The youngest of the Van sisters, Porlim and Porleng, have restored the rooms where they used to frolic as little Khmer-Chinese girls while their father ran a large family business including the famous Chip Tong sandal factory, as well as dyeing factories, garment manufacturing and paint factories.
During the ’60s, their father was one of the most successful Khmer-Chinese industrialists in Phnom Penh.
“In 1965 my father bought the Indochina Bank building. The first Indochina Bank was in Hanoi, so they had decided to open branches in Phnom Penh and also in Battambang.”
The sisters remember living on the first floor. Now they enjoy running a fine French restaurant in their former childhood home.
“This was my father’s office for all of his businesses,” Porleng Van said.
The sisters left Cambodia in 1970 and lived in Hong Kong, Singapore and France.
“During the Khmer Rouge period, the building was well protected and preserved and we heard they kept gold and munitions here,” Van said.
“After the Khmer Rouge, it became the Rural Bank of Cambodia and we got it back in 2003,” she said.
While renovations were underway at the building, Van visited the south of France Aix en Provences where the national archives of all the French colonies is located and she did research on the correspondence between the governor of the Indochina Bank at the time and head office.
She found out many interesting things like a big drama when all the lettres d’ordre (cheques) were stolen.
Many of the guests who come to Van’s Restaurant today already know some of the history.
“They want to be in the building and they want to be in the history,” Van said.
The building has been short listed in UNESCO world heritage site for renovation challenge.
Some of the original glass remains and the mosaic floor has survived and is a main attraction for guests.
Van’s has French Chef called Nicolas Malherbe, from the south of France near Perpignan.
“We propose traditional authentic French food,” Van said.
“We have some new creations from Nicolas who likes to combine local ingredients like passion fruit mixed with scallops. He uses Kampot pepper and sugar from the sugar palm.
“In general we can say we are authentic French food, but with some new inventions.”
Van’s is known for a romantic atmosphere, a favourite for couples and always full on Valentine’s Day.
“Upstairs we have a terrace and a private room. We have clients book upstairs with tete a tete dinner.”
There’s a minimum charge of $100 to use the upstairs private dining room.
Van’s opens every day at 11:30am and serves lunch until 2pm. For dinner the hours are from 5pm until 10:30pm.
Van’s has an all-inclusive lunch special for $15 including one starter, one main course, one glass of wine and coffee. There is also a special week on the first Friday of every month in which new menu is added with specific theme such as beef, lamb, veal or seafood.
Some of the tastiest items include Terrine de Foie Gras as a starter and classic French onion soup.
Among other dishes, Porleng Van recommends the lamb chops as well as the tenderloin with coffee grain and Kampot pepper.
For dessert there’s the soufflé Grand Mariner as well as ice cream and sorbet and “all are home made, included pasta and bread .
The Van sisters have about 30 employees and as far as service goes, Porleng recommends kindness in the treatment of staff and always correcting and taking the time to explain to what they have done wrong – not by shouting – but by making sure they understand.
While sister Porleng is the “public face” of Van’s, serving as President of the Cambodia Restaurants Association, sister Porlim takes care of the finance.
“In general the people in Cambodia are very kind. You need to understand the local way of thinking to adapt and when you know how they think, you can help them improve. If you keep on saying something that they don’t catch, it is worthless. If you can realize what they don’t understand, then you open a door to communication.”
“People in service are innocent in general ,” Van said.
“They want to do the right thing, and they don’t have enough knowledge. When they know they did something wrong, they are scared.”
As far as the treatment of guests goes, Van asks her staff to pay attention to the client, but respect their privacy.
“It depends on the nationality of the client, how we brief our staff, when you see Cambodian people, you need to pay more attention and when you see foreigner, you need to respect privacy. With Chinese you need to be very attentive.”
Van’s approach is that of welcoming guests to their own home, which it was when they were little girls.
“This is our home and we want people to feel they are in their own home like the way we do. The taste of our food is very authentic ;the way of receiving the client is very international. We have the culture of Chinese, we know how they behave; we know how the French and the Cambodians behave and so this is an advantage that we have,” Van said.
“I will say that we are the only ones who has a strong sentimental attachment to this place, not only for its historical architecture preservation and the pleasure of the traditional French food, but also for our family’s past.”