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Rotanak: Khmer cuisine an art form

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With the belief that Khmer cuisine is an art form that sits proudly with Cambodia’s rich cultural and artistic heritage, Ros Rotanak has started a food business called Rotanak with the hope that Cambodian fare can be known worldwide like dishes from Thailand and Vietnam.

A young woman entrepreneur, Rotanak, whose food business is just a year old, spoke with Post reporter, Cheng Sokhorng about her passion for the business.

How did you start your business?

I have always been a food lover and in my career, I have had the privilege of working with the Cambodian Living Arts team. I wanted to protect and preserve Cambodian cuisine for the whole world to enjoy and I knew we would need a business model to make it sustainable. 

My business model has two parts – one is a Cambodian food service restaurant, called Mahope Home Dining. The other is food guides – we produce books, TV programmes and free food content for the web and social media.

We believe Cambodian food can sit proudly on the world scene as does that of our neighbours Thailand and Vietnam. We work every day to make that a reality.

What challenges do you see in the business and how has it grown so far?

Our core mission is to protect and preserve Cambodian cuisine and take it to the world stage. So our biggest challenge right now is financial support to explore Cambodian traditional food recipes.

For the project, we will go to every corner of the Kingdom attempting to archive and document recipes from village elders before the knowledge is lost. This is a very capital-intensive project.

We are very lucky that our fans are supporting us – we have sold 100 copies of our book “Nhum – recipes from a Khmer Home Kitchen”.

We are working on archiving traditional Cambodian recipes – we are conscious of the fact that we need to be relevant in modern Cambodian society too. So we’re also working to develop recipes, content and product lines that help cook food in a quick, easy, healthy and tasty way.

Your prices seem too expensive, why is that?

Well, our Mahope Luxury Home Dining Experience costs $460 for two to five people and $90 per person for groups of at least six members.

At Mahope restaurant, we don’t merely provide food. It’s more of a performance of the cooking arts, home-cooked food, food stories, ingredients, a way of living and eating with traditional performing arts.

Luckily, our customers come from all over the world to experience something truly unique. They find us through TripAdvisor, Google and Facebook. Reservations must be made in advance.

But our main clients are Cambodians who mostly book for parties, birthdays and small weddings. Everyone leaves Mahope with a huge smile on their faces and that makes me so happy.

What are your plans to expand your business?

We will issue at least two food guide books this year, “Nhum – Recipes from a Khmer Home Kitchen” which you can now pre-order on our website and “Cocktails of Cambodia – Contemporary Drinks with Traditional Flavors”.

We have more books in the planning stages including “Mahope on Sovannaphum”. We are making a TV show around the project which we hope to broadcast next year.

One more thing I am super excited about is our soon-to-launch e-commerce platform. We want kitchens and homes across Cambodia to have access to the best products at the best prices, so we’re working on suppliers and delivery partnerships to make this a reality.

I admit this is actually more of a long-term dream of mine – I would love to team up with developers to design the perfect kitchen for Cambodian homes of the 2020s and 30s.

As a young entrepreneur, do you feel you need assistance from the government or the private sector?

Yes, I do need support. It is key to my success. So far I have received support from SHE Investments in the form of training, feedback on ideas as well as a business network. I wish to get more support from other programmes such as USAID’s We Act. Getting additional support from the government, private sector and public would be a big help.

Our project, Mahope on Sovannaphum, now seeks to uncover the food secrets of our land – from villages to tribes, rivers to mountains. It is a huge research project to make this work. We also need people to help us by submitting their food stories to us – just provide us with their names, the food stories or recipes, and the location or contact number where we can go to find the recipe.

In terms of the government, I recently heard it will support the Cambodian film industry – I wonder if this can be extended to content producers like me since we create entertainment and carry our culture forward.

We are also seeking the support of the government and private sector sponsors to make Mahope on Sovannaphum a reality and to give it the budget it deserves.

We work in partnerships all the time and find it a fast and effective way to do business. I encourage interested parties to get in touch with us. The easiest way for anyone to support us right now is to head over to the website and order a copy of our new book, you will not be disappointed with it!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.