the footsteps of my father, who was the former Executive Chef of Hotel de la Paix, which is now the Park Hyatt Siem Reap.
As I grew up, I decided to pursue the culinary industry where I started as a commis chef at Victoria Hotel in Siem Reap. I was given the opportunity to move to Hotel de la Paix where my father formerly worked. During this period, I was tasked to open AHA restaurant, specializing in contemporary flavors, back and forth to the restaurant and the hotel. My experience gave me an opportunity to expand my knowledge, share with others and set up Hotel de la Paix – Luang Prabang culinary team. After Luang Prabang, I returned to Cambodia to what is now the Park Hyatt Siem Reap as Chef de Cuisine and was then sent to different Hyatt Hotels in Asia on a familiarization and training program. I was then promoted to the post of Executive Chef just a few years later.
Tell us more about your knowledge and experience when it comes to Cambodian cuisine
Being a Cambodian, I continue to expand my knowledge in my own cuisine. I know that with Khmer cuisine, we use ingredients that are authentic, and we ensure the freshness of herbs and spices are up to a higher quality. Being in a tropical country, we use young fruits and vegetables as our main ingredients in which you can definitely have the right balance of your food, in terms of the taste and nutrients. Khmer food has always been mistaken for very spicy. In fact, it is not… the spiciness of the flavors is mostly coming from the pepper which Cambodia is famous for.
What makes Cambodian cuisine unique? What sets it apart from other Asian cuisines?
Its unique flavors come from the cooking process and fresh ingredients which are thoughtfully sourced and carefully served to improve quality, freshness and variety.
For instance, we do not cook our curry dishes with curry powder. Instead, we uses fresh herbs such as kaffir lime leaf, lemongrass, turmeric, galangal, white ginger, Kampot pepper in a variety of green, black, red & white. Usage may vary depending on the level of spiciness preferred.
Additionally, we uses fish sauce rather salt to give flavor. This fish sauce is typically fermented for 5 years.
What is your favorite Cambodian recipe or the most unusual dish in the country?
The fish or seafood amok, as this is our country’s signature dish which we are also famous for and the lightness of the curry flavor will not make you feel bloated even if you eat a little bit more than what you should eat.
What other cuisines do you like or influence your cuisine?
French, because of our long history for over a 100 years of being colonized by the French.
What places would you recommend during a visit to Cambodia?
Definitely there is no visit to Cambodia that is complete without seeing one of the World Heritage sites – the Angkor Wat, the largest Hindu monument in the world, on a site measuring 162.6 hectares.
Which Cambodian chef is a reference for you? What are the main difficulties of Cambodian cuisine?
My father who is my mentor. Passion and patience in cooking Cambodian cuisine is the key to a very good dish. Cambodian dishes require an ample time of preparation and cooking process in order for you to get the right flavor or bring out the right flavor from each ingredient.
What would you suggest if you had to prepare a Cambodian menu: starter, main course, dessert?
First, as I am in a tropical country, we have to consider the season, which means the availability of the ingredients. For example, in Cambodia when it’s mango season, we can guarantee that it is more flavorful than any other season. Currently at Park Hyatt Siem Reap, we only support organic farming and sustainable produce.