SERGE Billot is one of Siem Reap’s most successful restaurateurs, a Pub Street mover and shaker who owns a string of high-profile businesses and keeps a low profile as a devout and hard-working family man.
French-born, 58-year-old Billot now owns seven thriving restaurants in Siem Reap, no mean feat for a man who came into the game with no restaurant experience.
The first of Billot’s establishments, Amok Restaurant, opened in 2002 in a lonely, dark alley adjacent to Pub Street.
“The first year was very hard because no one came into the alley,” Billot said. “The hotels told guests not to go into the city centre because it was dangerous. They were trying to keep their guests safe, and people were scared back then.
“The rent in that area was cheap, but the smell in the area was very bad, and it was very dirty.”
Despite the problems, Billot opened his Banana Leaf Restaurant in Pub Street one year later.
“I opened a second restaurant because I am a little crazy,” he said. “But step by step we had help. Lonely Planet invited customers to not just our restaurants, but all of the restaurants in the area. It all grew very fast.”
His Cambodian BBQ eatery opened by 2004, followed by Le Grand Café, Champey Restaurant, and BBQ Suki.
Billot’s most recent restaurant, K Noodle, opened in 2009, and he also started Angkor Pic Nic, a service allowing tourists to buy a picnic box to take to the temples.
Most of Billot’s restaurants are in prime locations in and around Pub Street, and his closest rival is the Blue Pumpkin chain.
But Billot is not looking to expand into Phnom Penh like the Blue Pumpkin, and is content to remain a Siem Reap institution. He says he’s now set to stabilise his gastro empire, but of course he leaves the option open for further expansion. He said that at present he is concentrating on upgrading the quality and hygiene of his restaurants.
But he quickly added that he would certainly consider new opportunities if they arose.
Billot’s background is interior design. Before moving to Cambodia, he lived in Hanoi where he started an interior design company. He came to Cambodia in 2000, opening an interior design company in Phnom Penh and another in Siem Reap.
But he became fascinated by the food in Cambodia, prompting him to open his first restaurant in 2002.
“I fell in love with Khmer food,” he said. “I love amok and the spices that Cambodian food has. It’s not too spicy and it’s not too oily.”
Billot designed the interiors of all of his restaurants himself, and they each feature a distinctive theme rather than being a carbon copy of each other.
The group of restaurants also has a free communal restaurant for its staff above the Banana Leaf Restaurant.
Billot now works closely with his general manager Chan Sreyroth, whom he has worked with for the past five years.
Not one to normally be at the forefront of Siem Reap social circles, Billot says he works 12 hours a day, six days a week, and is a devout family man.