In the heart of Phnom Penh’s old French Quarter is the old Banque de l’Indochine, a grand old 19th century French building that today houses Van’s Restaurant. In its opulent colonial setting, executive chef Nicolas Malherbe, 32, who hails from the Languedoc Roussillon region in southern France, prepares high-end French cuisine. Young and dashing, Malherbe is in the fourth year of his first gig as an executive chef.
While Malherbe takes charge of the kitchen, Un Vachana, 32, runs the show on the restaurant floor. Having started at Van’s Restaurant five years ago as a waitress, she is now one of the restaurant’s two service supervisors in charge of the wait staff.
In the high-pressure environment of fine dining, the Frenchman and Cambodian admit they sometimes clash under the pressure of peak meal hours but both say that their relationship is amicable - even when the foie gras flies out of the frying pan.
“Vachana and I have worked together for over three years, so I know how to make her angry. If I’m very angry with her when she comes into the kitchen, I know how to make her angry [too] - I just say one word and she goes back upstairs!
There is sometimes some tension, like in many restaurants. But it’s only during the main service when there is pressure. You’re very busy, and you want to do the best for the clients, so if the service or kitchen does something that impacts the other, such as too many orders coming in the kitchen at the same time, or if we give something too fast, there is always conflict.
But at Van’s, we have a good relationship between the kitchen and the service. We try to work together. Everyone can help each other. Even though [Vachana and I] are two different nationalities, we have good teamwork and good communication together. Sometimes, when we finish work we go to a Khmer restaurant for dinner and a little bit of beer.
For my part, I try to control my stress, but sometimes, sure, I complain. I like to complain a lot. Especially to the service. I complain about everything!
If a guest has a request, we have to do it. I will complain, but I will do it. Sometimes they will ask for soy sauce for the very expensive meat. It is special meat, but most Japanese or Chinese clients are used to eating with soy sauce. I find it strange.
And I don’t like it when clients order meat well done. For me, it should be medium rare or rare. But they order expensive meat and they want it well done, and it breaks my heart!”
“When I first started working at Van’s my position was a waitress. About three months later, I was promoted to captain. Right now, I’m a supervisor.
I’ve worked many jobs. When I was 16, I sold bread, and when I was 18 I became a worker at a cigarette factory. After that, I worked at an Indian restaurant as a waitress and then I worked at a Russian restaurant. Although I started as a waitress here, they promoted me to captain after three months.
This job is very important for me, because I have no money to travel around the world, but working here, I can meet many customers from around the world. And I understand about their culture and how they eat.
The Chinese like to have the food at the middle of the table to share, so they want the food not as a starter and main course, but all at once, so you have to accommodate. The Khmer, they don’t like to wait, so once the dish is ready you have to give it.
I work well with Nicolas, but sometimes we get angry when we’re working hard. But I know him. For instance, when we have one table that we are serving steak with potato and they want to change it to rice or mashed potatoes, I will go to him and he will say ‘no, I cannot do it!’ But then after that, he’ll do it for us. Then after work we will start playing again.”