Proud to be French in Cambodia, optimistic about the future
One of the most well known and respected Frenchmen in Phnom Penh is Arnaud Darc, owner of Topaz Restaurant and Malis Restaurant.
Darc’s family can trace their roots as chefs and winemakers back to Napoleon the Third. Right now, with the help of a genealogist, they are establishing a link with the family of one of France’s most famous historical figures, Joan of Arc.
A peasant girl from the eastern part of France, Jeanne d’Arc (1412 to 1431), became a legendary hero in France and a Roman Catholic saint by leading the French army to victory on several occasions during the Hundred Years’ War. After she was captured by the Burgundians and transferred to the English in a monetary exchange, she was burned at the stake at the age of 19.
Since then Joan of Arc has captured the imagination of millions of people, was made a saint in 1909 and has been evoked in spirit since then not only in popular legend for her religious zeal but also by the French Resistance against Nazism during World War 2.
Arnaud Darc’s grandfather moved from Orleans near Paris on the Loire River, where a Joan of Arc battle took place, to Dax in Southwestern France in 1936 and settled there as hotel and restaurant owners.
According to Darc’s father, known as “Papa” around the Topaz Restaurant, the Darc ancestors were winemakers and saw millers located in regions around Orleans.
“They have always been chefs, passionate about food and wines. It is in the genes now I would say,” Darc said.
Darc first arrived in Cambodia in 1994 on a three-month internship with the Accor Hotels group, working at what is today the Hotel Cambodiana, but what was then called Sofitel.
There he met and befriended a young Luu Meng who was serving as chef de partie and was working with chef Didier Corlou, who is still a well-known chef around Southeast Asia and President of the Escoffier Chef’s Association. Today Darc and Luu Meng are partners in both the Topaz and Malis restaurants as well as other ventures.
Darc and Luu Meng, their families and close associates just returned from a trip to France which provided an opportunity for some of their team members to appreciate French cuisine from the source, with fresh ingredients and traditions by genuine French growers and chefs at home in France.
“I was educated in France in the world of hospitality and have always been passionate about it. I came with that in my suitcase,” Darc said. “I found Cambodia to be a great opportunity to start. I’m French and I love my country but I have become a Cambodian at heart and I consider Cambodia to be my home,” he said.
With a Thai wife, a son Nathan and three-year-old daughter, Darc is optimistic about the future of Cambodia and investing in the future that he sees.
“I love to help new French investors to come in,” he said. “They can bring a lot in various industries such as agriculture and tourism. France is still the number one tourist destination in the world with 83 million visitors in 2012 and one of the world’s biggest producers and exporters of food worldwide. In 2012 foreign tourists spent close to €36 billion euros in France. In 2011 the agricultural food sector represented 159 billion euros in revenue making it the leading sector in French industry and far ahead of the automotive industry.”
Darc says France’s economy is also composed of over three million small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) and believes the development of SMEs could be one of the key to Cambodia’s development.
“Although giant corporations or industrial groups are needed in the economy, the backbone of any modern economy is still composed of millions of SMEs and in France the SME fabric should inspire many here,” he said.
He says France’s experience in the agricultural industry could really help Cambodia.
“There is a clear link missing between farmers and retailers or restaurants; that link is an industry that transforms and promotes the locally grown products,” he said. “It is very difficult for us to promote Cambodian products because they are hard to identify. I believe that France’s food processing know-how could be of help to create that link between people on the farm and people in the supermarkets and restaurants,” Darc said.
When he first started on his own after three years with Accor in Phnom Penh, it was to import foods from the world’s largest fresh food market, the famous Rungis Market in Paris which employs 14,000 people and occupies 300 hectares of land.
“Everything you want is there. Rungis Market moves 1.7 million tons of food products annually” Darc said.
Darc’s father, known around Topaz as “Papa”, serves as executive chef at Topaz and remains involved in the preparation of menus. He works closely with Sopheak, the head chef at Topaz.
“Papa and Sopheak create recipes and menus together,” Darc said.
“We try to match wine and food so each compliments the other. Drinking wine is not only social, but part of the pleasure shared with friends and family around a good table.”
Topaz was opened on June 12, 1997, at a location on Sotheros Boulevard before it moved in 2007 to its present location on Norodom Boulevard in what had been a villa with a history as the French Ambassador’s residence.
Darc also opened Amanjaya Hotel and K-West on the Riverside in 2002, selling it in 2006.
It was in 2006 with Luu Meng that Darc first started to build Malis Restaurant. The reasoning was that there was no Cambodian restaurant of high standards available.
After Malis was opened, the next adventure was Café Sentiment on Monivong, which he sold in 2009.
