For the last four years Chim Sophal, 39, appears to have been fully absorbed in the
business of making pizzas on the Phnom Penh riverfront. But all this time his mind
has been focused on legal issues.
Unknown to most of his customers, Sophal has been quietly studying law at the Royal
University of Law and Economics and this year he passed his law degree. He can now
put after his name: Bachelor of Law.
He continues to make pizzas in the charcoal-fired brick oven he built himself in
1994. And he is now thinking about what legal work he can do and whether he might
try studying for a master's degree in land law.
When he was young he wanted to be a soldier like his father, but because his father
was killed in the Pol Pot period he changed his mind. "I do not like guns now
because during the Pol Pot regime I saw comrades use guns to kill a lot of innocent
Sophal was a child laborer in the countryside, working with other children digging
creeks and building dikes. He survived by working hard and today he has a wife and
Sophal was taught in three weeks to make pizza by Herb Simeone, an American chef
at PP Pizza during the UNTAC period in 1992. "If I hadn't got help from him,
I do not know what poor level I would have sunk to," he said.
Sophal came from Takeo province, where he was born, in 1986 to work for a military
footwear factory in Phnom Penh. "I met Herb by chance when I was a moto taxi
driver. Herb asked me whether I wanted to be a cook."
Sophal said he accepted the invitation because he was reminded of the Khmer saying:
"In the kitchen there is always food to eat, so it's a good place to work."
A year after Sophal became head chef, PP Pizza went bankrupt, so Sophal and four
of his friends put together capital of $11,300, and opened their restaurant on Sisowath
Quay in 1993, honoring Herb by naming it Happy Herb Pizza..
In the chaos of 1997 two shareholders decided to pull out and two years later Sophal
bought out the remaining partner. At that time, with a large, well-paid foreign workforce
in the city, he could earn from $300 to $500 a day. He now has nine employees and
his profit after expenses is from $700 to $800 a month.
Sophal has plans to enlarge his operation and to branch into other provinces in the
future, particularly Kampot because it's near his homeland province and an increasing
number of foreign tourists go there.
Happy Herb Pizza was among the earliest restaurants established in recent years on
Sisowath Quay. Now there are 19 restaurants on the riverfront between the Royal Palace
and Psar Chas. Khmers own nine of them.
And pizza supremo Sophal is happy with the way his life is going: "I do not
want to dwell on the past, because it upsets me. I am very proud of myself. I have
a car, motorbikes, bicycles, a house and now I have a Bachelor of Law degree."