Crowds of people gather around a lone man with a mobile food cart every day at around 2pm in front of the Institut Francais du Cambodge to order what many say are the best crepes in Phnom Penh.
To some – even to the man making them – crepes may just be thin pancakes with a French pedigree, but whatever you call them their ability to attract foodies is undeniable as is his cue of customers waiting to order them daily.
Although Dounaevsky sells his crepes under the name Mister Pancake and crepes are undeniably pancake-like in their basic nature, technically the two terms aren’t strictly interchangeable – i.e. crepe in French translates to crepe in English, according to Google. We’ll split the difference and use both terms here.
Those who travel down St 184 regularly can attest to the popularity of Mister Pancake’s crepes. The man responsible for them – Philippe Dounaevsky – tells The Post that he has been selling at that location for the past eight years out of the 11 total that he has been making crepes in the Kingdom.
Other favourite spots of Dounaevsky’s include the Night Market and Lycee Francais Rene Descartes and he also sells in the mornings at public schools such as the Bak Touk, Chaktomuk, Wat Phnom, Santhormok and Tuol Tom Puong, but his afternoons have mostly been spent selling crepes in front of the French institute on St 184 since 2013.
“I’ve lived in Cambodia for 11 years, since July 2011. I started my small business one month later. My girlfriend from Thailand came and joined me here in 2012 and we have a better life here and it’s very different from western countries,” Dounaevsky says.
Parisian native Dounaevsky learned his crepe-making skills from his mother and he’s always been passionate about food.
“My mother was a pancake-maker in a public garden for 40 years. I learnt how to make pancakes from her year after year. And now I’ve modified them for my own recipes,” he says.
Dounaevsky worked in the electronics consumer products field for more than 30 years but he says he’s happier making crepes. He says he can sell up to 100 crepes in a day though the average is closer to 70, depending on holidays or the season.
He features seven flavours at his cart: Nutella, chocolate milk, dark chocolate, strawberry jam, peanut butter and condensed milk and sugar. Customers can also add a banana topping if they’d like as well.
Dounaevsky says the top sellers are the milk and dark chocolate crepes and then nutella and strawberry jam. He makes his crepe batter with the usual ingredients – flour, milk, eggs and sugar and in some cases vanilla extract to give it a richer taste.
Many may find it hard to believe that’s all of the ingredients for making crepes. The bare bones nature of the recipe doesn’t hint at the perfect flavour it achieves and proves that the simplicity or complexity of a recipe isn’t what makes a dish good.
Dounaevsky makes his crepes at home and then wraps them in aluminium foil so that when selling them all he has to do is quickly heat them up and add the requested filling to achieve a wholesome taste that is fluffy, soft and delicious.
Once you’ve had Dounaevsky’s crepes there’s no wondering why customers are willing to wait in line for 20 or 30 minutes to get one. And At age 63, he’s old school in more ways than one – including when it comes to keeping things orderly. Those who arrive first will order first and last will order last with no exceptions.
His crepes come in simple but attractive packaging – a necessary touch given that all orders are take-away orders – and he runs his crepe stand in a very hygienic fashion.
“99 per cent of my customers are locals. Apart from that there is a mixture of nationalities. Most of them are students and university students. Local people here have said they love my crepes. They are very different from other types of pancakes such as roti.
“I have a lot of regular customers. I can confidently say that the majority of my customers will come back after they have tasted my pancakes. The prices are also very reasonable at around one dollar,” Dounaevsky says.
The Post surveyed some of the students waiting in line for crepes and many said they liked how different it was from traditional Khmer cakes or confections.
One student went so far as to say that they are addicted to crepes and love them so much they can’t resist coming back again and again. One group of high school students told The Post that they had been eating Dounaevsky’s crepes since primary school.
Although Dounaevsky does quite well with his mobile cart business he says he’s never contemplated opening a shop with a fixed location.
“I prefer to sell my pancakes on the street which I think this way it can bring me closer to my customers in terms of connection. Selling on the street is easy to set-up and to move. I like being outside and having customers around me having a good time but it would be nice if they could find me easier. Sad to say but most crepe shops are closed now,” he says.
Dounaevsky says he has nothing but gratitude towards Cambodia and Cambodians for welcoming him into their country and supporting him for the past 11 years.
“Thank you so much for everyone that has been kind enough to approach me and express positivity with their attention, their smiles and kindness. It really is a pleasure to work in Cambodia. And I want to say sorry if I’m sometimes quite moody. But really it has been wonderful and thanks to the Kingdom of Cambodia for welcoming me,” Dounaevsky says.
Mister Pancake’s crepes are sold daily from 2pm to 6:30pm in front of the Institut Francais du Cambodge at #218 St 184 in the Daun Penh district of the capital.
For more information go to: Facebook.com/French-pancake-in-Phnom-Penh-1454124511475180