This holiday season, for AsiaLIFE’s fifth annual cook-off, we challenged four Phnom Penh chefs to prepare a festive dish with a Cambodian twist. Matt Surrusco and photographer Lim Sokchanlina stepped into the chefs’ kitchens, watched them work and later sampled the fare.

Faced with the challenge, each of the chefs rose to the occasion to craft delicious fare – from a classic French Christmas dessert to a Khmer seafood standard – ideal for a special feast with family or friends.

Showcasing the delectable diversity available across the Cambodian capital, each of the chefs also spoke about their culinary upbringing, what they cook and eat during holidays and the inspiration for their festive dish.

So, gather round and let your mouth water. And with several of the dishes being served during the festive period, we hope to inspire some memorable Christmas eats.

Chef: Ines Samaai Restaurant: Chinese HouseChef: Ines Samaai
Restaurant: Chinese House
Dish: Chocolate buche de Noel

Nothing says Christmas like a chocolate dessert big enough for the whole family. Ines Samaai, executive chef of Chinese House since June, chose to create an ornate chocolate buche de Noel, a classic French Christmas cake resembling a yule log – complete with chocolate-dipped meringue “mushrooms,” pieces of basil sponge cake to represent “green mould” and strawberries and blueberries as colourful garnish.

A pastry chef by training, the South African says she first got the idea to make buche de Noel two years ago – just two weeks before Christmas – the same way an amateur baker might.

The 26-year-old says she was watching a cooking show on the Food Network channel featuring French pastry chef Eric Lanlard. “I think I surprised the whole family with the dessert,” she says, adding she has made for it the last two Christmases.

In the warm, narrow kitchen at Chinese House, Samaai offers step-by-step assembly instructions of the decadent dessert, as if she is hosting her own cooking show.

First, the chef rolls a chocolate sponge cake out flat, which had been wrapped in a cloth napkin to maintain its cylindrical shape.

She slathers the inside of the cake with a thick layer of chocolate mousse, like a mason spreading their concrete.

Next, she adds the filling – a mixture of diced mango, jackfruit, durian, watermelon, dragonfruit and passion fruit, which were left to marinade overnight in vanilla and water to create a fruity syrup.

Samaai then rolls the cake back into a log and begins coating the exterior with chocolate ganache, carefully using a small spatula and long toothpick to add some bark-like texture.

“For me, it’s like the ultimate Christmas dessert,” Samaai says, explaining that it’s fun for adults and children alike to make and then, of course, eat.

After fashioning a few “mushrooms” by joining two meringues with chocolate sauce and brushing them with cocoa powder to create an earthy look, the chef says she’s always had a passion for baking, which came from her grandmother. Plus, she adds, “Pastry is the most creative section of the kitchen.”

Samaai’s buche de Noel is intricately designed, assembled and presented. But the chocolate mousse inside is the highlight of the dish – rich, smooth and simple.

The subtle, mixed fruit flavours of the filling get a bit lost in all the chocolate – mousse, cake and ganache – but when you get a good bite, the syrupy, tropical fruit flavour pushes through the forest of chocolate. Luckily, there’s plenty of pieces to go around.

The dessert will be available at Chinese House for the Christmas lunch buffet on Dec. 25.

Ngan-Kimhor-Friends-the-restaurantChef: Ngan Kimhor
Restaurant: Friends the Restaurant
Dish: smoked duck breast, pomelo and mango

From seven-years-old, Ngan Kimhor caught and cooked dinner for her parents and two younger siblings in Kampong Thom province.

With no markets in the countryside, she says, “When we want to cook, we have to go to the river and catch the fish.” She would grill her catch or make a sour fish soup with water lilies.

Now, she trains the head chefs of four social enterprise training restaurants across Cambodia, one of which, Friends the Restaurant in Phnom Penh, she until recently led as head chef.

Back in the Friends kitchen in November, Kimhor, 36, looks relaxed as she drizzles a sweet and tangy dressing over a pomelo and mango salad with smoked duck breast – despite the dozen or so kitchen staff rushing around her to fill regular orders.

“They’re responsible for their job and I’m responsible for my job,” she says. “So, I feel comfortable.”

But when she was head chef at the restaurant from 2015 until October, her pace was quicker. “I ran a lot,” she says.

Ngan-Kimhor-Friends-the-restaurantWhile her dish isn’t an obvious holiday creation, it certainly fits the criteria of having a Cambodian twist. The fruit is locally sourced, as is the Ratanakiri honey blended with olive oil, sugar, Dijon mustard and apple cider vinegar to make the dressing.

After whisking the ingredients together, Kimhor fans out seven slices of smoked duck breast on a plate, then layers rocket and pieces of pomelo, mango and cherry tomato atop.

The salad is packed with so many flavours and textures – from the juicy pomelo and refreshing mango, to mint and thin slices of almonds – yet none overwhelm the satiating dish. Sadly, it’s not currently on the restaurant’s menu, but here’s hoping it returns.

Kimhor, who started working at Friends as sous chef in 2006, stopped going to school in Grade 9 and moved to Phnom Penh to find work.

“I always went to the kitchen to help,” she says of her three months working as a housekeeper at a guesthouse in 1998. Within that period, she was hired to work in the kitchen and later promoted to head chef.

Today, as a pro in the kitchen, Kimhor’s family looks forward to her cooking during Cambodian festival periods, she says.

