After having so many problems with our Cambodian tour company’s restaurant selections in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh during our recent travels, this one – Romdeng – hit our desired mark: an upscale dining experience set in a beautiful colonial mansion surrounded by a pool-side garden located deep in the hectic heart of Phnom Penh…
…but one which offered a culinary adventure where diners could not just eat, but could eat proudly and ethically.
You see, Romdeng is a training restaurant, where homeless, orphans, and otherwise disenfranchised young people are given a chance for a new life with a much more secure future. Cambodia is in dire need of such programs; just 40 years ago, while the country was still reeling from the detrimental effects of the Vietnam war, the Khmer Rouge (which I will be blogging about at length – stay tuned) came to power and purged the country’s cities of all people, murdered all those with higher educations, professions, and even poor eyesight, and in doing so in a little over three years, managed to kill about one out of every three people then alive in Cambodia, reverting what remained to an agrarian-bases stone age. It will take many generations to recover from such widespread devastation of such depth; such restaurants serve a critical role in the country’s current recovery.
And Romdeng is part of re-establishing Cambodian’s people and their professions. The staff are dressed in two different colored shifts, clearly labeled (in English) whether they are trainees or teachers. The Teachers are all graduates of the program, one which lasts a year or more during which much more than just professional training is offered. The trainees all do internships in the kitchen, at the bar, and in serving food. But they are also provided educational classes in the basics, and are given room and board for the duration. Needless to say, there is a lot of pride among the staff trainers, and likewise, much to learn for the young but energetic students.
The restaurant’s interior is outfitted with locally produced furniture and décor, including silk from a local sewing vocational school and paintings from a local artistry training center. The eclectic gift shop sells a wide array of branded merchandise whose sales provide additional support to these training centers. Romdeng sources all of its ingredients used in their dishes from local farmers and purifies their own local water. The establishment and its rehabilitative social outreach are all run by Mith Samlanh, who has worked tirelessly to build and provide futures to former street children and marginalized young people throughout Phnom Penh since 1994.
Romdeng offers a true taste of Cambodia cuisine, serving authentic Khmer foods that range from almost forgotten recipes from rural provinces to contemporary creative Khmer cuisine. The adventurous can also try one of Cambodia’s most popular snacks: fried tarantula. I, however, did not.
Because we had our meals built into our tour itinerary, we weren’t able to sample many of the foods available, but instead were held to a “set” menu. For starters, we had crunchy yet savory pork and pumpkin laap with fresh local herbs. This was followed by Cambodia style chicken and straw mushroom soup, seasoned with preserved lime. Our main was delicious beef fillet sautéed with galangal and lemongrass, two of the main ingredients used in Khmer cooking, of course served with fresh steamed Jasmine rice. And dessert was nothing overly complex, and nor does it have to be in the Asian tropics where fruits are overly ripe and plentiful: Khmer style assorted fruits accented with a touch of heat provided by a dusting of chili salt.
Romdeng is also just one eatery in a network called TREE, a global alliance of Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) training restaurants offering high quality standards of practice in such social enterprises. TREE restaurants are based upon a highly successful model which provides enhanced customer satisfaction through direct involvement in social engineering, but also enhanced sustainability through the use and reuse of local resources, produced by locals themselves. All profits from TREE restaurants are reinvested in the social programs which support their students during their long and often difficult journeys in becoming skilled, productive and happier people facing a much more secure future than their pasts would belie or allow.
Romdeng is 0pen every day 11am – 10:30pm (kitchen closes at 9.30pm), and is located at #74 St 174, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. They can be contacted by ringing (855) 92 219 565, or emailing E firstname.lastname@example.org. Reservations are accepted and encouraged. Find them on Facebook as well!