All hail the Kimsan ‘twins’ – Kimsan Sok and Kimsan Pol – two gals from poorer parts of the Kingdom who determinably disprove the notion that while women are good cooks at homes, the men make the best professional chefs.
As Sok says, “Women empowerment is an important matter to us.”
After learning their stuff at culinary NGOs catering to students from underprivileged backgrounds, the duo – who are not real twins, but earned the sobriquet due to identical family names – cooked up a storm, launching themselves into the top of the cuisine game and now head one of Cambodia largest cuisine conglomerates, Restaurant Collection, consisting of 14 outlets: twelve restaurants, plus one cooking class venue, and a picnic service for groups.
The business is the result of a lengthy entrepreneurial career in Siem Reap by Serge Billot, originally an interior designer based in Hanoi.
He moved to Cambodia in 2000, setting up interior design businesses in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, before a fascination with local food prompted him, in 2002, to open his first diner, Amok, in what was then a dark and dubious alley adjacent to Pub Street.
He quickly became a serial restaurant opener, and when he got to about seven outlets he grouped them under the umbrella business, Angor W, which, in 2016, morphed into today’s Restaurant Collection.
He’s certainly a legend in food circles in Siem Reap, and some admirers are skeptical that he could hand over the running of his restaurants to anyone, even the super-talented Kimsan Twins.
But Restaurant Collection’s public relations manager, Sophie Clemenson stresses, “Serge is the investor.”
She adds, “He finances the new openings of restaurants. The Kimsan twins manage everything, they find the ideas, manage all menus, all kitchens, train the staff, and have an eye on every operational part such as purchasing, F&B, and kitchens.
“It’s really them who built this company, and manage all outlets today.
“Restaurant Collection is the structure that gathers the HR, accountability, marketing and sales departments to offer support to the restaurants, which are independently managed.
“Each restaurant has a unique positioning and concept and is managed, once more, independently apart from the Kimsan twins overseeing them all.”
The already-established and popular Abacus, billed as the best French Restaurant in Siem Reap, was the latest business to join the group in August 2018 with the twins overseeing a revamp, culminating in January with a Michelin-star dinner featuring French guest chef, Swiss-based Jérôme Manifacier, welcomed by Abacus chef, Yann Poillot.While the twins value all the restaurants under their charge, their pride and joy is the fine dining restaurant, Embassy , specialising in Khmer gastronomy. The twins underwent an enormous amount of preparation before the restaurant opened, including researching in the national archives to find forgotten Khmer recipes, and getting some tops from a former member of His Majesty King Norodom Sihanouk’s cooking staff.
“I am very proud of the opening of the Embassy,” says Kimsan Sok, who trained at the Sala Bai hotel and restaurant school, and then worked for two years at the Grand Hyatt in Dubai before retraining to Cambodia in 2008.
“With chef Kimsan Pol, well, we know each other for a long time now, and in 2014 we finally got our own place, where we could make our dream happens: making the world discover Khmer gastronomy.
“We created and we still run the Embassy with a team exclusively composed of women. I would say our restaurant is the first of a kind in Siem Reap, and I am very proud to make my customers try our cuisine.”
Kimsan Pol moved to Siem Reap from Kampot in 2002, and spent nine months training at the Paul Dubrule L’Ecole d’Hôtellerie et de Tourisme before working at the mainly French bistro at Angkor Victoria Hotel.
She agrees with Sok and says, “Of course I am very proud of having opened the Embassy, the first Khmer gastronomic restaurant in Cambodia, with an excellent team of women. I am so proud of being able to share the best flavours of our country with the whole world in my own restaurant.
“I am also very proud that all restaurants are very qualitative. Year after year, we have risen our expectations, and I can today say that you can go in each one of them and the food will be good. We use the best produce, we have the highest hygiene standards, and very talented staff. I am very proud to see the work of everyone, and the level the restaurants have reached today.”
The big question of course is that while the twins design menus at Embassy to serve Khmer dishes that diners appreciate, what are their favourite Khmer food?
“I love the Kdat soup,” says Kimsan Sok. “That is a very special dish in Cambodia, made with turmeric paste, coconut milk, rice, Cambodian seasoning, and prahok.”
Kimsan Pol goes for chicken. “I love to eat marinated chicken grilled on charcoal with tamarind sauce,” she says.
The twins began working in an environment where the big hotels favored male foreign chefs and they’ve worked hard to ensure that Khmer chefs are acknowledged, and that women are included in the ranks.
They’re happy to give advice to young Khmers who want to enter the trade.
“They should go outside to try different kind of foods, study other cooking techniques, participate in competitions abroad, and speak with other chefs,” says Kimsan Sok. “In short, get as much experience as possible.”
Kimsan Pol adds, “My recipe for them to be successful in their career is: work hard, never stop learning, be creative, do the research, be honest in your career, be strong and smart, and you will succeed.”