Saturday, April 16, 2011

Cambodia's First Pop-Up Restaurant

Tom was slouched in the lounge, drinking gin. He smiled as I walked in. Not even a thank you. Not even the slightest bit of shame at stealing my recipe. I ordered a sandwich and coffee. As soon as Tom rode off on his scooter, I went into the kitchen. Dee wasn’t there.

“You have chicken curry?” I asked the cooks.

There was a bit of confusion for a while, and then they realised what I was talking about.

“Yes, yes, one you made,” one of them eventually said.

It was impossible. Josh had said they’d sold out. I looked in the fridge. None of the bowls were covered. It was a world away from food premises inspection reports in the UK, and all those tedious manuals to document recipe production steps, and fridge temperatures morning and night.

Then I spotted a portion of what looked like my curry sitting uncovered on the bottom shelf with raw mince above it. I was delighted. The rage evaporated. My bruised ego was restored. They hadn’t nicked my curry recipe after all – not yet anyway.

I met Josh in the street later and he asked about the pork pies again. He said he’d bought some belly and was rendering down the fat in his kitchen at home.

“Got to be right, got to be right,” he said. “Leave it to me.”

I suggested we experimented with the pastry first, filling the pie cases with chopped onions rather than meat. I said they’d still give off moisture, like meat, and it would be cheaper to crack the pastry first before moving on to the filling and jelly. But Josh said pork was cheap enough in Cambodia. It was roughly the same price as chicken breast – about $4.50 a kilo.

I still wasn’t looking forward to the pastry, especially in that cramped kitchen. I needed to find bigger premises. That way I could set up a pop-up restaurant for a few nights, and experiment with the pie pastry at the same time. It would probably be Cambodia’s first pop-up restaurant – there was no sign of another one on the internet.

I asked Rodney if I could use his kitchen (above). It had been well-furnished when he bought the lease two years ago, but he’d ripped it all out and given the equipment to Josh and Tom. But it was big enough and had the basics – two hobs powered by Calor gas, a sink, fridge, shelf space, and a tiny plastic chopping board. It would be fine for pot-based dishes.

And then it came to me. That was it – kebabs. I could start the pop-up with a few kebab nights over the Khmer New Year: Year of the Rabbit to get used to the kitchen. It would give me time to check out food suppliers. Then I could start on more cheffy dishes. There was even an unused bar upstairs that would take 25 covers. Rodney said he was happy for me to put tables up there and do a few pop-up evenings for the many wealthy Belgian expats in town.

They say it takes people a long time in business to discover that you need to make what customers want rather than what you want to make, and I was aware of making that mistake. It would probably be fairly tedious churning out kebabs, but they were the ideal food to get the name out there. You couldn’t get a kebab anywhere in Sihanoukville. The nearest one was a five-hour bus ride away. I knew lamb was hideously expensive, so I’d go for pan-fried chicken doner-style kebabs. I’d made them a number of times in Blighty and they’d always gone down well.

I headed down to the supermarket the next day and bought 2kg of chicken breast, a pot of paprika, salt, white pepper, ketchup, vegetable oil, a decent knife, foil, kitchen paper, a large covered container for the chicken, a bowl for the salad, and three pots with spoons for the sauces.

Then I came across a major problem. The tortilla wraps were $5.50 for ten. It was much more than I was expecting, and they were small round ones, meaning I’d have to sell the kebabs as more of a snack than a meal. I wouldn’t be able to sell them for more than $2.50, meaning a fifth of the food costs would just go on bread. It was disastrous, there was no way I could make a profit. Not that I expected to make any money. Pop-ups are just about marketing really. I thought about making the flat breads myself, but the kitchen was far too hot and underequipped for all that.

I bought two packs of wraps, and reckoned I had just about enough chicken to make 20 kebabs. On the way back, I stopped at the market and bought half a huge white cabbage, tomatoes, cucumber, onions, garlic, limes, and chillies. I’d spent $40 including the tuk tuk fare. If I sold all 20 kebabs, I’d make $10 profit. And then there was Rodney’s share to take into account. We still hadn’t really discussed that.

Rodney chatted away non-stop as I prepped the chicken, and kept sticking his thumbs up and saying “luvvly jubbly”. Imagine David Jason 30kg lighter, with dreadlocks and Keith Richards' wrinkles, and you’re half-way there. The facial resemblance was so strong that for the first year, Cambodian kids would run past the bar and shout ‘luvvly jubbly’ at him, much to his annoyance. Then he slowly joined in, and the catchphrase stuck from there.

“Everyone’s talking about the kebabs, you know!” he said. “The boxer phoned up earlier asking about them. He’s having one, and I’ve got another three orders from the Finnish boys.” He rubbed his hands together again. “Luvvly jubbly!”

I chopped the chicken into thin strips lengthways and marinated them in oil, garlic, paprika, salt and pepper. Then I finely shredded the cabbage and sliced the tomatoes, onions, and cucumber. I mixed the salad together and stored it in a bowl in the fridge. Then I made the sauces. For the hot chilli sauce, I finely minced red chillies and mixed in ketchup, lemon juice, and spices. For the garlic, mint yoghurt sauce, I finely chopped fresh mint, garlic and cucumber and added two tubs of yoghurt and plenty of salt and pepper and lime juice.

Then I tried a prototype. I got the largest frying pan smoking over the hob, dripped in some oil and there was an explosion of flames as I threw in a handful of chicken. After three minutes I let the chicken rest as I heated the smaller frying pan and toasted the tortilla wraps until they were puffy and slightly scorched.

I lay the tortilla on a tray, put chicken in the middle, spooned over the yoghurt and chilli sauces, and topped it with salad (above). Then I made a half-moon shape with the bread and folded both sides inwards and folded up the kebab. I rolled it in a piece of foil like a Cornetto. A Babnetto if you will.

Rodney came back a few minutes later, saying he couldn’t find his other sandwich board to advertise the kebabs on. He said he’d write out a sign on a piece of paper and stick that over his existing board.

“How do you spell chicken?” he said.

I told him I’d write out the sign.