Clothilde Le Coz talks “pancake music” with the quirky character and former clown behind Battambang´s French-Khmer fusion restaurant Pomme d´Amour, with photography by Conor Wall.
Patrice Belin’s life reads like a menu. As a starter, he arrived in Cambodia nine years ago from Eastern France, near the Swiss border, to teach young performers at the Phare Ponleu Selpak circus in Battambang.
“I was a clown and came back two or three times to Cambodia,” he remembers. “At one point, I needed a translator.” The Frenchman soon employed Nary, who later became his wife.
But the quirky entertainer’s love affair with food began long before he arrived in the Kingdom. Belin was once known as MC Galette – named after a traditional French buckwheat pancake – and played a self-invented form of music, called electrocrêpe, to audiences around the year 2000.
The concept involved putting pancakes on turntables. According to Belin, listeners heard medium, high and low tones that could change depending how the pancake was cooked and what was put inside. “I was making rhythms with this, mixing them with music from the ‘70s or soundtracks. It really scratches and gives the song an old type of sound,” says the 44-year-old.
Back then, he had a whole theory about crêpes. The round shapes signified the earth and the moon, with each nation making its own – from pancakes to crêpes, galettes and Asia’s rice paper concoctions.
It was in 2009 that Belin created his life’s main course with the Pomme d’Amour fusion restaurant in Battambang, where Khmer herbs, colours and spices are at the fore.
“It is a pleasure to go to the market and find fruits, vegetables and all kind of ingredients that are fully different from what we know, but also so close,” he says.
Positioned close to one of the busiest streets of Battambang, where visitors can still appreciate sitting outside without being bothered by the roar of engine noise, it has become one of the finest restaurants in town.
The candy colours and dim lighting give a friendly atmosphere to the eatery, where Belin’s mother-in-law is the cook and his sister-in-law the host. The menu overflows with fusion cuisine, but also with traditional French and Khmer dishes.
Belin will explain his jackfruit pesto to curious food wanderers with gleaming eyes. “The kernel of a jackfruit is actually very similar to what we know as chestnut,” he says. “I transformed it as a purée and mixed it with olive oil, Khmer basil and a multitude of unpronounceable herbs.”
For meat lovers, Belin will surprise them with a veal blanquette that uses Khmer equivalents for the traditional artichokes or leeks. “I also revisit a classic Beaujolais [a type of wine] dish with sausage, adding tapaille – this red and sugary fermented rice we find around here,” he says. Nowadays, his most famous dishes are a Khmer-inspired sauerkraut that uses jackfruit, cabbage and fish and a duck dish cooked in palm wine.
Battambang is a remarkable place for anyone who wants to explore traditional dishes and flavours. A few kilometres from town, visitors can easily see rice paper and bananas drying on oiled bamboo planks, with rice plants and tall palms covering the surrounding landscape.
And, surrounded by the treasures of Battambang’s natural world, Belin is imagining another new concept: a palm restaurant, where all dishes will be cooked with a touch of palm, whether it is wine, vinegar or sugar.
“To me, cooking is a gustatory lab where you can compose magic potions that will amaze, astonish, and where people will enjoy unknown flavours that they already like without even knowing it,” he says.
For dessert, Belin – who has also recently opened a new bar, Vintage Wine Bar, close to Pomme d’Amour – may offer you a taste of Battambang palm wine, but do not end your meal without a coffee. The Ratanakkiri offering infused with Cambodian honey will ensure diners wish they could stay longer.
63 Street 2.5, Battambang
Tel: 012 415 513 / 012 963 189.