“The Best of Friends”
Reviewed by Michelle Vachon
At first, the project seemed simple enough. The restaurant of Mith Samlanh/Friends—which opened in February 2001 as part of the NGO’s training programs for street children—planned to publish a cookbook of its most popular dishes.
“Customers were always asking for our recipes,” said Gustav Auer, the restaurant’s technical adviser.
That was six months ago. But before “The Best of Friends—The Restaurant” would make its Phnom Penh debut, it would turn into an ordeal. “Recipes for the restaurant are created for 20 to 100 people,” said Eang Sotheavy, head cook and teacher. In the cookbook, recipes had to serve four, she said.
In their first trials, the chefs discovered that food prepared for 20 people did not taste the same in small amounts if they just reduced quantities, said Auer. “We had to experiment and adjust all ingredients” for the 53 recipes included in the book.
The chicken curry was the most difficult, said Eang Sotheavy. The recipe calls for a piece of turmeric, and it took many trials to determine how much would be needed for four people, she said. The 2 kg of fresh coconut meat used to squeeze milk for a 20-person curry became 1 liter of coconut milk in the book, said Auer.
The photo shoots also were an adventure. “The French fries [photo] was a nightmare,” said Auer. Jim Mizerski, a retired engineer and naval officer, now an artist and photographer, wanted to take the fries in flight. “We had to drop kilos of them” to get the shot, Auer said.
“On the hottest day of the year, we had to make the frozen drinks [photographed on a bed of crushed ice] very quickly before the ice melted,” he said.
The hardcover, full-color book is illustrated with close-ups of food ingredients and dishes—bright raw shrimps and chili on a clothes line, a Khmer pork and papaya sandwich standing in a Khmer-style boat/platter and a piece of blueberry cake surrounded by fresh blueberries.
The book also contains artworks produced by students in Friends’ art classes, which adorn the restaurant’s walls, and photos of Friends’ teachers and students working in the kitchen.
One black-and-white photo by Nicolas Rambaud on the back of the book shows two young boys at Friends’ facility, with their arms around each other, laughing. Auer insisted on that photo. “The book is called ‘The Best of Friends.’ Aren’t they the best of friends?” he said.
The recipes require a small number of ingredients that can be found in any large city in the world, said Auer. They often combine Asian and Western flavors, and tend to be simple to make, he said. Now available, the book is published in English with a Khmer insert.
Australian journalist Samantha Brown edited the book, and Ewan Clark of Scotland designed it. They and Mizerski volunteered their services, “although some payment came in the form of coffee, blueberry cake, the leftovers from the photo shoots and the occasional beer,” according to the book jacket.
The book is available at Friends’ restaurant and at bookstores throughout Phnom Penh.