Thai food with a family touch is being served up in a new night at Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra. Marissa Carruthers meets the chef, with photography by Charles Fox.

If the old adage that nothing’s better than your mum’s cooking is true, then Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra’s newly appointed Thai chef, Khum Phonphod Chantriam, has learnt from the finest.

The seasoned chef’s passion for cooking was fuelled in the kitchen of his Chiang Mai home when he picked up the tools of the trade from his mother. “She was always cooking at home and made the best food,” the chef, known as Joe, says. “I was taught by the best.”

Pursuing his passion for food, Joe picked up work as a kitchen boy at a Chinese restaurant aged 18. His innate skills soon caught the attention of the boss, Khun Thong. When he went on to set up his own Thai-Chinese restaurant, he took Joe with him.

Joe’s skills have since seen him jet off to Denmark, New Zealand and Germany to work in a string of elite hotel restaurants, and now he is bringing a new touch to Phnom Penh by introducing a series of Thai specialities in Sofitel’s La Coupole restaurant.

Every Monday, diners can delve into a variety of traditional Thai dishes, which have all been given a secret twist. “I’m very happy to be able to share my country’s amazing food,” Joe says, adding that Thai cuisine tends to have more of a spicy kick than its Khmer neighbour.

“We use more spices, whereas Cambodians use more herbs,” he remarks, citing chilli, galangal, holy basil, coriander, lemongrass and curry powder as common ingredients.

For Joe, the new role is perfect. He gets to showcase a mouth-watering range of dishes from his homeland as part of the restaurant’s buffet-style offering of salads, barbecued meats, curries, stir-fry and noodle dishes.

Popular offerings include Tom Yam Kung, a spicy soup of plump prawns cooked in a blend of Thai herbs, lime juice and crushed chilli peppers. “It’s very healthy,” Chef Joe remarks. “In Thailand, when people have fevers or a cold, they will eat it.”

The rolled duck red curry is another favourite. The mild curry has the sweet taste of coconut milk, followed by a tang of curry paste, fish sauce and kaffir lime leaves.

A dish that highlights the diversity of Thai cooking is the stir-fried blue crab. Succulent crab, stir-fried in garlic, black pepper, fish sauce and yellow paste, can be spiced to suit but traditionally comes with a kick.

“I make food from my heart,” Chef Joe says. “To see people enjoy my food and being happy is what makes me smile inside.”

Tantalising Thai at Sofitel on Sothearos Boulevard Hotel is held every Monday from 6pm and costs $30 per person plus taxes