The sweet secret of Temple Town

The students at Ecole du Bayon
The students at Ecole du Bayon make pastries for five-star hotels. TERENCE CARTER

The sweet secret of Temple Town

At Ecole du Bayon, young women are taught the fine points of baking pastries fit for the Kingdom’s best hotels

Hidden halfway down a dusty lane tucked behind National Highway 6 in Siem Reap, a breezy new cafe is serving up superb coffee and fine European-style baked goods made by the students of the new Ecole du Bayon pastry school.

From the airy al fresco cafe, which offers delicious sweets such as lemon meringue pies, chocolate fondant, raspberry mousse, and French madeleines and financiers, there’s a view through an enormous picture window of the young cooks hard at work in the sparkling stainless steel kitchen.

When they’re busy meeting the demands of a big five-star hotel order, rolling out dough and decorating cakes, it can be as fascinating to watch as any Michelin-starred restaurant kitchen from a chef’s table. But instead of lots of sweaty, swearing, stressed-out blokes, here the cooks are 16 smiling, polite, calm and controlled young women, aged between 18 and 24 years old.

The cafe is the newest addition to the three-month old pastry school, built and funded by the Bayon L’Ecole School, located near the Bayon temple in Angkor Archaeological Park, to provide further training for their disadvantaged young graduates, whose options up until now have been limited.

The students have come from beyond the Bayon, however, with some recommended by NGOs such as Lotus House, Helping Hands, Ponheary Ly Foundation and Krousar Thmey. They have moved from as far as Banteay Meanchey, Kompomg Thom and Kompong Cham provinces to Siem Reap to attend the school.

“Most of the girls come from very poor families and had to drop out of school because their parents didn’t have the means to send them anymore,” Ange Moray, the program manager, reveals from the kitchen, where instructor Morn Sokhoeurn, who has worked in five-star hotels, is teaching the students how to decorate cakes.

“One of them was a construction worker, another a cleaning lady, the others had the support of their NGO to continue school, but some were staying at home to do domestic chores,” Moray explains. “A lot of their parents are farmers, but they barely grow enough to sell their production.”

Once at the school, the students have four hours of pastry classes in the kitchen and four hours of complimentary classes, including English, mathematics, stock management, accounting and personal development. Two internships of six and 10 weeks at luxury hotels, as well as the Blue Pumpkin, give them the practical industry experience vital for securing hospitality jobs.

“I think the students realise that the pastry school is a great opportunity for them to learn skills, have a decent job with a good salary, and support their families,” Moray says. “They love going to the luxury hotels, like the Sofitel, Amansara, Victoria and La Résidence for their internships … they would have never imagined having the opportunity to work in this kind of environment.”

“I am very proud of them,” she says. “Especially when I receive their very positive internship evaluations from their tutors after training.”

Moray, who has worked in NGOs for nine years, has literally built the school from the ground up, arriving a year before it opened to supervise construction of the white-washed building that houses the cafe, kitchens, classrooms and accommodation for the students, the social worker and volunteers. The students not only live on site throughout their training, they receive a stipend so they can be free from the obligation of having to work.

“My dream for them is to find a job in the hospitality industry,” Moray says. “I want them to become strong independent women, who can take care of themselves, but also support their families. I want them to have ambition and an amazing career. And why not one day become Cambodia’s most famous pastry chefs?”

The coffee shop is open Tuesday to Sunday 7:30am-5pm. The products of the pastry school can be purchased from Asana Farmer’s Market and supermarkets around Siem Reap.

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