AS Papa’s eldest son, Arnaud Darc, initially wanted to be a chef like his father, but Papa encouraged him to attend business school.
“When I was a teen I helped in the kitchen and served sometimes up to 150 people.
“Cooking can also be an art performed by a chef as an artist that transforms raw food materials to give pleasure to people,” Darc said.
“This is like composing a symphony or painting. Our chef’s idea is always to enhance the quality of the product he works with. If you are eating salmon, we want the salmon to stand out. If we are cooking a duck, we want the taste to transcend the plate and leave an unforgettable souvenir of well-being. All would not be complete if it wasn’t for the wine to compliment the feast. At Topaz, although we pay great attention to what catches the eye, we don’t let the design take over on the taste.
Sophistication has its limit.”
Darc says sometimes simplicity is best.
“There is nothing better than a good omelet with the right eggs or a simple roasted chicken with the right crispness of skin. Everything we do is in that spirit, that philosophy,” Darc said.
“Time is also the essence in a good meal. We like to take time to prepare the freshest food and give the time to our guests to appreciate and enjoy it. We are not in the fast food business.”
Darc, his wife and Papa just returned from two weeks in France with Luu Meng, his wife Berly, the Topaz general manager Lina, Sophy the Maître d’Hôtel or restaurant manager at Topaz, and Seyha the Sommelier (wine expert) at Topaz. Darc’s son Nathan also joined the “Tour de France”, which included a visit to the giant Rungis Market in Paris as well as a memorable lunch at the famous restaurant Carrédes Feuillants, a two-star Michelin headed by its famous chef Alain Dutournier.
“The chef Dutournier is a good friend of Papa and he is the one who helped train our head chef at Topaz, Sopheak Povour,” Darc said.
“Sopheak is probably the best Cambodian chef I know for western cooking. He understands the product and his able to create from it.”
Papa Darc echoed Arnaud’s approach to cuisine: “You need to have a feeling with the product and you need to speak with the product. The chef needs to know what’s inside the product to know the value of the product.”
Topaz receives regular imports of food from Rungis Market including oysters, milk-fed lamb and milk-fed veal.“No other country in the world produces quality food like France does. Just make a trip there and find out how food becomes part of one’s culture and why French gastronomic meals became one of UNESCO intangible cultural heritage of humanity,” Darc said.
Also on the Topaz menu is Cape Grim beef from Tasmania, including rib eye, tenderloin and strip loin, as well as USDA prime beef cuts.
“We sell a lot of foie gras from France,” Darc said. “We know the farmer and we buy from him. Topaz is 48 hours from his field. We have live seafood, oysters imported from France, some fish like Dover sole, and special seafood like white salmon, we recently brought also some of France’s best Limousin beef.”
For wine, Darc and Papa go to France, taste the wine and if they like it, they import it directly for sale in Topaz.
“Papa is a specialist. Wine is a very important part of the service we provide to our customers. We try to give diversity in choice and discover new wines unseen around the kingdom.
“Everything we have is fresh or live: lobster from the China Sea or Sturia caviar from Aquitaine in France.”
Topaz Restaurant seats 156 people, has seven private rooms, a garden area, a wine cellar and a cigar cellar.
“People know us because we have been here for 16 years.
“People can bring guests to Topaz and show the good side of what you can find in Phnom Penh,” Darc said.
One of the things that Darc appreciates the most is the impact he has on Cambodian people by bringing high standards of cooking and training. “We train our staff at Topaz and we can see the impact we have on their life. My first employee was a moto taxi driver and now he owns a taxi company.
“Some of our staff has been with us for more than 15 years.”
He gave the example of his partner Luu Meng, owner of the Almond Hotel, the Yi Seng restaurants, partner in the Secret Recipe franchise and other ventures. Darc is happy to see Cambodian entrepreneurs like Luu Meng flourish.
Darc’s next big adventure is the Arunreas boutique hotel in Phnom Penh on Street 51, which is now under construction and will include a dine-in and take-out gourmet market called Khéma, which will have among other things a wine cellar and a pastry shop with a French pastry chef.
After that, Darc’s next big plan is to open Malis Restaurant in Siem Reap and then to extend the hotel idea to a big seaside resort in Ream near Sihanoukville on Cambodia’s southern coast.
“We are currently acquiring 30 hectares of land to build the Arunreas Hotel in Ream,” Darc said. “We are developing this Cambodian brand now.”
Darc has seen Cambodia transform since he arrived 20 years ago.“The government today has brought stability. I have felt it. You can make plans now because stability is the key for the country to develop. You can bring investors if the country is stable. We feel now Cambodia is stronger. The young generation is becoming more educated and that new blood and modern thinking is normalising the country little by little.”