Thursday, April 14, 2011

Killer Curry In Cambodia: The Verdict

It was 6.15pm when I turned the curry off and tasted it for the last time. I was dripping with sweat. I was as wet as a Thai police officer during Songkran. I realised how out of practice I was, but I’d never cooked in a tropical kitchen before. Tom was hovering near the door, holding his neck. I asked him how hot he wanted it, saying it was just under the radar of what I’d call a medium hot curry.

“Well, it can’t be too hot, or the Western customers won’t eat it,” he grimaced. “But the Khmers will – they’ll eat anything.”

He washed a spoon and dipped in.

“Oh yes, that’s good. It’s got a kick, you can feel it,” he said, clutching his throat as he swallowed. “I don’t think it needs to be any hotter than that.”

I wasn’t convinced. I was sure the panel of food experts at the bar were looking for a hot curry.

Tom and Josh went off in a huddle in front of the now fixed computer to work out a price. It really looked like they knew what they were doing. They decided on $4 for a bowl of curry with rice or a baguette.

I reckoned there were at least 16 servings in the pot – even with the huge portions they served. The ingredients had cost a maximum of $30 (£20), even if you took the tuk tuk into account, and it looked like I was cooking for free – there hadn’t been any mention of money - so they were left with a $34 gross profit if they sold it all, plus whatever they made on drinks.

Normally in the UK, you’d go for a 30% food cost, meaning if you bought £30 of food, you’d sell it for £100. We were working at around a 50% food cost, but the overheads and wages are much less in Cambodia – the monthly rent on the restaurant was just $300, plus $20 to the police, and the odd crate of beer to the real police force in town, the tuk tuk drivers. And as for wages, cooks and waiters get a paltry $15 to $30 a week for 12-hour days and two days off a month – which is why Tom and Josh rarely did anything at the restaurant.

A 50% gross profit margin was good money in Cambodia, especially compared to some of the Khmer restaurants in town. One up the road served a delicious chicken cordon bleu I’d ordered a couple of times. I’d been in the kitchen to see them make it.

I had no idea how they could make it for the money. It was 11,000 riel (just less than $3) for two big chicken breasts stuffed with slices of ham and cheese, and coated in Japanese-style breadcrumbs, and it came with salad and a mound of mashed potato. They were probably making 50 cents on the dish – if that.

I went back to my room, had a cold shower, and lay on the bed for an hour, bathing in the tickling chill breeze of the air conditioning unit. It felt good to be back in the kitchen. Very good.

I met the old Aussie in the street on my way to the bar. He was looking at Josh’s specials board. Most nights he had cottage pie in there.

“You can’t sell it like that! Gorr, how long did it take him to come up with that one?” he said.

We both looked at the board. All it said was “chicken curry $4”.

We headed up to the bar. Josh turned up later with a bowl of curry for his supper. All the food experts were there. I ordered another drink, sat at the bar, and waited for the verdict. I couldn’t bear to turn round. The suspense was awful.

“Oh, ten out of ten,” said the boxer. And I knew I was saved.

There were five orders and another three from across the street, and I don’t know how many they’d sold down at the restaurant.

“That’s a proper, proper curry. Yep, that’s a good curry,” Josh said, but he still made me pay for my own one.

We chatted away until the small hours. By the end Josh and the bar owner Rodney were trying to persuade me to open my own restaurant down at the beach. Josh said there was one going for $13,000.

“You’re never going to make a billion, no you won’t make a billion,” said Josh. “But you can make a good living here, especially if you can cook like that.”

I went to bed happy and exhausted, but like everything in catering, it wasn’t to last.

The next day, Josh told me they’d sold out of curry. I walked past in the afternoon, and there was a new sign up. I was furious.

They’d stolen my recipe! I stood in the street for a while, wondering what to do. The food experts had mocked Josh about his sign, and when he’d asked me what it should be called I said it was a Madras-style curry. And there it was, less than 24 hours later.

Dee must have remembered everything I told her. They’d got the spices I’d bought, so they knew what was in it, and I’d shown her every part of the recipe. I stood there steaming in the heat, then I returned to the restaurant.