San Sreyleak was taught how to cook by her mother in a cramped, makeshift kitchen boiling well water over a handmade fire in their hometown in Pursat province. She can easily fry up pad thai or beef lok lak, and recently worked in Thailand for a year as a street noodle vendor.
But the aspiring chef has dreamed of learning to cook international cuisines with proper appliances in a professional kitchen and eventually opening her own small restaurant.
“I don’t know how to make some food, but my future is cooking,” she said.
Ms. Sreyleak was the first student to enroll in the country’s first culinary institute, the Academy of Culinary Arts Cambodia (ACAC), which opened admissions for its first cohort earlier this month for a two-year degree program.
In March, Ms. Sreyleak and her classmates will begin cooking courses in a pristine, spacious kitchen in Phnom Penh filled with appliances imported from Switzerland.
“There’s a huge demand for quality chefs. That’s why the academy was founded,” said Markus Kalberer, the school’s dean. “Everyone is basically complaining that there is no education in the culinary sector.”
While Mr. Kalberer acknowledged the work that NGOs have been doing in Cambodia to train chefs and servers, he said the output was far below the country’s need.
According to Luu Meng, one of Cambodia’s most prominent chefs and restaurateurs, that need is only expected to grow as the Tourism Ministry has projected a continued increase in the number of restaurants through at least 2020. “The going-up of the restaurant is always [happening],” he said. “For sure, we have requested a lot of skilled employees, and also we need more basic knowledge for employees.”
At the academy, students will split their time between two semesters of cooking and theory courses—such as hygiene, business management and English—and two spent doing internships in the field.
“It’s not just a cooking class,” said Nicole Loretan, the academy’s sales and marketing manager. “They learn [it] all, because when they come out, they need to be at an international level.”
“If they apply in Singapore or whatever, they cannot just come and say ‘yeah, what did you learn the last two years?’ ‘Khmer cuisine,’” she said, explaining that students would learn cooking techniques from around the world.
Anyone who has completed 12 years of education—regardless of whether they have passed the national high school completion exam—is eligible to apply, Ms. Loretan said.
A full degree costs about $3,000 for Cambodians, and just over $6,500 for foreign students. The end result for successful participants is an Asean-standard degree certified by Swiss Hotel Management Academy Lucerne, a school opened in 1909 to help provide a similar supply of workers to meet culinary demands in Switzerland.
Sothea Seng, a chef at Mahob Khmer Restaurant in Siem Reap who has worked overseas, said the academy was a welcome addition to the industry.
“I want to see our young chefs able to create new food. So in order to do that, they need to learn about ingredients, the source of ingredients and also the vitamins of each ingredient and what goes well together,” he said.
“To be honest, they are talented but…they don’t have the proper schools or whatever that they can learn from those details.”
As the launch of the degree program draws near, the academy is still working to find chefs and teaching assistants to join its staff. Aside from himself, Mr. Kalberer said, one Cambodian teaching assistant had been hired, with two more chefs and two assistants still wanted.
“That’s the biggest challenge we have right now: to find [a] faculty which can deliver the quality we want to deliver,” he said.
And while the program’s launch was intended to be modest, taking on an initial 40 students compared to the eventual goal of 200 per cohort, so far Ms. Sreyleak is the only one to complete registration, with an additional 10 in the process, Ms. Loretan said.
But Ms. Sreyleak has little doubt that things will come together and she’ll walk away prepared to effectively heat up a kitchen.
“In the school, they’ll show me how to do this—how to prepare the food, how to cook,” she said. “I’m happy because when my studies finish, I will have a job and I can open a small restaurant by myself.”