Exciting new Siem Reap eateries are usually the brain child of enterprising expats keen to share their culinary skills, but Brown Rice is setting its own trend.
Not only is this comfortable air-conditioned café the town’s newest health-conscious hang-out, it is owned and run by passionate young Cambodians with shared ambitions.
“We all wanted to start our own business” says Choch Cho, who also works as a tour coordinator and trip leader. “I was talking to Seak, he was talking to Piseth, and Piseth was talking to Somaly. We were all interested in having a restaurant, so it made sense to work together.”
Piseth, a professional facilitator and English teacher adds, “Originally we wanted to do something simple, like a Cambodian breakfast or dinner restaurant serving pork and rice or noodle soup.”
But the team soon realised that this kind of restaurant did not fit in with their wider vision for their business.
“At a lot of typical Cambodian restaurants customers go, eat, and then they leave in less than ten minutes,” explains Piseth. “We wanted to create a space where people come for food or a drink, but also to hang out, do some work, meet their friends, or relax.”
In speaking to the team, it is plainly evident that they are very passionate about making this a comfortable and welcoming restaurant, and one which appeals to a wide variety of clientele.
“We are close to two universities, so we want this to be a place for students to come in their free time,” says Ing Somaly, who also works for a Korean NGO. “We are also close to a number of hotels and guesthouses, so it was important to us that Brown Rice is comfortable and welcoming to foreigners. Really, Brown Rice is for everyone.”
The owners’ intentions to appeal to everyone is reflected in the extensive and eclectic menu, which includes everything from Cambodian favourites to Caesar salad, must-try chicken satay, and a multitude of vegetarian-friendly options.
But perhaps most unusual is that all dishes are served with the option of brown and-or white rice.
“We were thinking a lot about Cambodian traditions, and how in the past Khmer people only ate brown rice,” Try Seakngoy says, who is also a human resources manager for an NGO. “But now many Cambodians aren’t used to eating it and so they don’t like the taste, even though it is much more beneficial for their health.”
Cho says, “We want to encourage young Cambodians to try something new, but also to promote the health benefits of brown rice. That’s why, even though it’s more expensive to buy, we sell brown rice at the same price as white rice.”
Seakngoy adds, “That’s also why we chose to name our restaurant Brown Rice. We want people to know it’s available here.”
But promoting the dietary plus-points of the oft-forgotten brown rice isn’t the only altruistic motivation behind Brown Rice.
“Of course we need to make money to stay open” explains Cho, “But we also want to provide a nice working environment for our staff. We want to work together and learn together.
“Over time I’ve learned how much the little day-to-day things determine whether you enjoy your job. If you work in a nice environment with friendly people, that makes a huge difference.”
“We also share 5 per cent of our profits with our staff, as we want them to benefit from our successes too.”
While it’s only been open for a few months, the Brown Rice team already has exciting plans for the restaurant’s future.
“Each of us has a background involving work with youth movements, NGOs, volunteering, social work, and Khmer Talks,” Cho says. “We’re working on how we can make this a dynamic community space for both foreigners and Cambodians living in Siem Reap.”
Brown Rice is on street 27, on the right hand side past Pannasastra University. It opens daily from 7am-9pm.