One of the more influential restaurant owners in Phnom Penh is Australian Tom O’Connor, 40, who comes from Bellingen, a small town of 1,600 people in country New South Wales where his father had a thousand-acre cattle company. He was the only boy in the family with four sisters.
During his time in Phnom Penh, O’Connor helped create the menus for the restaurants at FCC and Metro and now has his own place called Fish along the riverside at the corner of Street 108.
O’Connor left home at age 17 and started his apprenticeship local RSL club (Returned Servicemen’s League) preparing traditional Aussie fare like Sunday roast and fisherman’s basket.
His teacher in the culinary arts was John Tickle, an old Army cook. O’Connor credits his father with encouraging him to learn a trade.
“He used to pick me up after work at 11. He gave me is blessing to move off the farm and pick up a trade.”
His next move was further down the New South Wales coast to Port Macquarie where he started working at the El Paso Hotel as a junior chef, running the place on the chef’s day off. Next he worked at a place called Pepper’s, 35 minutes north of Sydney on the coast, a big hotel with 360 rooms.
O’Connor got to work in big kitchens for the first time with people of different nationalities and formal hotel training, mass volume catering and functions that served hundreds of people.
“I had to learn every section of the kitchen from cold salad preparation to culinary terms and stayed there for a year.”
O’Connor’s next job was at the Park Hyatt in Century Cove, near Brisbane in Queensland, a huge place with two international golf courses and a huge ocean pool.
It was there that O’Connor served fine food to both Whitney Houston and Frank Sinatra at the opening party. Sinatra had a club sandwich. During his time at the Park Hyatt O’Connor also met and served supermodel Elle McPherson and Australian Prime Ministers Bob Hawke and John Howard.
“This is where I really started to branch out,” O’Connor said.
“Bob Hawke wanted a meat pie, and I made him one from scratch.”
This was also the period when O’Connor started to travel abroad, which would eventually lead him to Cambodia.
“They saw my potential and groomed me into different management courses, because I was one of the youngest chefs with Hyatt, and that gave me exposure. I would be shipped off the places like China.”
O’Connor helped prepare a cutting-edge Hyatt conference in Bali, all about food and beverage philosophy, for every food and beverage man and chef for the Hyatt Company worldwide.
“It was the whole thing of being able to adapt from local produce, getting away from traditional heavy style, and making things, healthy options, and using local produce in a modern way.”
All up, O’Connor worked for Hyatt ten years, spending time in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand before getting tired of working for a corporation. Then a couple of Hyatt managers, an architect and an executive chef asked O’Connor if he would open a riverfront property in Yangon, Myanmar called 50 Street. O’Connor agreed to do it and started there in 1998, spending two years – working for the same company that owns FCC here in Phnom Penh.
Thus, in 2000, O’Connor arrived in Phnom Penh working for the people that own FCC, opened a café’ at the airport, the Café’ Frescos and helped open the popular Metro restaurant in 2007 with partner Paul Tripp, who was living in the USA at the time. O’Connor sold out his shares in Metro to Tripp in 2009.
O’Connor opened his own restaurant Fish in that same year, 2009. Since then Fish has become a favorite of local Khmers as well as local expats and visitors, with excellent food, including the Black Angus Burger, salads, sandwiches and main courses. O’Connor also owns the 108 Hotel next door, with other partners, mostly Malaysian.
O’Connor took time to tell what he’s learned over the years about training people. He feels great when he gets calls or emails from people who took their first jobs with him and have since gone on to great things in the food and beverage business.
“One chef I had at FCC now works in Sydney,” he said.
“It’s rewarding when you see staff that you have trained being able to survive in their own right in international community.”
Regarding the training of staff, O’Connor says getting angry is not productive.
“By jumping up and down you don’t gain anything. The key is knowing how to work and judge.”
O’Connor notes that “staff are a lot more loyal in Burma than they are here.” O’Connor’s advice on training is to build the level of confidence in the staff. “If they are not confident, they are always shy to learn new things, shy to go the extra mile.”
“Once you build that confidence, they are more willing to speak to foreigners and joke and be jovial and relate to customers better and they’re more willing to be open to try new thing, so they can actually move on and grow,” O’Connor said.
“There’s always a couple that you have to sack, but they don’t call very often,” he smiled.
“You have to be firm, but you have to be fair. At the end of the day the business is your business and your face and name is behind the business, but if the staff feel like they are being treated well, they will be more willing to go the extra mile.”
O’Connor says let your staff become aware that it is OK to be relaxed with foreign customers.
“Sixty percent of our customers are Asian, 40 percent are foreigners and here, everybody gets treated the same. “Breaking out of the mold and doing something: they are the places that become successful.”
Another tip is spend some money on the bathroom.
“Bathrooms are a big statement in restaurants. You can never have a bathroom that’s too clean.”