hochiminh banh xeo

Delicious Dining on the Mekong River: An Interview with our Executive Chef

We spoke to Executive Chef Oka Wayan who leads the talented team on board Emerald Harmony, our specially designed Star-Ship sailing through Vietnam and Cambodia along the Mekong River. Learn all about his processes for bringing tantalising flavours to the table every day, where he finds inspiration for new culinary dishes, and what he loves most about the cuisine of this region.
Executive Chef Oka Wayan, tell us a little about yourself... 
I’ve been working on the Mekong River for almost four years. I started my career on an ocean vessel when I was 19 before I gained experience working on European river ships. When I have a little free time I like to skateboard around the riverside in Phnom Penh or extend my professional knowledge by trying out new restaurants in Saigon and Phnom Penh. I’m originally from Bali and I’m 27 years old. 
What does your role as Executive Chef involve? 
I am responsible for all culinary aspects of this wonderful seven-night Mekong river cruise. My job involves sourcing trusted suppliers, creating delicious menus for our guests, and running the busy day-to-day operations. I’m also involved in human resources.  
oka wayan
Emerald Cruises (and our sister company Scenic) are the only companies operating by European hygiene and safety standards, so a big part of my job has to do with training and maintaining a clean and safe working environment for my amazing team. 
My background has involved working as a baker and pastry chef, so I like to create new desserts and sweet delights. It’s such a thrill to see the sparkle in the eyes of our guests who are enjoying my culinary creations. 
What does a typical day in your job look like? 
At 6:00am, after a coffee, I make my way to the galley to check everything is on track and running smoothly with the Baker and the Breakfast Chef.  Once I know that breakfast is ready for our guests, I start giving the team jobs for preparing our delicious lunch service.  
While I attend the morning meeting, my crew are busy cooking lunch and preparing dinner, but I am on hand to help when I am needed. After lunch I squeeze in a short break to relax and recharge before the evening showcase of our multi-course dinners. In the evening, guests can enjoy superb Asian-inspired dishes, plus a range of Western favourites. I also try to be around our guests as much as possible, letting me chat with them about their dietary needs and personal food preferences. 
What do you love about being the Executive Chef on board Emerald Harmony?  
Emerald Cruises has given me an awesome chance to evolve, develop and extend my culinary knowledge. Working for such a globally recognised cruise line is a great honour, and the feedback I receive from our guests is what drives me constantly to reach new heights. I like the freedom to choose my own menus, as well as the flexibility to amend and implement new trends, ingredients, recipes and dishes to create a memorable culinary experience for our guests. 
What is your favourite space on board Emerald Harmony? 
I really like the Lotus Lounge, which is a tranquil area for guests to relax and chill with a specialty tea, coffee, and snacks throughout the day. I also love the spacious galley with its state-of-the-art equipment.  Unfortunately our guests can’t see it, but they can enjoy the wonderful meals and treats that are produced by our talented team in this unique kitchen. Last but not least, I like the golf putting area on the Sun Deck. I like to try for a hole-in-one every once in a while!
lotus lounge
What’s an interesting but little-known fact about the cuisine of the Mekong River? 
The French left quite a culinary footprint along the Mekong River, as did many different cultures throughout history. This melting pot of tastes, flavours and scents helps me create unique dishes, some with references to European influences, some purely Asian. And, of course, many showing the fusion between the old and the new world. 
What people might not know is that each country that the Mekong River runs through regards their own Durian (a tropical fruit) as the best tasting one. Many Westerners find this hard to believe as they all are considered stinky! 
How does cooking on a river cruise ship differ to cooking at a hotel?  
Logistics! It’s critical to plan and be super organised when you are cooking on a river cruise ship because if I forget to buy special ingredients and items in one place, I will not have the chance to do so the next day as the vessel will most likely be in a different destination. The great advantage of cooking on a river cruise ship is that even though the galley doesn’t change, the view out the window changes all the time. 
The guests on board Emerald Harmony cruise with us for a whole week. We are able to make each river cruise personal to our guests and ensure they get exactly what they expect from us –⁠ and exceed their expectations too. 
What are some of the popular local dishes from the Mekong River region? 
Banh Xeo is a particularly popular dish. A Vietnamese savoury pancake, Banh Xeo is commonly served in local street food stalls. It’s a real highlight at one of our lunches. Bo Luc Lac is another popular local dish. This is a beef stir fry with a special salt and pepper dipping sauce.
What local foods must our guests try on their Mekong river cruise? 
The crawly critters! A real Cambodian treat are the local creepy crawlies – fried tarantula spiders, crickets, silkworms, and more. Perfect for those who have adventurous tastes!
What is your favourite dish to cook on board? 
What I call ‘Royal Duck’! This is a combination of duck leg and breast with sweet mash potato and steamed carrots. I created a seven-spice mix to marinate the duck; the spices used within this mix have become a highly debated topic along the riverbanks! 
How many people are in the galley on Emerald Harmony? 
We have a team of five cooks, plus myself, and our dish washer who is by far the most important team member. Without him nobody would be fed!  
Can you share a recipe for guests to make at home? 
Papaya salad is a nice one to cook from home. Cut green papaya in small slices and add sliced bell pepper, paprika, onion, peanuts and tomatoes. Simply mix it all together and add the sauce. But the sauce recipe is top secret, so I can only tell you if you join us on board the Emerald Harmony! 
What is your favourite thing to cook at home? 
When I get home to Bali I normally see my family and they never let me cook for them! I always look forward to visiting my mother as she makes the best spicy fried rice in Bali. 

Your Dream Escape Along the Mekong River

Feeling inspired by the cuisine of Southeast Asia? Your Mekong river cruise and land tour will be one of unrivalled comfort and intrigue with Emerald Cruises. Specially designed to sail the Mekong River and built to European safety standards and emission standards, our elegant Emerald Harmony Star-Ship will be your boutique home as you venture through this awe-inspiring region. Sample the flavours of the region, as crafted by Executive Chef Oka Wayan and his team. What’s more, our EmeraldVALUE promise means all on board dining included in the price of your holiday. Discover our complete Southeast Asia collection online.
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