During my trip to Siem Reap in Cambodia, I was introduced to an open garden restaurant by the name of Haven. Not only is the food worth writing about, it’s inherently grounded in community work. Owners Paul and Sara Walliman say that 80% of the Khmer population are living in poverty with limited access to education. The tragedy of the Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970’s killed three generations of educated people. Paul believes it will take three more to recover.
From a background in health and safety inspection and food marketing, the Swiss couple took this as their next venture. But first, they decided to sell their belongings and travel the world, which landed them in an orphanage in Siem Reap. Here they learnt that as a result of narrow access to university education, many young school leavers end up in sweat shops or slave labour. In just two days I’d been told many surreal, nightmarish stories about human trafficking where people are forced to work on fishing boats. Drugged with ketamine, their efficiency is forcibly high and ultimately, they are kept dependable on their captors. The penalty for dissent or tiredness is to be thrown overboard. When it comes to ‘helping’, the philosophy is not to do so according to your worldview but what that community actually needs. Paul says that when we see suffering, “we think that somebody can help, but we don’t think I could be that somebody”.
The pull of altruism is unrestricted. As you wander the restaurant, you’ll find bowls of pet food and water, and scarred tomcats napping in the sun. The odd kitten weaves its way around the vermillion red chair legs, proudly bearing a collar. The founders tell me about their rescue dogs at home and the waist-high floods that brought the animals to Haven for shelter and subsequently, under their wing. Haven also strives to be a sustainable establishment, doing away with plastic, including water bottles and takeaway packaging. Organic waste goes into the compost or is given to local pig farms. Cooking oil is converted into bio-fuel and purchased back to run the kitchen. And of course, the produce is as local as possible and purchased from the market every morning.
Thanks to tourism, hospitality and food and beverage are big industries in Cambodia. Haven is set up as an annual training scheme for adults leaving high school – but although it sounds like a charity, Paul insists that their vocational students don’t believe in hand outs. It’s the reason that there are no ‘volunteers’, just staff and trainees on site. In the kitchen, the head chef hails from FCC Angkor and trains the students. The tough love message clearly works – alumni from the Haven programme are the most sought after by hospitality employers. Most interesting of all, there seems to be no plans to expand the concept. “It’s not about quantity, it’s quality,” he goes on to explain that it was never his intention to run a restaurant. In some ways, it just happened. You can see heart and the best of humanity here, even as a walk-in diner without background knowledge: the uniforms of the servers refer to family instead of staff. And standing at around 5″8, with plugs in his lobes and tattooed sleeves, insisting that he never wanted to own a restaurant in the first place (yet it is outstanding) – your typical European maitre d’ he is not. Yet it seems to me that it’s exactly what the world needs more of.
Chocolate Rd, Wat Damnak area
West Angkor High School
Siem Reap, Cambodia