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10+ Luu Meng: Living Cambodian Cuisine

By: Adam Fogarty Posted: August-07-2009 in
Adam Fogarty

The ongoing rise of Cambodia’s tourism sector is well documented. Private sector statistics quote an increase of around 14 percent since last year, whilst the Ministry of Tourism say Cambodia is on track to attract 2.3 million visitors this year, adding that political stability and infrastructure improvements are increasing the number of visitors to the country. Some $1.64 billion in tourism revenue is expected to be generated by the end of 2008, helping the country’s economy to enjoy near double-digit growth. This sustained and aggressive growth is being spurred on by an unprecedented boom in the construction and property sectors.

At the forefront of this growth is 36 year old Luu Meng, the public face of Phnom Penh-based Topazco and Manco Investment Groups, and one of Cambodia’s most recognized hotel entrepreneurs.
In just over five years, Luu Meng and his four partners have launched some of Phnom Penh’s most stylish and innovative restaurants and hotels, including Topaz and Malis restaurants (both on Norodom Boulevard) and the upscale, boutique-business hotel, Almond Hotel, on Sothearos Boulevard.

Using the menu at Malis restaurant as an example, Luu Meng describes the evolution of what he describes as Living Cambodian Cuisine. “Cambodian cuisine was very famous around 1965, but the creativity stopped because of the war. Then, a few years ago, in 2004, we came up with some ideas to rejuvenate traditional tastes, and also fuse with other influences”.

Other influences? “I come from a family of chefs. My grandmother was a chef and my mother had a restaurant in Phnom Penh before 1975. Before then, we always had good food at home. Then, in 1975 (when I was three years old) we were forced to move from Phnom Penh to the to a border refugee camp which was under U.N. control. Whilst there, I learnt English and returned to Phnom Penh when I was 18 years old to study further. At this stage, I knew I wanted to be a chef, so I travelled to Thailand to study at a hotel school, and later gained experience in other countries, including Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam”.
However, it was back in Cambodia, whilst employed as a chef at the Cambodiana Hotel that he met his future business partner, Mr Arnaud Darc, and the idea of reviving Cambodian Cuisine began.

The concept of Malis - Luu Meng’s and Arnaud Darc’s flagship restaurant – was thus born.
“With Malis, we aim to treat new foreigners and rich Cambodians, give them good treatment. We use high quality beef and river-fish, and cook with bamboo straw. Indian (cuisine) is Cambodian cuisine’s biggest influence, so we use lots of fresh herbs. We also fuse with a lot of French influences”.

Not content with dominating Phnom Penh’s fine dining scene with his own brand of Cambodian Cuisine, Luu Meng and his partners also recently launched the upscale, boutique Almond Hotel, which houses the Yi Sang Cantonese Restaurant on its ground floor on Sothearos Boulevard, and the swank Café Sentiment on Monivong Boulevard (a second outlet is scheduled to open soon in Sovanna Plaza, behind the Intercontinental Hotel).

“We don’t want to be showy. We want to make our staff happy, create more jobs for Cambodians. Our staff are our partners. We are part of the new way”, he says of his management philosophy.
With Phnom Penh (once known as the ‘Pearl of Asia’) fast becoming a significant global and tourist destination for Cambodia, Luu Meng and his partners’ fresh approach appears to be paying dividends.
Bookings at his Almond Hotel, “a business hotel with a high level Cantonese restaurant in a good diplomat area”, have been “mostly at near capacity” and has attracted “a lot of corporate interest”.
A self–proclaimed workaholic, the shrewd and dynamic entrepreneur has also recently added President of the Cambodia Hotel Association to his mantle.

“There are Phnom Penh and Siem Reap chapters (of the Cambodian Hotel Association)”, he says. “We plan to work with the Ministry of Tourism and ASEAN on new star ratings for hotels, as well as training programs for hotel staff, for marketing, administration and management. We also plan to prepare energy saving reports to help hotels and guesthouses reduce their energy bills”.

When asked how he’ll find the time to manage some of Phnom Penh’s most successful hotels and restaurants and also lead Cambodia’s foremost hotel association, he answers with characteristic gusto, “My mission is to help the hotels … help Cambodia”.

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