Two French-Cambodian brothers are hoping to inspire businesses to keep Kampot’s unique heritage alive in the modern world. Words by Marissa Carruthers; photography by Nataly Lee.

It was during a visit to Kampot in 2013 that the Meinnel family’s love affair with the riverside town started. A dilapidated Chinese shop-house that overlooks the river caught their eyes; its crumbling façade harking back to a different era of more prosperous times.

Architect Antoine and his brother David travelled to Cambodia to restore the 1945 shop-house their parents had bought. They came equipped with the aim of preserving its history while injecting contemporary Cambodia into the space.

“Our parents fell in love with the house,” says Antoine. “It was quite famous in Kampot as the nicest of the shop-houses, but people were too afraid to refurbish it because it was in such a bad condition.”

Despite the authorities advising them to demolish the building and start from scratch, the brothers were determined to set a shining example of the potential Kampot’s collection of old buildings hold. “When we started, the authorities told us it’s a lot of work to keep the façade, why bother? Skip this and tear it down. But the façade doesn’t belong to us; the house belongs to the public. It is public heritage,” says Antoine.

The brothers recruited a small team to help them restore the façade, using traditional construction techniques while giving it a weathered look to reflect its history. Inside they introduced contemporary touches, such as a spiral staircase, opening up the space to make it bright and using modern materials to give it an urban feel, including concrete floors.

“We wanted to show what is possible to be done with old buildings to say there is a medium between tearing them down and rebuilding and repairing them and recreating a pastiche of what existed before,” says Antoine, who is also co-founder of Phnom Penh-based Bloom Architecture. “We wanted to show a contemporary way to rebuild these houses while at the same time respecting the heritage and creating new possibilities.”

Sticking to tradition where a shop-house ground floor is used for commercial space, with the upper floors reserved for residential living, the brothers’ starting to look at how they could expand their artisan approach of restoring the house to embrace other elements of the region they had fallen in love with.

“While we were living there, we started to know more about the city and feel a connection,” says David, who has a background in food and commerce. “We had this lovely location on the riverside and really wanted to create a lifestyle concept. Kampot is famous for its pepper so we wanted to create a brand that talks about the architecture, culture and pepper of the region.”

The boys snapped up a five-hectare spot of land in Vat Ang, about 10km from Kampot, and set about preparing one-hectare of pepper plants in the first year, and another half-hectare last year. They designed a slick logo and packaging that embodied their vision, creating a stylish vintage brand presented in a cool contemporary way.

“We didn’t want to just have a nostalgic vision of Kampot,” says David. “We wanted to refer to the heritage but also bring in the contemporary lifestyle concept.”

Developing the business further, the brothers decided the perfect way to showcase Kampot pepper’s versatility is to cook up a range of dishes. So, they transformed the ground floor of the house into a showroom for their pepper products as well as a stylish bistro, serving up an a la carte menu of Kampot pepper-inspired dishes, as well as a changing special menu created by visiting chefs.

Their venture opened on July 1 last year, and the brothers are continually building on its success. “In the future, we want people to be able to visit the plantation to see everything from cultivation, packaging, through to the restaurant; the real farm to table story,” says David.

On the remainder of the land, David and Antoine have started growing organic vegetables and fruit to supply the bistro with produce. And with the pepper taking three years to grow, Atelier Kampot is currently sourcing 100 percent of its pepper from reputable local farmers.

“Even when our pepper plants are mature we will only grow them to secure our supply, and want to continue to work with local farmers,” says Antoine, adding the price for Kampot pepper is fixed annually ensuring farmers get a fair price. “In the long term, we only want a small-medium scale farm because we don’t want to take over these farmers.”

They have plans to start exporting pepper to the EU soon, further bolstering the local market, and are working with agricultural experts to find innovative methods to improve pepper farming

across Kampot.

“The idea is to create dynamism around Kampot,” says Antoine. “It’s a very tricky moment now for Kampot. There is a lot of development for the backpacker crowd and also a lot of local and Chinese development, so we are trying to push in a different way. We hope that with Atelier Kampot we can create a reason for people to visit and inspire other businesses like this to open.”

For more information, visit atelierkampot.com.