Sitting in a small Siem Reap cafe, I overheard a conversation about a place called HAVEN. It sounded outstanding: a restaurant that trains local young adults and then places them in jobs where they can use their skills to create a life for themselves. Ideal. Braving the fear of rejection, I wrote to the owners that I would love to interview them to scope out the nooks and crannies of their project. Sara quickly wrote back saying I was welcome, and it was a journalism date.
Walking through the bamboo gate, the hot Cambodian sun that was temporarily blinding me was diminished to a gentle glow as I stepped under the canvas awning entrance. To my right I heard the tonal sound of Cambodian English being practiced in an adorable hut, where a small blue sign hung, “classroom”. Naturally nosy, I peeked my head inside. Eight young Cambodians were seated in a modest, clean classroom, blessed with fans spinning above head. They were focused on their teacher, and paid me no notice; instead wrote furiously in their notebooks and repeated after the professor.
I walk along the gravel, letting my eyes take in the simple beauty of the restaurant. Palm trees adorn the sides or the restaurant, bringing life into every corner. Words leapt into my mind: open, airy, light… aptly named, this is a haven. Paul and Sara greeted me with matching hipster glasses and large, friendly smiles. I took a seat on one of the wooden benches and admired the scenery. Everything was clean, modern, and transparent. From the dining area you’re able to look directly into the kitchen and enjoy watching your meal be made, or if you’re dining alone you can grab a book from their selection of English and German literature.
Taught to be wary of volunteer organizations, I launched into a barrage of questions. My first and chief concern being: where does the funding come from and where does that money go? HAVEN is backed by a Swiss charity organization named Dragonfly. Their accounting is open, and fund-raising events are regularly held in Switzerland to drive donations for the project.
The money has been used to build HAVEN from the ground-up, using only Cambodian products. Yes, HAVEN could have been built for less money by importing products from Thailand, but Paul and Sara are adamant in their goal of helping Cambodians. “Sometimes we had to send pieces of furniture back 3 or 4 times to be made right… It was really trying, but it’s important to us.” Sara laughed, recalling the months spent in putting the pieces together. Every piece of furniture, linen, and food product is from Cambodia. From the Ibis rice to the Three Corner Coffee, you are experiencing Cambodia.
The couple hatched their plan for helping the locals of Siem Reap when they were on their very own round-the-world trip, (which you can read about here) they spent seven months in Siem Reap volunteering at an orphanage when they discovered a huge area that was lacking in the infrastructure of helping. Where do the children go when they have been ousted from the orphanages? Sara explains “nowadays more and more keep the kids until they finish school. But the problem is, that even if they finish school, they have no prospects for the future. No vocational trainings are available or are arranged, and the kids can not afford to pay for university. So they leave the orphanage, not knowing where to go and what to do.”
Sara and Paul plotted for the duration of their trip, bending the ear of fellow travelers and working to find the solution to this problem. Three years later, with much blood, sweat, tears, many of their own dollars, and the help of their Swiss friend, Stef, they opened the doors to HAVEN.
The concept is simple: take youth who would otherwise have no future and give them high standard hospitality training. Paul is a Food & Beverage Engineer who was working as a teacher at the remarkable Belvoir in Zurich; he was a frequent lecturer at the college of hotel management.
Bringing world class education to the village of Siem Reap is a dream that lights Paul’s face the moment he opens his mouth. “It’s very important that we teach them the basics of hospitality and food. To be hygienic is very important.” he says, leading me into the kitchen. He designed the kitchen according to international hygienic standards, no detail forgotten; dirty dishes never see the kitchen, are cleaned and sanitized in the back kitchen before being brought back to be plated with excellent cuisine.
Teaching is the foundation of HAVEN, and it is woven into every detail. The kitchen boasts a six burner cooking island, where staff can easily gather around to watch dishes be prepared. There are two prep stations: clearly color coded for meat and vegetables- cross contamination is a thing of the past, and in Cambodia, this is rare indeed. The plating station is placed closest to the dining room entrance; there is no room for confusion in this kitchen, everything screams of simple professionalism.
Sara has a strong background in Public Relations and marketing; this is highly evident in the menu and their elegant website. Taking into account every aspect of the very best hospitality training, the staff receives regular teaching on allergy restrictions, dietary choices (vegetarian friendly choices abound), and anticipating the needs of the guests. English lessons are also a job requirement, and take place during working hours. It is safe to say that when they end their training days at HAVEN, the staff would be an asset to any international restaurant of any caliber.
This opens a world of possibilities to these kids that never existed before. HAVEN may be serving you excellent food, but they are serving their team something you can’t put a price on: hope for the future.
I am touched at the quantity of love and devotion Sara and Paul have poured into this project, their burning and contagious enthusiasm at helping their trainees, (family, as they call them) and the endless amounts of work and thought that have been put into creating what is truly a HAVEN. Want to help the youth of Siem Reap while you are enjoying the beauty of the area? Eat at HAVEN.
Full disclosure: HAVEN did not pay for this endorsement, nor did they seek me out to write about their project. They did, however refuse payment for the coffee that I very much enjoyed during the interview.