Lunch, with a serving of feel-good

Lunch, with a serving of feel-good

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The daily buffet lunch offers a colourful sample of fresh and fried. Photograph: Alexander Crook/Phnom Penh Post

Everyone’s a winner at Hagar Restaurant, where women’s advocacy is combined with delicious food.

Tucked away down Street 310, near the corner of Monivong Boulevard, Hagar is a social enterprise that prioritises hiring vulnerable women – those who have faced sexual exploitation and rape, trafficking, domestic violence and acid attacks.

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With all the virtuousness, I was anxious the spread would fall short of the spotless ethics. No need for nerves – the buffet lunch ($6.50) is both good value and great quality. The menu varies daily, but regularly consists of a salad bar, vegetarian sushi, soup and five choices of western and Khmer dishes.

I treated myself to succulent deep-fried fish, tangy fried beef in ginger, hearty fusilli with grilled cheese and tender chicken in red wine sauce.

The themed buffets are a highlight (also $6.50). On weekends, the barbecue offers pork, chicken, wings, and shrimp doused in a savoury, zesty lime pepper sauce. Wednesdays feature an Italian blow-out with none of the usual menu dilemmas: no need to decide between pizza, pasta and lasagna when you can eat all three. The pasta bar where they cook it all up on the spot is a plus, and the mini slices of pizza are plentiful and addictive.

The restaurant’s cozy patio is busy with potted plants, tables and umbrellas, and is perfect for a lazy Saturday morning breakfast with the paper. That ubiquitous dish of banana pancakes is just $2.25, while a full American breakfast is $4.50. The restaurant sports a chic, minimalist interior; tables are set immaculately, and white walls are adorned with photographs of the women Hagar work with. A la carte dinners are available by reservation only.

The restaurant, however, is just a showroom for a much larger catering business that specialises in providing food at employee canteens. It’s no sandwiches and orange juice operation – clients include Hotel Le Royal, Mobitel GSM and the US Embassy.

The company, which is 20 per cent owned by the women and child advocacy NGO Hagar International, takes on apprentices for six-month periods for training as cooks. Particular emphasis is placed on recruiting women at risk for exploitation.

Hagar’s general manager of catering, Rapytha Bonamy, is herself a woman who has experienced turmoil – from the throes of the Khmer Rouge to the world of international finance. She worked as a banker in France, where she spent most of her life, before returning to Cambodia eight years ago to work for Cambodia Airports. She then took up the restaurant business three years ago in a career switch that she said was definitely for the better.

“It’s more concrete [than finance]. With the food industry, you can give the opportunity to Cambodian people to have jobs, and you have the opportunity to do something you really like. When you love food, you want to share it.”

 Bonamy, who said that she has faced her own share of prejudice, noted the importance of tackling gender discrimination.

“The position of the Cambodian women is not at the same level as the men. It’s also the case in Europe, but in Cambodia it’s a little more so.”

While Bonamy said she has won the respect of her male counterparts, she added that she has no specific strategy for dealing with gender discrimination, though she believes professionalism and confidence go a long way.

“A woman needs to believe in what she is doing.”

When asked which women inspire her, Aung San Suu Kyi came to Bonamy’s mind.

“I think she is a very strong woman and she made choices that I’m not sure I’d be able to do.”

With a social agenda that is as palatable as its food, Hagar Restaurant comes highly recommended for an International Women’s Day lunch outing.

Hagar Restaurant, #43 Street 310, BKK1

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