As general levels of prosperity have risen in Phnom Penh in recent years, the quality of goods and services has grown in tandem. One area in particular where this shift has been seen is in the bars of the city, where an influx of foreign bartenders has caused a rapid rise in the quality of drinks available and the skills of those providing those services.
Post Plus sat down with four of the leading players in the renaissance of the drinks industry in Phnom Penh.
Paul Mathew is a world-renowned barman and educator, who owns three high-end bars in London and has been a tireless promoter of quality drinking in Phnom Penh.
Louisa D’Orazio describes herself as ‘Lady Boss’ of highly anticipated new bar Elbow Room on Street 308, as well as country manager for La Familia, the ‘purveyors of fine spirits and experiences.’
Annemarie Sagoi is a managing partner in Le Boutier, the hip and popular new establishment also on Street 308.
And Jen Queen is a vastly experienced bartender, and managing partner at Elbow Room.
PM: I always wanted to come to Cambodia because it was an interesting, small market. Somewhere like Tokyo you would be a small fish in a very big pond: here gave me the chance to be a slightly bigger fish, or have more influence.
AS: I think saturation was important to me as well: living in Chicago for the last seven years, I had planned on opening a bar and I still might, but it’s a bit daunting to have so much competition and so much talent too.Also, I think, here there’s room for improvement. Not that I’m singlehandedly going to do it, or any of us are, but I think that if there’s enough of us working together and trying to elevate it and provide better food and drinks, we can do it.
LD: For me, I fell in love with Cambodia, the Kingdom of Wonder, it’s got a little bit of controlled chaos which I love; it’s special in its own way and completely innovative and I admire and have such a love for the people.
JQ: I just thought it seemed like an interesting budding market and it was sort of gritty and would test me and I wanted to see if the formula would work here. So it didn’t matter to me really where but since being here it consistently blows my mind. I really, really love it; there’s a sense of adventure. It’s sometimes a little scary for me, and I always jump at that.
What is better here than where you were before?
PM: The diversity of spirits that we’ve got on offer here is amazing given the size of the market. I was really surprised how much stuff was available here and how cheap it is. And then the ease with which you could just do something. I’ve got three bars in London: the bureaucracy and the planning and the cost of setting something up there is astonishing. Coming to Cambodia, it’s more like, ‘Oh, yeah, if you want, go for it.’
AS: I think, for me, it’s honestly the genuinely really beautiful souls of the people here. I know it sounds cheesy, but the smiles people have, and the generosity.
JQ: I also really like the diversity in the expat scene – growing up in New Jersey, I didn’t get to interact with French people or people from different parts of Europe; so getting to see what their drinking culture is, their eating culture, their business culture: I really like that too.
And the worst things?
JQ: The weather. The weather is a challenge. It cooks your brain and you have frustrations that you don’t know how to deal with. But no, for me it’s mostly struggles in communication, because I want so badly to connect with people.
AS: Sourcing can be really hard. One of the most popular drinks on my menu has grapefruit juice in it, and for the first few months I couldn’t find any grapefruit. Simple things like that you wouldn’t think twice about in the west. And consistency: getting it again the next week.
What new flavours have you discovered here?
AS: Kampot pepper, for sure. I’ve always liked pepper, but never been a pepper freak, but the first time I smelled and tasted it, it was completely different, and was completely cool.
JQ: And all the tropical fruits kind of roll through in these crazy sporadic seasons. Things pop up, and they can be gone in a week or two. But people are excited to share it with you.
What are your customers like?
PM: It’s a fantastically diverse place and if you’re not from a city that’s pretty ethnically diverse then it’s quite a nice surprise and quite a nice melting pot. But it also makes it very difficult to write a cocktail list. If I write a cocktail list in Britain I know what to do; the same in the States. So whereas you can get away with an eight-drink cocktail list in most bars, here you have to put stuff on the menu that you might be unfamiliar with, and you have to learn how to sell it.
LD: I find that with the Khmer people, they either go super sweet, or just have one shot.
JQ: Asking our staff what they’d like to see on a drinks menu, most of the time it’s like an electric lemonade, like a Long Island made blue – which I think is radical.
And how do your local staff behave behind the bar?
JQ: There are a lot of younger people, who are willing to experiment. Now I find that in a lot of places, people are starting to get much better.
LD: People are actually starting to get curious about cocktails. And some of these people are really, really good. As good as anywhere in the world. Local bartenders are starting to smash it and I’m really excited to see where things go.