Chan Sopheak, Former Ragpicker — “Nothing is Impossible”

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The road to success can sometimes seem long and full of traps, but Chan Sopheak’s path proves that nothing is impossible.

From a large and modest family, the 31-year-old is today the director of Khéma Pasteur in Phnom Penh. For him, his career is a real passion. In his free time, Sopheak scours the web looking for new ideas on dressing up, menu creation and design in general. On his rest days, when he’s not playing football with his old school mates, he takes his bike and heads out for the mountain paths of Oudong, or wanders along the trails around Kirirom.

A difficult Childhood

Chan Sopheak had a difficult childhood. He worked as a ragpicker alongside his six brothers and sister on the old rubbish site at Steung Meanchey, where he lived with his family. Every day, he filled his rubbish bag in the hope of collecting a few thousand riels in order to support his family.

“In 2000, I was working on the rubbish heap and was lucky to meet Papi et Mamie, the founders of Pour Un Sourire d’Enfant (PSE). Straight away they gave me the chance to learn with the NGO.

“When the rubbish heap was closed by the authorities in 2009, we continued collecting rubbish but now in the capital, near the roundabout at Wat Phnom. I remember the day I was sitting on a bench with my brother and I saw a Cambodian speaking in English with some strangers, opposite the Hotel Sunway. I didn’t understand what they were talking about, but I still admired such ease in communicating in a foreign language. When I got back to class, the teachers gave me a lot of help to learn this language, which has helped me a lot on my career path today,” he said.

Choosing the tourism and hospitality route, the young man studied for 12 years with PSE. Then he did a number of internships at Lotus Blanc, the NGO’s former training restaurant.

The Khéma Click

After getting his diploma, Sopheak took up two jobs. He worked at Samba Brazilian Steak House during the day, and at T-Bone Steak House at night. For him “it was a great experience that allowed me to learn new skills thanks to the team who came from a range of backgrounds”. In 2014, he left these jobs to join Thalias in order to take up a role as a supervisor at the old Khéma Bassac, then located at Aeon Mall I.

His role consisted of managing service operations and daily duties essential to the good working of the restaurant. He was also in charge of the wine stock. Soon after, he joined the team at Khéma Pasteur as an assistant.

“I wanted to become a restaurant manager, and for that I was inspired by the work and attitude of Hak Lina, the manager of the Khéma brand.

“At the beginning, I constantly took notes so that I could improve communication with the different departments, and of course with the customers”. Sopheak spent six years climbing the ladder before acceding to the role of Restaurant Director. He works with passion, and says he is never bored.

“Thalias offers training as much for the inside as the outside. I don’t have a routine. Every day I discover new aspects of this career, I manage problems that are sometimes unforeseen and I pick up new and permanent skills.”

Always a Little Further
Sopheak confides that the one big difficulty that he has encountered lies in social interaction. “During my career, I’ve met a lot of very different people and we don’t think necessarily in the same way. So it’s necessary to adapt to each one, and find a way to communicate without it affecting the work or human relations.

“Today, I love speaking with the people around me. That’s why I chose this sector. When I see everyone in the restaurant, employees and customers, I feel happy”.

Gastronomy is a rigorous discipline, and not always clear. Sopheak understands this well. “At the opening of Khéma Pasteur, a lot of foreigners came to eat. We decided that we needed to change the menu in order to attract more Cambodians and give them the opportunity to discover French products such as cheese, charcuterie and wine. Now, 80% of our clientele is Cambodian, and our menu has thus evolved because it satisfies local tastes while also continuing to offer European dishes.”

With regard to the future, Sopheak is not short of ambition.

“I would like one day to be in charge of different Khéma outlets and to train the next generation”.

Finally, he says that he would also like to teach the children of PSE, to help them “seek out new horizons and follow their dreams”.

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