French cuisine isn’t anymore a stranger to our palate. Being a previous French colony for nearly a century and with the influx of French expatriates over the years, Cambodia surely has seen, felt and tasted the influence of France, most especially in food. Rama Ariadi gives a reintroduction of France’s culinary richness in Cambodia through his talk with the owners of Open Wine – Frank Sampere and Philip Veeckmans.
There was something in the air on the manicured grounds of the historic French Embassy in Phnom Penh on the evening of May 10th. The air was not just thick with humidity, but also with excitement and anticipation. After all, it was not just another social gathering geared towards bringing the French community closer together. On that particular evening, two prominent figures and regular fixtures in Phnom Penh’s French gastronomy scene – Frank Sampere and his Belgian business partner, Philip Veeckmans – were set to receive their Order of Agricultural Merit from the French Government for their outstanding achievements and dedication in promoting French cuisine in the kingdom through their restaurant Open Wine, which first opened its doors in 2005.
The chatter slowly died down as the French Ambassador to Cambodia, H.E. Eva Nguyen Binh, graced the main venue with her presence. As soon as she finished her rounds, she took to the podium to welcome all guests in attendance, before proceeding to the main reason of the night’s gathering.
“On behalf of the Ministry of Agriculture and Food, we bestow upon you the French Order of Agricultural Merit for your outstanding contribution to the development of French gastronomy in Cambodia,” said Ms Nguyen Binh, as she hands the medals to both Sampere and Veeckmans.
“I personally know both of them, and I know that the turnover rate in Phnom Penh’s food and beverage industry is actually very high, considering the relative size of the city,” said Ms Nguyen Binh.
“On behalf of the French Government I would like to say that we are grateful for their culinary virtuosity and perseverance despite the challenges that they have had to face since [Sampere and Veeckmans] opened their doors over a decade ago.”
Neither Sampere nor Veeckmans initially planned on establishing a French restaurant in Phnom Penh, as they didn’t even live in Cambodia. They began their ventures separately while both were living in Hanoi, Vietnam. Sampere is an experienced chef with seven years of culinary and hospitality training under his belt, while Veeckmans’ forte is the in operation and administration.
However, as fate would have it, both eventually decided to come to Cambodia and set up Open Wine in 2005. “At that time, we saw the opportunity because there wasn’t much competition in the business that specialises in French cuisine,” said Sampere. “The amount of French restaurants at that time was minimal at best — we could probably use all ten fingers to count it, with some fingers to spare.”
In a sense, both Sampere and Veeckmans were lucky to be able to jump on the bandwagon quite early in the game. But as with every budding businesses, they also went through growing pains.
“We initially started with a wine distribution business, but it wasn’t making enough for the operation to be financially sustainable in the long run,” explained Veeckmans. “The restaurant was a big hit since we opened our doors, so we began to focus on further developing the menu for the restaurant.”
And all the years of constant tinkering in the kitchen are evident in Open Wine’s extensive selection of appetisers, main courses, and desserts. From North Sea prawn croquettes, sea bass tartare, pan-fried rump steak with Kampot black pepper sauce to tarte latin with apples and caramel sauce — so many are the options, that even the pickiest eater with the strictest dietary requirements could find something that they could enjoy. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to find a better deal for fine, French fares that could beat Open Wine’s offering — their three-course lunch set is conservatively priced at only $16 per person.
Despite the vast variety of food Open Wine offers, one thing is certain — all of the fares are quintessentially French dishes, with a slight twist. “France is blessed for having some of the best agricultural produces in the world,” said Sampere. “From cheese, wine, meat – you name it, France has it.”
“Historically speaking, French cuisine also has a more humble root,” he continued. “In some ways it is like alchemy — the ability to turn lead into gold, in this case, we’re turning something that would otherwise be considered as inedible into something that is palatable.”
Sampere’s extensive training — and numerous trial and errors — have resulted in a harmonious synthesis of this contrasting perspectives of what French cuisine should be. None of the dishes felt pretentious and out of reach, yet there is a certain degree of refinement that is derived from the simplistic approach to other aspects of the dish. The result is a very well-balanced and thought out meal— the kind of meal that satisfies the soul, far before it satiates hunger.
As Cambodia’s economic growth continues to soar, even more changes can be expected in the next couple of years — if not months, given the rapid pace of development in Cambodia. As the face of the country continues to change, so has the composition of the city’s population. With the influx of nouveaux riches from China and other developing nations into the country, one may begin to ponder at the future of restaurants like Open Wine, that specialises in a niche that may disappear as more and more French expatriates move out of Cambodia following the recent tightening up of immigration rules by the government.
Will they survive this next stage of trials and tribulation? For Sampere and Veeckmans, the added competition actually becomes their driving force to further improve their offerings. “The market in Phnom Penh has a lot of potential,” said Sampere. “Yes, there are plenty of competitions these days — as such it forces us to continuously pick on our brains to make sure that Open Wine can continue to stand above the rest.”
“People are more adventurous and open-minded when it comes to food in Cambodia — and more and more people are coming in to sample the different kinds of cuisines that Phnom Penh has to offer,” chimed Veeckmans. “In my opinion, Phnom Penh has the potential to be the gastronomic capital of Asia — all it needs it is a little push to the right direction.”