Finding the Oasis in Cambodia
by Phyllis Wong
AFTER four days in Bangkok with hot spicy food which has never found its way to my plate at home, and another day of overly sweet Cambodian cuisine – I decided to find my kind of food, if not Chinese, at least something from the west.
It was a delight to find the Italian-founded L’Oasi in the ancient temple city of Siem Reap. It is the place.
I met Roberto Ferroni and Chann Vuthy at their restaurant in a garden setting, a gem hidden quite far from the bustling city centre after a day of walking, stepping and climbing the magnificent Angkor Wat.
While Ferroni is an Italian from Bibbiena, Chann, known by his nickname Titi, is a Cambodian.
They are as different as chalk and cheese but interestingly, the one thing that brought them together is “cheese.”
In 1999, when Cambodia was still struggling to recover from civil war and the brutal regime that killed almost two million people and ruined the nation, Ferroni arrived in the strife-torn nation, wanting to start a project with his friend.
However, the project did not materialise. Instead, Ferroni helped to build a hospital under the cooperative for the Order of Mother Teresa in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia.
The hospital took care of terminally ill patients and patients who contracted contagious diseases such as tuberculosis.
After working two years with the hospital, Ferroni, lured by the attractions and mysteries of Angkor Wat, left Phnom Penh for Siem Reap.
He became a tourist guide and enjoyed the job for three years.
But the beauty, mightiness and magnificence of Angkor Wat did not seem to make him forget his passion – food.
“In my home in Italy, I cooked for my family. My passion is still with food inspired by my grandmother’s homemade pasta and pizza,” Ferroni said, clearly drifting into memories of his grandmother’s woodfire cooking back at home.
The most photographed temple Ta Prohm, the perennial favourite Angkor Thom or even the enlightened bodhisattva faces of Bayon temple could not take away Ferroni’s love of cooking.
He left his story telling of stones to amazed tourists three years later and started what he called an oasis of the tourist-crowded Siem Reap.
Business was moving but soon he found out he could not let his diners enjoy a traditional Italian experience without authentic cheese. Availability of such cheese in Cambodia was just a dream.
“Importing cheese is very costly and the nearest place I could get supplies was Thailand. You know, it was a long drive on back-breaking road to the border of Thailand,” he quipped.
But Ferroni did not stop there — if importing was difficult, why not home-made cheese?
Passion for food
Eyes lit with delight, he continued: “Then I met Titi — which is one of the best things that happened to me in Cambodia.”
Titi is someone who shares his passion in food.
With Titi, the idea of making his own cheese in Cambodia was born with determination that it will be carried out and through.
Titi said he took a job in 1998 as a kitchen helper in one of the Phnom Penh’s five-star hotels.
Just like his Italian partner, Ferroni, Titi inherited his flair for cooking from his father.
“My father was a former chef for the country’s King Norodom Sihanouk,” he said proudly.
That seemed a well-off family with a father tending to the gastronomical needs of a King!
But Titi grew up with the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime and civil war which separated him from his parents. He was sent to work in a labour camp for three years.
Titi later became a soldier and worked in Malaysia and Vietnam. In 1988, he left the army and took up the kitchen job in the five-star hotel in Phnom Penh.
How did they start?
How did the duo start making their own cheese and become the country’s first cheese-maker?
Where did Titi pick up the skills? Cheese is certainly as foreign as Italy is to Cambodia.
“I watched Italian documentaries and videos on Youtube to learn the process. It was not easy as I don’t understand Italian. But watching the images over and over made me understand the process,” he said, with much pride on his achievement.
But where could they get the milk?
Ferroni said he was able to source from a dairy farm, south of Siem Reap.
“But the supplies can be very unpredictable. We are getting some from Thailand.”
The duo is now producing Italian specialty cheese, including italic, cheddar, mozzarella, scamorza, cream cheese, mascarpone and gorgonzola.
They have also started making their own Cambodian fusion cheese such as Kampot pepper cheddar and italic chili.
There is not a trace of resentment or vengeance in the stoutly-built Titi who grew up during the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror when war and cruelty were the rule of the day.
The master chef and cheese-maker displayed his big smile all the time in our conversations and later showed his generosity by treating us to his pride – various types of cheese.
Besides meeting the needs of their own restaurant, L’Oasi is also supplying cheese to hotels and restaurants.
A retail outlet has been opened right outside the restaurant where families are dropping by to buy their fresh supplies of cheese.
“Our cheese is very fresh. However, we are not able to make some types of cheese due to climate condition,” Titi explained.
The duo did not stop with cheese. From the meaty pizza to classic carbora, sausages, salami and bacon are the heart of these Italian dishes.
So, they started their own farm with chicken and pigs to ensure that the freshest are used in their menu.
The duo is also giving back to the community. With donations from Ferroni’s friends back home in Italy, they have built a school that is taking in about 100 children.
They are looking to building more learning hub for the Cambodians.
“I hope my people will do well and get out of poverty,” Titi said.
For Ferroni, he has made Cambodia his home, saying: “Leaving home is not easy. I fell in love with Cambodia. I miss my family but I have found a brand new family here.”
The duo could not be wrong with their L’Oasi Italiana Restaurant– the oasis for hungry travellers — which is rated as one of three best restaurants in Siem Reap and within the top 10 restaurants in Cambodia.