Marissa Carruthers and photographer Charles Fox find The Lost Room’s recipe for success.

“There’s no question, the best chefs are those who haven’t received any professional training,” says co-owner of The Lost Room, Derek Mayes.

Of course, he would say that, having been thrown into the frying pan in 1989 when the new head chef at his Tanzanian restaurant went surfing one Friday afternoon, and never came back. ”I didn’t have a choice,” he recalls. “I loved it, and I’ve never looked back.”

The proof is, however, in the pudding, and it seems that fate threw Mayes into the kitchen all those years ago. Proudly holding a platter show-casing some of his finest dishes — crisp pear and blue cheese parcels with mango and basil purée, peri peri spiced crab cakes with red onion jam, and spicy rocket and parsley falafels — it’s clear his talents lie in food.

The Englishman’s ability to get creative in the kitchen, combined with his daring, experimental nature, give dishes a real kick. Take the Moroccan spiced crispy duck, consisting of succulent layers of tender duck sitting on a bed of chickpea stew, served with a yoghurt dressing and Harissa sauce. “Moroccans don’t even use duck,” he says.

Mayes’ wife of 22 years and business partner Wendy Lucas explains that he was keen to drop the traditional lamb and experiment instead. “It’s one of the most popular dishes on the menu,” she adds.

And now that Mayes has moved from full- to part-time chef, with employee Tee Chan taking up the reigns in the kitchen, he is set to continue developing the more than 500 recipes that are tucked away in his head.

Add Lucas’ lifetime of experience in hospitality into the mix and it’s easy to see how The Lost Room has become a firm favourite since opening a little more than two years ago. “You see, it’s true, the best chefs are those who don’t have any training,” Mayes adds proudly, as Tee timidly steps out of the kitchen.

Biting into the plump, perfectly cooked falafels covered in a delicate layer of sesame seeds and topped with beetroot humus, it’s hard to believe Tee started out by looking after vehicles for customers at Wendy and Derek’s previous restaurant, Talkin’ To A Stranger, six years ago.

“He was a real dab hand in the kitchen and caught on really quickly. We’re really lucky to have him,” Mayes adds, before sitting at the bar to pen his latest creation to add to the menu. I, for one, can’t wait to try it.

48 Street 21, Phnom Penh.
Tel: 078 700 001.
Open Monday to Saturday, from 5pm to 11pm.
Watch The Lost Room Video on AsiaLIFE