Topaz Restaurant

Sothy Chen, The Search For Excellence

Chen Sothy has been with Thalias for more than 11 years during which he has maintained his steady climb up the career ladder, taking on challenges every step of the way that have brought to the position he holds today.

To all who meet him, Sothy is a warm and outgoing figure whose love for people can be seen through his fluency in English, French, Thai, Chinese and Japanese. He brings a quietly thoughtful approach to his duties, perhaps a reflection of the ten years he spent as a monk. Conscious of the need to set an example to his colleagues, Sothy also never forgets the importance of challenging them to step out of their comfort zone, encouraging them to free themselves up and learn alongside him. He also has a great sense of fun.

Meet Sothy:

For readers who don’t know you, tell us a little bit about yourself.

I am 38 years old and from Takeo, to the south of Phnom Penh. I have five brothers and four sisters, so we are a big family of twelve. My father worked as a traditional doctor and my mother was a housewife. We also had a small paddy field, and grew rice like small farmers. Today I am the Restaurant Manager of Topaz. I am married and have two children.

Tell us about your childhood, your schooling, and your family.

I started school in Phnom Chisor at the age of eight. I liked it very much and was a pretty good student. But, our family was poor so at the age of 16 I decided to stop school and join the monastery. I trained as a novice and then a Buddhist monk for 10 years. The first pagoda I officiated at was Phnom Chisor. Then, after spending time in several pagodas across the region, I came to Phnom Penh in 1999.

Have you ever wanted to follow in your father’s footsteps?

No, never. His life was not easy. He had many clients, but little income. In this business, people give what they want or, often, what they can.

How was life as a monk?

It was not an easy life, because here too, you had to rely on people’s generosity. But, having a lot of time to study, I was able to devote myself to learning foreign languages. It’s a subject that fascinates me and I took the time to learn English, French and also Thai. It was during a stay in Thailand that I decided to leave the life of being a monk. The Pagoda Master there suggested I should go back to Cambodia and look for a career rather than staying in the pagodas where I would have few opportunities to practice and make the most of the languages I was learning.

You left the monk’s life; what happened next?

When I left the monkhood, I first looked for work in Phnom Penh where I soon found a position at a guest house. However, the night shifts did not appeal to me so I soon moved on to another position as a receptionist at a hotel. The first restaurant I worked at was called La Résidence, where I stayed for four months as a clerk before moving on to a boutique hotel in the capital. Then I finally applied for a job with Topaz. I still remember the first day that I started; it was February 19, 2009.

Under what circumstances did you join the Thalias group?

My wife’s cousin worked for Thalias and advised me to apply because they needed staff. I was first interviewed by Richard Gillet, one of the group’s directors, and I had to do a trial run as part of interview which was assessed by Mr Alain Darc. This all went well and so I got to meet the then director of Topaz who was apparently delighted to welcome a Cambodian who spoke English, French and Thai onto the team. My first role then was as a row leader, but my position evolved quite quickly. Soon, I became a supervisor, then assistant manager, then head waiter and finally, in 2017, General Manager.

Did you have to follow training courses?

Yes, of course. I’ve also learned a lot in the field alongside “Papa” (Alain Darc), with Chef Sopheak and many former team members. I did an apprenticeship at Khéma, part of the Thalias group, and I was also sent to Thailand to visit Michelin-star restaurants. That is the level we aim for. It was planned that I would go to France this year, but because of Covid-19, that project has been postponed.

What does your work consist of?

It mainly consists of organising the teams, making sure that everything is ready and that the “operations” run smoothly. We strive for excellence in our performance at all times, and the smallest detail is important. Papa Darc regularly comes to ensure that customers are served impeccably. He is uncompromising, but he knows how to get the message across and ensure that it is understood and also put into practice. For me, it’s a perfect line of work and conduct and ‘Papa’ exercises a formidable quality control.

Can you describe your working day?

I usually arrive at Topaz at 9.30 am. First, I check the bookings and team schedules, then all the staff meet to discuss the previous day’s work and where improvements can be made. This is important because there are 37 of us working in the restaurant, and we need to maintain contact with each other. Then Topaz is operational from 11am. During service, my role is essentially to monitor the smooth running of the team’s work. After lunch, I have a break until 5:30 pm, when I take the opportunity to spend some time at home in Chhbar Ampov. Then I come back to the restaurant to have dinner with my colleagues and we prepare the evening’s operations. Usually around 10 pm, when the service is over, I can go home.

What makes you love this job?

I like this job because I am quite naturally discreet and self-effacing and by evolving here I meet a lot of people, a lot of personalities too, and that helps me a lot to overcome my shyness. This job is also very different from the life of a monk (laughs). There are also administrative tasks and there too, I’m delighted to learn, because I wasn’t naturally inclined towards this type of work.

What do you do with your free time?

I love to learn. At the moment, I’m studying Chinese. I’ve been studying on my own since April, with tutorials on YouTube, and I can now manage to take reservations and orders in this language.

Do you like French cuisine?

I love French cuisine. I like all the dishes so there is no need to ask me which one I prefer! (laughs).

So Sothy is a happy man?

Yes, I am a happy man.

Would you like your children to follow the same path?

My children will do what they want to do, I don’t want to impose anything on them. On the other hand, they are learning Chinese because it is a language that has become almost indispensable nowadays to work in Asia.