The pandemic has not been kind to the restaurant industry as a whole. Thousands of good eateries have been forced to close over the past couple of years, many of which would no doubt have otherwise been thriving businesses today and Cambodia has suffered its share of culinary losses during the downturn.
Despite the challenges in recent years, one of Cambodia’s long-time fine dining establishments has managed to not only survive but do so with award-winning distinction having made the “Asia’s Best Restaurants” list, which was announced on March 23.
Although the official name of the awards is “Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants”, their rankings actually extend out to the 100 best restaurants in Asia and Phnom Penh’s own Topaz was listed at 90 – the first time any Cambodian restaurant has cracked the Asia top 100 list.
Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants was launched in 2013 to celebrate gastronomy across the region and to provide local insight and culinary recommendations. There is no candidate list or online poll, rather the restaurants are nominated by a panel of more than 300 culinary experts through a structured and audited voting procedure.
This year Topaz debuted on the list at 90 amongst such prestigious restaurants as The Chairman in Hong Kong, Gaggan Annam in Thailand, Odette in Singapore and Den in Tokyo. It is the first time in the celebrated list’s history that a Cambodian restaurant has been voted in.
Pov Sopheak, Topaz’s executive chef who has been with the restaurant since 2002, was overjoyed at the news.
“Honestly, my heart is bursting with joy. This is my second time in my over 20 year career as a chef that I’ve won an award like this. The first time was in 2011 when I placed 4th at the MLA Black Box culinary challenge in Australia.
“I’m so proud of the work that my teammates and I did in order to make this list. I can’t thank them enough – each and every person who works at Topaz – because I know that this could only have happened with everyone’s efforts,” Sopheak tells The Post.
Lina Hak, who joined Topaz in 2005 as a part time secretary and then became the general manager and director of operations a few years later, was also thrilled to have earned international recognition.
“We are extremely honoured and I believe it’s a testament to Cambodia and what we can do. We see ourselves as ambassadors for Cambodian tourism. This award serves as a foundation for our pursuit of excellence through constant improvement,” says Hak.
Hak continues, noting that the hospitality industry continues to deal with huge challenges wrought by the pandemic. The ban on dining out and the lockdown regulations impacted them greatly just like they did the entire restaurant sector and it was tough to stay positive at times with very few customers and no real idea about when it was all going to go back to normal.
One thing they were not willing to compromise, Hak says – despite the added challenges – was the standard of quality of their food and dining experience and she sees a lesson for others in their commitment to high standards paying off for them in the end.
“What I think is very exciting is that the younger crop of Cambodian chefs and restaurateurs can look at what we have accomplished and know it is possible – with the right commitment, with the right vision, with the right people on board,” Hak says.
Hak says she thinks the biggest contributing factor for Topaz to making the list is the mentality and drive for excellence from every staff member when everyone has the same goal and puts in 110 per cent to try to achieve it and they are always trying to improve on every aspect of the dining experience.
“Nothing is ever perfect. We can always do better. Even when we are riding high in the reviews and ratings, there is never settling for good enough. The belief here at Topaz is that things can always be improved upon.
“Everyone who works here has the same mentality, which is to make the restaurant as good as it can possibly be. I am incredibly proud of the team for their unwavering dedication to Topaz and what we offer our guests,” the 37-year-old general manager says.
Topaz first opened its doors in 1997, so making this list now in 2022 has been a nice 25th anniversary present for them and a recognition of their status as the top destination for French fine dining in the heart of Phnom Penh.
Topaz aims to offer a genuine French fine-dining experience with authentic tastes and combinations of fresh ingredients sourced from the Marché Rungis in Paris or from carefully selected suppliers in France and Cambodia.
However, though Topaz has a strong focus on French cuisine, Sopheak says he often adapts dishes to customers’ tastes and they do have some Asian dishes on their menu because.
“We aren’t strictly just a French restaurant so much as we are really a French-Cambodian restaurant and we take pride in the work we do building up the skills of the next generation of young chefs, managers and other hospitality workers who learn how to do things the right way by working with us,” Sopheak says.
Sopheak recounts how he made his own debut at Topaz at the bottom rung of the career ladder as a kitchen boy in October, 2002. He says he applied himself and gradually climbed the ladder in the restaurant’s kitchen until he was finally offered the position of chef de cuisine in 2010.
“I first studied cooking with the NGO Friends International, which is known in particular for its restaurants Friends and Romdeng in Phnom Penh and Marum in Siem Reap. But then at Topaz my training was taken to the next level.
Sopheak’s climb wasn’t easy because Alain Darc – the master chef who he trained under – is someone whose demands for quality are uncompromising.
“Before taking over management of the ovens, I had the opportunity to hone my culinary skills in France, where, during a six-month stay, I worked in two renowned establishments: Le Carre des Feuillants in Paris, which has two Michelin stars, and Le Relais de la Poste – a gastronomic restaurant –located in Magescq, near Dax,” he says.
Sopheak says he learned a lot during his stay in France and after returning from that intensive semester abroad he was officially put in charge of the Topaz kitchen.
He says his ultimate goal is to be head chef at a fine dining restaurant that earns Michelin stars right here in Cambodia. While he works towards that goal he says he enjoys being able to share what he knows with other Khmer people, which he’s doing currently by training the younger generation of staff at Topaz.
“I want the younger generation of Cambodians who wish to be chefs to really put their total effort into doing what they love. They must strive to understand every kind of food they cook and to understand which foods are considered fine dining and so on – they must have a broader cultural knowledge to accompany their kitchen skills,” says Sopheak.
Hak concurs and adds her own advice based on her experience as the leader of a successful gourmet restaurant that has now been recognized as one of the top 100 in all of Asia.
“I want to remind them to study hard through every phase of training they are in to reach their goals. As for those who wish to be head chefs – they need to make time to explore new recipes and find out about different ingredients and to lead their teammates and direct them through training sessions.
“Together we can all bring Cambodia to the next level in food and fine dining,” she says.
For more information about Topaz visit them on Facebook: @topazrestaurant