One of Sopheak Pov’s favorite dishes starts with the rich pairing of foie gras and sweetbread, but it’s not only the sumptuous ingredients that excite him.
Mr. Pov, the head chef of Topaz Restaurant in Phnom Penh, gets a thrill from the exacting process and technique of creating French cuisine.
“If we follow the procedure, we get a good result: This is what I like,” he said.
“Foie gras and sweetbread as a pairing go well together,” he added, explaining that these components must be prepared within minutes of each other and the dish served immediately.
To make the dish—in which veal sweetbread is topped with a slice of foie gras and served inside a crisp circle of bread with a black-truffle port-wine sauce and a turnip confit—Mr. Pov first pan-fries the sweetbread in clarified butter until lightly brown and seasons it with Kampot pepper. Then the foie gras is lightly pan-fried and also seasoned with Kampot pepper. “Kampot pepper is best,” he said.
For the sauce, truffles are deglazed with port wine and then spooned over and around the foie gras on the plate. Small cubes of turnip are deglazed with chicken stock and added on. As a final touch, Mr. Pov tops the foie gras with delicate milk foam and adds a jasmine flower and green leaf for color.
“I like to create dishes with foie gras,” he said. Whenever he designs a menu for an event, he makes sure to include a recipe featuring the decidedly French delicacy.
Growing up in a family of rice farmers in Svay Rieng province, Mr. Pov came to Phnom Penh in 1995 in search of work. Twenty years old and willing to take any job, he first worked in construction. But he soon heard about the training offered at the organization Mith Samlanh/Friends and joined the cooking class.
When Mr. Pov got his first job in the French restaurant Comme a la Maison around 1997, however, little had prepared him for the pace of a busy kitchen or the technical requirements of French cuisine.
“It was very difficult for me,” Mr. Pov recalled. At first, he was assigned to the bakery. “I rolled bread, I made croissants, chocolatines, raisin brioches.”
After a month, he was transferred to the restaurant kitchen.
“It was very, very hard,” Mr. Pov recalled, because he had not yet experienced the pace of a restaurant kitchen. “It took me nearly a year to get comfortable with the process,” he said.
Mr. Pov remained at the restaurant for five years, leaving in 2002. “I felt I needed new experience,” he said. Three months later, he was hired at Topaz Restaurant.
He first worked under chef Richard Gillet, now co-owner of the Thalias Company, which owns Topaz. Later on, he worked under chef Alain Darc. “I have had good luck because I had many good teachers like chef Richard and chef Alain—everybody calls him papa,” Mr. Pov said.
In 2010, Thalias sent him to France for six months to work under Alain Dutournier at Carre des Feuillants, a 2-Michelin- star restaurant. When Mr. Darc retired in 2011, Mr. Pov became Topaz’s head chef.
While the restaurant’s business-lunch menu changes monthly and specials vary according to available fresh products, the a-la-carte menu always includes the favorite of Cambodian guests—the French classic salade nicoise.
Mr. Pov admits that, as much as he would like to cook other cuisines, he has little time to do so. “My skill is French cuisine. It’s my specialty,” he said.