We met 18 year-old Cambodian waiter, Pheng Vibol, or ‘Vibol’ as he’s called, at the wonderful Romdeng restaurant in Phnom Penh. Romdeng had been recommended to us by several locals as Phnom Penh’s best restaurant with fine Cambodian cuisine and a lively atmosphere. It didn’t disappoint. In addition to the delicious food, what we also admired about the eatery was that it was staffed by disadvantaged kids, many of whom have been rescued from the street.
Romdeng, we were to learn, is a training institute operated by Friends International, an NGO that was established to protect marginalised children and youths and provide them with exciting opportunities to develop their futures. The organization runs several social businesses in Phnom Penh that give teens a chance to train in various areas, including hospitality, beauty and mechanics.
Romdeng is one such business, along with Friends the Restaurant, a casual eatery serving tapas and international dishes, and Le Café Mith Samlanh, a café at the French Cultural Centre. Profits from the businesses are ploughed back into the organization to support the kids and develop new projects.
The young people in the programme get trained in various areas of hospitality at each of the restaurants, from cooking to serving, and are assessed on their work. Upon graduating staff assist them to find jobs at hotels and restaurants in the city. The waiters were terrific — even those who had just started — and while often shy, appeared enthusiastic and eager to do a great job. Vibol was one of them, and at 18 years of age, was already a real pro.
Born in Kampot province, Vibol’s parents died when he was young, his father when Vibol was just seven years old, and his mother when he was ten. Vibol stopped attending school in grade 8, and soon after moved to Phnom Penh to look for work. One month later he was lucky to find himself with a job at Le Café Mith Samlanh, first in the canteen and then in the kitchen, and a bed at Mith Samalanh Transitional Home. He began working at Romdeng in May this year and he just loves it.
“I feel very happy,” Vibol told us, “I learn new and different things — I get lessons in hospitality training, greeting guests, new food… after joining Mith Samalanh, I felt that I have freedom and life is a lot easier and not so difficult.”
Just a few years ago it might have been difficult for Vibol to conceive of a future for himself, but now he has dreams.
“I would like to become a very good chef at Romdeng or another restaurant that is not too big, but just like Romdeng,” Vibol said. “Too big without guests is not good. Busy like Romdeng is what I want!”
Local Knowledge Interview — Pheng Vibol from Phnom Penh
Q. What do you most love about your work?
A. I love the direct contact with real customers the most. When I set the table, the guests smile at me. I like that a lot. I remember the first day I worked, the guests spoke to me in English. I didn’t understand them but my teacher Ms Ratana translated for me. She said the guest said, “He works very well.” I was very happy.
Q. Why should people come to Phnom Penh?
A. Because people in Phnom Penh are very friendly and happy and smile a lot and Phnom Penh has a lot of places to visit. There are beautiful places like Wat Phnom, the Royal Palace front park, riverside park, and especially Koh Pich or Diamond Island. And now we also have Dream Land. I haven’t been to Dream Land yet, but I heard people say that it a very fun place for children and young people like me.
Q. 3 ways to describe Phnom Penh?
A. Beautiful, clean air, nice food.
Q. 3 ways to describe the people of Phnom Penh?
A. Friendly, beautiful, busy.
Q. Your top recommendations for visitors to Phnom Penh?
A. Try the Khmer food at Romdeng, learn to greet Cambodians in the Khmer way, and learn some Khmer words.
Q. Best souvenir from Phnom Penh?
A. Our Romdeng Cookbook ‘From Spiders to Water Lilies’.
Q. Must-do eating experiences?
A. Eat fish amok, try Kampong Saom-style prawn curry, and at Romdeng try the crispy tarantulas served with lime and pepper sauce.
Q. Essential thing(s) to know before coming to Phnom Penh?
A. Do some research about Cambodian culture and geography, and learn how to greet Cambodians in the traditional way: bring your hands together at chest level, similar to bringing hands together for prayer, and bow. It’s very similar to the Thai greeting.
Q. Most important phrase(s) for visitors to learn in Cambodian?
A. Chum reap suor — hello/how do you do?
Kun — thank you
Chum reab lea — good bye
Thlay pun marn? — how much?
For more information about Friends International see www.friends-international.org. To buy the cookbook that Vibol recommends above, click here. There are also other cool gifts produced by the kids available for purchase here.