Iconic Van’s Restaurant in Phnom Penh celebrates its 10th anniversary this month. Editor Marissa Carruthers talks to owner Porleng Van about how the elegant French diner was born, its successes and plans for the future. Photography by Enric Català.

How did Van’s start?

The building belonged to my father but at a young age we moved to France. When I came back and took over the building, we leased out parts and thought with the remaining space, why not open it ourselves? The French love food, I have a background in hospitality and it has always been my passion to open a restaurant, so we decided to do this. As well as opening a restaurant, the purpose was to open up my former home to the public for them to enjoy the atmosphere. It seemed right because you have the French-style building, French food and a French background.

How has it evolved?

During the 10 years, we have changed the design a little bit. The mood of the restaurant before was very classic so we moved to a more modern-classic feel. If we stayed classic, then we don’t change and become old-fashioned. When you have a business, every three to four years, you have to change. A few years ago, I converted the attic into cigar lounge, The Stairs. We were getting more requests for private parties and especially romantic and marriage proposals up on the roof top. Recently, we opened the Garden Café because coffee culture is here compared with five years ago. Young Cambodians like to drink coffee and I wanted to have more of a garden café because I want to preserve the greenery.

Describe Van’s atmosphere.

We serve quality French cuisine in a classic and modern atmosphere. We are a small team, operating a family-style business and this is special for me because I want to give clients a homely atmosphere. This is very important because this is related to our history, so I want to bring this cosy medium-sized business to the client.

What else has contributed to your success?

First, you need to evolve your product. Second, you need to be passionate about what you’re doing and believe in yourself and your product because when you open a business in Cambodia there are a lot of challenges; more challenges than in Thailand, for example. The market is small and the system is not yet 100 percent implemented. There are definitely positives and negatives.

What have been the biggest challenges?

Around 2009 was very difficult economically throughout ASEAN. It wasn’t long after we opened and business was very quiet. I had to lay off some staff and that was very painful for me. We also needed to attract people by having 50 percent discounts and other offers but we managed to survive. In general, the main challenge is really the skill and the people because the industry faces great difficulties recruiting people who are already of a certain standard, and then retaining them. There is high instability in the behaviour of the young generation who enters this industry. We are fortunate because our core team has been with us since the beginning. This problem is getting worse because more restaurants are opening and there aren’t enough trained people in this industry. We also see a lot of professionals leaving Cambodia to work in hospitality in the region.

What are your plans for the future?

I would like to expand more here in this building and play with the space we have; not to other cities because if we replicate this in another city, it wouldn’t have the same identity. I’d also like to build on our reputation and become better known across the region. We’re already known to a degree as people contact us from across the world but I’d like to be more present. Within Cambodia, I would like to continue to bring Van’s Restaurant or the former building of the Indochina Bank to be part of our country’s point of interest as a landmark for preservation and tourism. I’d also really like to get a Michelin star because we don’t have one in Cambodia and I’d love to be the first.

What have been your highlights?

In 2010, I founded Cambodia Restaurant Association and cooperated with the Ministry of Tourism a lot. We worked on standards and training, as well as developing the MRA (Mutual Recognition Arrangement), which lays out skill criteria for trainers to train the workforce to be recognised regionally. I was so happy because the Ministry recognised Van’s as having the standards to follow for training at the centre. This really touched me because I really wanted to contribute to the training of the country. I started the association because I wanted to raise the quality of training, hygiene and service for the industry.

What is the history of Van’s building?

In 1965, my father bought the building, which was a branch of Indochina bank from Hanoi. It was the head quarter of his several businesses. In 1970, we had to leave the country for France and when I came back in 2002 we managed to get the building back. 

How will you celebrate Van’s birthday?

We are writing a book to mark the 10 years here about the history of Van’s, which will be ready this month. Also, all diners who come to Van’s throughout December will receive a special gift or souvenir from us.

Van’s Restaurant is at 5 Street 102 – next to the Post Office. A five-course Christmas dinner is available on Dec. 24 and for lunch and dinner on Dec. 25, with reindeer rides for children. A New Year menu is available for dinner on Dec. 31 and lunch and dinner on Jan. 1.

For more information, visit vans-restaurant.com.