KEP CITY – In the heat of the late morning, a young man moved frantically around a long table where five chefs rushed to finish preparing a dish of squid with Kampot pepper. “Only two minutes left,” he shouted to the competitors, first in French then in Khmer.
It’s not often that this sleepy seaside town sees so much excitement around squid—yet last Sunday, the scene at the Spring Valley Resort looked like something out of a culinary television show. Ten local cooks had gathered for “Kep Chef,” a competition to find the best version of the signature Cambodian dish.
The driving force behind the annual event is 39-year old Sokphal Ngo-Sisowath, who created the competition in 2013.
The main goal of the competition, he said, was to raise money for his language school in Kep, Jardin des Langues Ayravady, which he founded in 2007.
“Of course, we also want to promote Khmer food and Kep in the low season,” he added.
The event is funded by local sponsors and the winners receive nothing but the praise from the audience, according to Mr. Ngo-Sisowath.
A member of Cambodia’s royal family, Mr. Ngo-Sisowath owns a number of venues in Kep. Besides the language school, he also runs a tennis club, a recreation center, a training restaurant, a fair-trade souvenir shop and a company that exports Kampot pepper.
Born in Beijing in September 1975, just months after the Khmer Rouge took power, he lived in France until about 10 years ago, when he moved back to Cambodia after finishing his studies in physical education.
“When I decided to come to Cambodia, I realized most NGOs and development agencies were based in Phnom Penh. That’s why I started all those projects in Kep,” he said.
Thanks to his contacts, last week’s competition featured three prominent figures as judges: French Ambassador Jean-Claude Poimboeuf, Cambodia’s Children Growth Foundation founder Cecile Malterre, and Princess Sisowath Ayravady (who happens to be Mr. Ngo-Sisowath’s mother).
The judges evaluated the dishes—which had to be prepared in 30 minutes—in three categories: presentation, creativity and taste. To the untrained eye, they looked equally delicious.
At 3 p.m., four hours after the event began, the winners were finally announced: a duo in their 20s who also won last year’s contest, Sopheap Yiet and Sarouen Mey.
“[There was] a big, big difference in the taste compared to the other dishes,” Ms. Malterre said. “You can tell that they are real professionals. Gifted, maybe.”
Mr. Mey, however, said his success was down to training: He studied at the Don Bosco Hotel School in Sihanoukville, which aims at helping poor Cambodians break into the tourism industry.
“The secret is to fry the ingredients first, then the squid. People tend to do [it] the other way around and this compromises its texture,” he explained.
“We also used dry pepper in addition to the Kampot pepper. The organizers provided it to all of us, but I noticed that other competitors didn’t use it. It makes a difference in the taste.”
As for Mr. Ngo-Sisowath, he has grand plans for the competition. “Perhaps one day we’ll have our own Cambodian cooking TV show, like Top Chef,” he said.