“We celebrate with a big meal and go to the pagoda,” she adds. “They are always waiting for me in the village.”

During Pchum Ben celebrations, the chef cooks Khmer curry with chicken, stir-fried pork with glass noodles and traditional num onsam [sticky rice cakes], made with either pork or banana.

Reflecting on her career, she emphasises the hard work that went into her climbing the culinary ladder.

Benoit-Leloup-Sofitel-Phnom-Penh-PhokeethraChef: Benoit Leloup
Restaurant: Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra
Dish: grilled lobster, foie gras and truffles

By far the priciest dish in this year’s cook-off, the grilled lobster with Kampot pepper sauce, foie gras and truffles prepared by Sofitel’s executive chef Benoit Leloup was buttery and well-balanced. Most of the components of the dish melt in your mouth.

Cooking in the open kitchen of the hotel’s Do Forni restaurant, Leloup, 37, says the dish is similar to the surf and turf that is popular across the US. And a mix between Cambodian and French cuisines.

“The French food, you can adapt for everywhere,” Frenchman Leloup says with a grin as he prepares the dish. “That’s why it’s the best.”

The chef assumed his post at Sofitel in April, after having worked in restaurants in France, China and St. Bart’s in the Caribbean for more than two decades.

He started his culinary training at the age of 15 in France.

As the holiday season is a special time of year, Leloup’s creation features three indulgent delicacies on one plate: lobster, foie gras and truffles.

The fluffy, light pieces of grilled Canadian lobster, served in half its shell, were delicious, especially when paired with the pepper sauce, a “glace viande” reduction with green peppercorns from La Plantation farm in Kampot.

Benoit-Leloup-Sofitel-Phnom-Penh-Phokeethra“I prefer the little lobster,” he says, explaining that the smaller-sized crustaceans are more juicy and tender than bigger lobsters.

The small chunks of French foie gras taste and melt in the mouth like butter.

And the broccoli, carrots, asparagus and artichoke hearts sautéed with butter, and corn flour polenta are excellent complimentary sides to the stars of the dish.

Leloup uses oversized tweezers to plate the food, delicately arranging sautéed vegetables around pieces of foie gras.

The final touches are drips of pepper sauce, drizzles of olive oil, pinches of sea salt and falling flakes of pleasant summer truffles, which are white on the inside.

Despite his experience in the kitchen and family’s desire for him to prepare them Christmas dinner, Leloup says he would much rather have his mother cook for him for the holidays.

“She cooks much better than me,” he says, with another grin.

At the age of five, he learned to make crepes and crème brûlée from his mother.

When his parents visit him in January – when he usually celebrates Christmas since his job determines he works during the busy holiday season – he has a dream dish in mind: pigeon with a brandy and raisin sauce.

At Sofitel, a Christmas Eve set dinner will include dishes with lobster, foie gras and truffles at Do Forni.

FCC Phnom PenhChef: Phann Bora
Restaurant: FCC Phnom Penh
Dish: fish amok

If you’ve lived in Cambodia long enough, you’ve eaten fish amok before. While the classic Cambodian dish prepared by Chef Phann Bora looks more or less like the amoks that are available across the country – fish curry served in a banana leaf cup – his defies Khmer cooking tradition.

Bora, who started at FCC as chef de partie in 2005 and worked his way up to the kitchen’s top position, cooks the fish in a pan in the chili-infused curry rather than steaming it.

“The taste is the same, but the cooking technique is different,” Bora says from inside the FCC kitchen, understating the flavourful curry and chunks of river fish from the Mekong.

Bora, 36, got his first culinary job in his early 20s as a commis chef at Phnom Penh Hotel, but he says he wanted to be a chef since he was about eight-years-old.

As a child growing up in Prey Veng province, he watched his mother prepare traditional Khmer food, inspiring him to step into the kitchen as a career later on in life.

“I always look at her to see how she is cooking,” he says, recalling his mother’s crab and fish soup with bamboo.

FCC Phnom PenhFor AsiaLIFE’s challenge, Bora sticks mostly to his Cambodian cooking roots.

He coats a pan with some oil and tosses in a Khmer spice mix and then chili paste, both made from scratch.

Immediately, the flavours become airborne, with whiffs of chili pepper, lemongrass, garlic and other ingredients heavy in the air.

After a few minutes of stirring, he adds the fish and then palm sugar, fish sauce, coconut milk, peanuts and an egg. The curry is quick to make and is  ready within 15 minutes.

Next, Bora scoops the fragrant curry from the pan to the banana leaf cup and decorates the edge of the plate with small dollops of chili sauce, which tastes similar to a milder Sriracha.

The fish is light and holds the slight but still spicy kick of the thick curry well.

Served with steamed rice topped with chili flake and browned garlic and shallots, one can enjoy rice with flavour without even adding the curry.

Overall, the spices that filled the air with aroma earlier as soon as they hit the pan in the kitchen, came through in each bite.

According to Bora, the fish amok dish ($8.25) is a best-seller on the FCC menu.

He plans to add what he thinks will be a solid competitor to the menu when it is updated in the coming months: a traditional red curry with chicken – a dish he cooks for Cambodian festivals, such as Khmer New Year.

“All the family likes this,” the chef says. “When we have a holiday, we make food that everyone likes.”