When French Gastronomy was listed by the UNSECO World Cultural Heritage Commitee in November 2010, it illuminated the face of French chef Nicolas Malherbe, 33, who comes from Perpignan in the south of France, from a family of hoteliers. He serves today as Executive Chef at Van’s Restaurant.
Located in the old Bank of Indochina Building in the heart of Phnom Penh’s colonial district, Van’s is one of Phnom Penh’s finest French restaurants and Malherbe is happy to run the kitchen there. He works closely on preparing the menus with owner and General Manager Porleng Van.
Coming from a family of hoteliers and restaurateurs, who own the Roussill Hotels, more than 10 properties around the south of France, he started work in his uncle’s one-star Michelin restaurant called L’Almandin at the age of 16. At the same time he attended culinary school, one week of school followed by one week of work until he earned both his CAP and BEP diplomas, which are French qualifications.
"When you start as a chef you always have to start from the bottom of the level such as peeling potatos and with years you climb up the scale of the profession," he said.
His next job was a transformative experience at the L'Astor Restaurant a two-star Michelin, with a famous executive chef named Joel Robuchon near the Arc de Triomphe de l'Etoile at the Champs Elysees in Paris. Malherbe worked as a commis, one of the junior positions in the kitchen. “It was a very difficult experience the first month,” he said. “In such big restaurants everybody wants to be better than everybody else. They do not speak with you. It was very depressing. In famous Parisian restaurants, competition is very hard amongst the staff.”
Yet Malherbe endured and things improved over time. His responsibilities grew to the position of entremetier during his nine months at L'Astor Restaurant. Everything was cooked “a la minute" (on the spot). "I learned how to cook with the very best quality of fish coming in every morning such as St Pierre as well as lobster and caviar.”
Many celebrities came to eat and Malherbe was in charge of a special dish for French singer Lara Fabian.
His next job was at Albertville in the French Alpes where he became demi chef de partie.
When the season was over, he went to work for his uncle at one of his family’s hotels in Collioure where he became chef at the age of 20, creating his own menu, purchasing, doing the costing and planning.
After that experience, Malherbe went back for another season at Albertville as demi chef de partie before taking another job in the Var department of Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, also in the South of France.
It was nonstop work from 8am to 2am, as chef de partie, but he learned a lot about preparing fresh fish, going through 500 kilos every day. "It was a great experience. My preference is now to prepare fish and seashell specialties."
In 2002 Malherbe ended up on the island of St Barthelemy for a good three years preparing all kinds of food for many customers including famous people. “Uma Thurman kissed me on both cheeks,” he said.
He prepared banquets for special groups like Victoria’s Secret. He met Stephen Spielberg and Michael J Fox, Mariah Carey and Puff Daddy.
“It was the most popular restaurant on the island,” he said. “It was a great experience and we’re still friends today with owner Lady Maya."
After his enjoyable Caribbean experience, Malherbe went to work in St Louis, Missouri, at a private club called the St Louis Club with a traditional French restaurant.
He worked there for 18 months as Chef de Partie and then landed his job in Cambodia, at Alliance Café in Siem Reap in 2007, where he stayed for one a half years. He then returned to France.
Already with a love for Cambodia, in 2009 he started his position at Van’s Restaurant as Executive Chef . He says he really enjoys the work. He's also responsible for the kitchen at the Cambodian Country Club, which belongs to the same owner.
‘He understands that is very important to have respect for the profession and respect of what you want as owner,” Van Porleng said. “We collaborate closely together, he is very talented and creative."
Some of the favourite dishes at Van’s include the rack of lamb, the beef, the fois gras, soufflé’ and French onion soup.
“I try to the maximum not to cook in advance,” Malherbe said. “We cook everything when the guest orders it.
“I like my life here because I enjoy the working environment: Van’s Restaurant is a beautiful place. She gives me many freedoms for what I want and many projects. I am lucky.”
Malherbe recommends the fois gras terrine, the lamb, the barbecue menu.
“Our home-made fois gras terrine is cooked at a low temperature and it is very tasty and tender,” he said.