Melbourne, Australia, is well known for its diversity of high-quality restaurants from all over the world – many of them Southeast Asian. But while the city has nearly 1,000 Vietnamese and Thai restaurants, there are only seven that serve Cambodian cuisine.
The massive disparity was one of the reasons Angkeasereyvuth “Woody” Chet, originally from Phnom Penh, decided to open his restaurant, Amok, in the inner-Melbourne suburb of Windsor, which celebrated its one-year anniversary this week.
“We thought: ‘Let’s . . . get people talking about Cambodian cuisine’, because you get a lot of Vietnamese and a lot of Thai places, but I wanted to bring the flavour of Cambodia here,” he said. “There are not a lot of Cambodian restaurants in Melbourne, so we wanted to create a restaurant to show people what it was.”
Woody inherited his love of cooking from his mother, and spent hours in the kitchen with her as a little boy growing up in Cambodia. He would watch the way she experimented with flavours as she made the meals for the family, and would be there to get the first taste of the food she made.
“She called me her apprentice,” he said. “The main way I learned was from watching my mum. Nothing was written down, but I just remember. I keep in my head how she would do things. And even now, if I ever forget I can ring my mum and ask how to do something, so I am still learning from her in a way.”
Because Woody doesn’t have access to the same ingredients as his mother, he instead fuses the traditional flavours of Cambodia with produce he can source locally in Australia, creating a modern interpretation of the cuisine.
“We’ve got elements of Cambodian cuisine, but we’ve changed it a bit,” he said. “Part of that is it’s hard to find produce, like green mango. I experiment with the dishes so I can use fresh produce from here and work them into Cambodian-inspired meals.”
The resulting dishes include Tasmanian oysters seasoned with black Kampot pepper, cured salmon served on betel leaf and “Sihanoukville-style” grilled squid served with ripe mango, rather than green mango. Woody’s signature menu item is his Cambodian duck curry, a creamy, fragrant and delicate dish that showcases his mastery of flavour.
Although he always loved food, Woody didn’t intend on becoming a chef. When he first moved to Australia from Cambodia in 2006, he worked in a factory for a few years. Then he began an electrician apprenticeship, but didn’t complete the course. He tried to become a plumber, but that didn’t work out either. As he moved around jobs, his friends suggested he try cooking.
“People would always say to me, you have a great sense of taste, you know what food should taste like, you should study to be a chef and open a restaurant of your own. So I did, and it took me four years to train as a chef.”
While Woody works the kitchen, his wife Chanthida Penh manages the front of the restaurant. When they first opened their doors, it was the name of the restaurant that attracted their first customers, she said.
“They recognised the name Amok because they had some affiliation with Cambodia before, maybe they had been there, or they had worked or volunteered there, so that’s the initial attraction that we got, people who have been there before and know Cambodian food,” she said.
Although Amok is located on Chapel Street, one of the busiest strips in Melbourne, the restaurant feels warm and calm inside. The candle-lit tables and soft lighting compliment the red hues and wood detailing throughout the restaurant.
Woody and Thida have worked to make Amok an engaging and informative environment. Paintings of traditional dancers and temples decorate the walls, and the Cambodian flag hangs proudly from the roof.
The front page of their menu gives an introduction to Cambodian food and culture, as well as listing Khmer translations and pronunciations. Penh says these elements help to define their restaurant from other cuisines, and to promote the couple’s homeland.
“People here still don’t know that much about Cambodia besides Angkor Wat, so there was an effort to create that image, so that people know what we are about. If they don’t know anything about Cambodia, the food or the culture, giving them information while they are here might get them excited about Cambodia and eating here, and then one day considering going to visit as well.”
The fact that Woody and Penh run one of the only Cambodian restaurants in inner Melbourne may have contributed to the success of their business over the last year, but the couple agreed they would like to see more Cambodian restaurants open up across the city. Penh says that the more popular and well known Cambodian food becomes in Melbourne, the better it will be for their business.
“I hope we start to see more people doing what we did and opening restaurants,” he said. “There is not much competition for us out there at the moment, but it would be a good thing for Cambodian cuisine that people see it more and it becomes an option for them.”