Restaurateur realises local cheese dreams

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Cheese-maker Vuthy at work in Phnom Penh’s Tuol Kork district on August 8. Hong Menea

In the land of amok, prahok, samlor korkor and nom banh chok, former hotel employee Chan Vuthy, known as Tyty, dreamt of becoming a cheesemaker in Cambodia after seeing that this prized Western food was imported.

Vuthy is one of the first expert cheesemakers in Cambodia, with his products supplied to a number of luxury hotels and restaurants in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.

Born into a farming family in Kandal province’s Sa’ang district, Vuthy became interested in cheesemaking –known as “caseiculture” – while working at a hotel as a dishwasher in 1988.

“Back then, I saw that the cheese we used there was imported. So I asked a foreign chef: “What is this cheese made from? Why can’t we produce it ourselves and have to buy it from others?” And he told me: “Your country does not have milk, so what can we do?” Vuthy recalled.

The question “Why can’t we produce it ourselves?” was the driving force behind his goal of one day producing cheese in Cambodia.

Later, Vuthy began working for an organisation that allowed him to build relationships with friends abroad, and one day he had the opportunity to visit Italy, which presented the chance to learn the art of cheesemaking.

“When I first arrived in Italy, I loved it. When I came back, I continued my work for one more year. In 1999, I went there again, and I planned to quit my job and learn how to make cheese,” he said.

During his three-year stay in Italy – he speaks of his gratitude at having been helped with accommodation and education – he learned cheesemaking methods.

He learned theory and visited homes to master techniques for making traditional cheeses of different types by practising family handicrafts, while in Cambodia there were not yet many people interested in acquiring such skills.

“I learned from there, and I felt I had to create jobs in our country and enhance the food options of my people, and that so foreigners could see that our country also has great cheese, that there is no need to import it from France or Italy or other Western country,” he said.

Tough start

He returned to Cambodia in 2003 with the skills and the experience, but did not immediately start making cheese. In 2004 he opened a restaurant called L’Oasi Italiana in Siem Reap with an Italian friend, focusing on cooked hams, cold cuts and cured sausages such as prosciutto, coppa and salamis.

With his business doing well, in 2007 he started looking around the tourism province of Siem Reap for milk with which to produce cheese.

“Making cheese in Cambodia was very difficult then – for a start, our country did not yet produce a lot of milk.

“For four to five months, producing cheese from local milk did not prove particularly successful, so I went to Vietnam where there was a better supply of milk. But because of transportation challenges, I went to Thailand,” Vuthy said.

He found farms in Sa Kaeo and Buriram provinces near the Cambodian border. But although the communities there agreed to sell milk to him, he still faced transportation difficulties.

“It was really hard. But because of my passion, I did not give up. It didn’t matter at that point how much milk I had to buy from Thailand or how much the cheese would cost – the most important thing was I had to do it, I had to produce some quality cheese,” he said.

‘Happy and proud’

And in 2018 his transport woes were eased when he began using milk from the Royal Academy of Cambodia Techo Sen Russey Treb Park in Preah Vihear province.

“I had just started using the Royal Academy of Cambodia Techo Sen Russey Treb Park milk when Covid-19 arrived and Thailand closed its borders, so it was crucial that our country was now producing quantities of milk,” Vuthy said.

During the global pandemic, with foreign tourist numbers decimated, Vuthy was surprised to see Cambodian restaurants and hotels still expressing interest in his dairy products.

“People went to Siem Reap and they ate my yogurt. They called the phone number and said: ‘Wow! this yoghurt is made in Cambodia, who made it?’ They even asked about the milk and how it was processed.

“At that time, although during Covid-19 pandemic, there was still support for Cambodian-made cheese at hotels and restaurants related to European food – they encouraged us a lot. I was very happy and proud that we could still make it,” he said.

After collaborating with the Royal Academy for two years, because of insufficient milk from Russey Treb to meet increasing demand, he began buying from Kirisu Farm in Takeo province’s Phnom Tamao in 2020.

“In April 2020, I remember there were some 550 cows at Kirisu Farm in Takeo province’s Phnom Tamao. I felt really happy that everything was now in our hands and we could more easily meet production demands,” Vuthy said.

Currently, he has 11 types of Italian dairy products – including mozzarella, burrata, gorgonzola and taleggio cheeses, and a range of yogurts – sold under the La Fattoria brand at reasonable prices.

He has also just expanded to Phnom Penh in addition to his production in Siem Reap as it is closer to the source of his precious raw material.

Among his nearly 20 big clients in the capital are Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeethra, Hyatt Regency, Rosewood Hotel, NagaWorld and other smaller restaurants around the capital’s Riverside.

“There are more clients in Siem Reap, because we have been there for a long time, but a number of hotels and restaurants are still closed,” he said.

The former dishwasher said it is a source of considerable pride for him to his see his efforts rewarded, having gone from processing just five litres of milk to making tonnes of dairy products every month.

“It has now reached the level where I produce four to five tonnes per month, both yogurt and cheese, but I still want to do more.

“Nothing would make me happier than seeing Cambodians producing quality cheese in the Kingdom – I want to see Cambodian-produced dairy products flourish across markets,” Vuthy said.