In a male-dominated culinary world, two talented Cambodian women have risen up the food chain to the top of a successful Siem Reap restaurant group. Joanna Wolfarth meets the Pub Street “twins” who are reinventing traditional Khmer food. Photograph by Conor Wall.

For a decade, Cambodian chefs Pol Kimsan and Sok Kimsan have been a fixture of the Siem Reap dining scene. Though not related, the women — known locally as the “Kimsan Twins” due to their similar backgrounds and names — have worked their way to the top of the Angkor W restaurant group.

Charged with creating compelling fusion menus at the company’s three new restaurants, set to open later this year at the city’s King’s Road Angkor development, they relish the creativity and freedom of their roles. Yet both culinary powerhouses attribute their love of cooking to time spent in the family kitchen.

“I always liked to cook and my mum showed me how,” explains the group’s executive chef Pol Kimsan. “I always wanted to taste different flavours and cook different kinds of food.”

It was this passion sparked her to move from Kampot to Siem Reap in 2002, where she spent nine months training at the Paul Dubrule L’Ecole d’Hôtellerie et de Tourisme.

At first, the top chef had modest career aspirations. “After I finished my training I thought that, because I was small, I’d work in a bakery, as it’s not such hard work, says the 31-year-old. “But my mentors advised me it wasn’t a good fit for me, and eventually pushed me into French food and fine dining at the Bistro at the Angkor Victoria Hotel.”

Her “twin”, Sok Kimsan, trained at the Sala Bai hotel and restaurant school, followed by a two-year stint at the Grand Hyatt in Dubai. She came back to Cambodia in 2008 and is now assistant executive chef at Angkor W, which owns nine well-known restaurants in Siem Reap including Banana Leaf, Amok and Champey.

Having worked closely for so long, the “twins” think their collective moniker is apt. “We are more than friends and we consider ourselves to be like real sisters, as our relationship is so close. What we have in common makes our foundation stronger,” says Pol Kimsan.

While both still draw inspiration from their mothers’ kitchens, they appreciate that it can be hard for foreigners to adjust to local ingredients. “Food we had at home was really simple and for foreigners it’s a bit difficult, as there are different flavours. But we want customers to taste our real Khmer food, so we take the original recipes and change them a little bit,” says Pol Kimsan.

“Like prahok, the fish paste. It’s a deep flavour, but we make it lighter and less salty. And real amok is cooked with a whole cat fish, with the bones and no vegetables. But for foreigners we add vegetables, mushrooms — things the customer are used to eating,” she adds. The “twins” add that it can be equally difficult to persuade Cambodian relatives to try the food in their restaurants, but their own tastes are much broader.

Another important part of their job is securing the best supplies. Where possible, they source ingredients locally. An emphasis is also put on clean working areas and good food storage. But though they now have the freedom to influence local food culture, both acknowledge that they have bucked a trend in rising to the top in the industry.

“It is difficult for ladies to be famous chefs and women don’t get as many chances,” says Pol Kimsan. “Also, hotels often think that it is only foreigner chefs who are able to focus on hygiene and high standards of working, so they don’t give a chance to local people to work at a high level. Although that culture is changing and now some hotels are hiring Khmer head chefs.”

Their success has enabled them to represent their country. Sok Kimsan recently returned from competing in the Pattaya Chef Competition in Thailand, and both women are active members of the Cambodian Chef Association, which aims to promote Khmer food and to encourage more Cambodians to travel abroad to gain experience and ideas.

“In our future we are planning high, high level Khmer food, mixed with other Asian food, but with dishes that customers won’t have tasted before in other restaurants,” adds Pol, who believes that Siem Reap has developed significantly and is now able to compete with the variety and standards of Phnom Penh. “Now there is more freedom for us.”

For more information on the Angkor W group and its new developments, visit www. angkorw.com.