After a difficult youth and a career as a farmer, Pen Los decided to turn to the restaurant business. His efforts, as hard as they were, are now crowned with success
It’s only been four months since Pen Los donned the waiter’s outfit at Khema Angkor. Straight as an “i”, lavaliere tie tied on an immaculate shirt and hair impeccably pulled back, the young man is fully committed to a job that, as he admits, suits him perfectly.
“Being in contact with customers, building relationships with them, but also with the entire restaurant team, discovering a little more each day the tricks of the trade and the backstage of the restaurant, all this fills me with satisfaction. And then there is also the attraction of the new: being here, at the Khema, is a radical change from my former life in the fields.
Leaving school at 14
Very quickly, Pen Los found his bearings and seems to have been doing his job forever. Yet it took intense effort to get there, returning to school after leaving at the age of 14.
“It was expensive for my family, who could not afford to pay for my education. My parents are very poor, and I found myself working in the fields with my brother and sister growing rice at a young age.
“Eight years later, I was already worn out both physically and morally. The future looked increasingly bleak, and I was only 22 years old… Then, in a conversation with one of my brother’s friends, I learned about an association that offered skills training for people in my situation. I immediately contacted them.
Going back to school
It took a lot of effort to finally be able to look forward to a peaceful future. With modesty, Pen Los only half mentions his difficult childhood and prefers to project himself in a future free of any financial worries. But the opportunities offered to him by the NGO Feeding Dreams Cambodia and the restaurant Khéma would have had no effect without the unwavering motivation that the young man has shown during his training.
Taking up all the basics, he returned to the blackboard and went back to grammar and mathematics, while learning computer skills and English. Although he is proud of his current situation, his lack of knowledge of English still makes him blush.
“But I’m improving every day, at least I’m trying my best! At the beginning, I only dealt with Cambodian customers, because I was afraid I wouldn’t understand what was being said.
“But now, I have acquired enough vocabulary to deal with foreign customers as well. And once the barriers of shyness and lack of confidence are broken down, it’s a real pleasure to be able to interact with them. Not only to advise them about the menu, but also just to chat. That’s one of the things that appeals to me most about this profession.
After a refresher course, Pen Los was able to choose a speciality, opting for a career in the hotel and restaurant industry. For 10 months, despite the difficulties linked to the sanitary restrictions, he learnt new skills:
“Every day was surprising, in both good and bad ways. It’s not always easy to deal with and adapt to what you don’t know.”
“But thanks to the patience of the teachers, I was able to acquire all the necessary background to embark on this professional adventure. Their very complete training allowed me to integrate my new job without any problem. The friendship and complicity of the members of the Khema team did the rest. For Sothy Keo, manager of the restaurant, it was important to show solidarity with these young people full of talent, motivation and good will.
When a teacher from Feeding Dreams Cambodia contacted her to place one of her students in an internship, Sothy immediately agreed. There was a first period of two months, then another one of the same duration, at the end of which I was hired,” says Pen Los. I then moved closer to the Khema, because my village was a bit far from the city center. I now live with my uncle, and it’s a new life that has begun since that hiring.”
Continuing on this path
For the rest of her career, Pen decided to continue in the same industry, taking advantage of the experience she has accumulated as well as the training she has done in-house. “We have weekly tastings of the dishes and products that are on the restaurant’s menu. This has allowed me to discover a cuisine that I did not know, but then not at all! Cheeses, wines, charcuterie and French gastronomy were unknown to me, but I am now able to explain our menu to customers, and even advise them.”
Not afraid to take up any kind of challenge, the young man imagines his future as a manager, why not in Phnom Penh. Breaking away from his usual seriousness for a moment, Pen Los says with a mischievous look: “That would be pretty good for a former farmer!
Original French article written by Rémi Abad