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Lessons from Phnom Penh's hottest venue

An Ode to my favourite place in town

· Coaching,Business,Leadership

Welcome to the hottest restaurant in Phnom Penh. Daily queues form outside the place at peak lunchtimes and dinnertimes, the place operates at near maximum capacity even during the random hours of 3-5pm. Luxury sports cars with their millionaire owners and countless motorbikes are parked outside, waiting for a table to open up. People have been bugging the owner for months asking him to open up new venues across town.

Where is this place? No, it's not the fancy new Highground in BKK1 or one of the many well-connected restaurants popping up around the city. It's the modest Kungfu Kitchen, located across from Mad Monkey Hostels in BKK1.

A Bentley waits outside Kungfu Kitchen Phnom Penh

I kid you not - I once saw a McLaren racing car parked outside while waiting for a seat... at 9PM, half an hour before closing!

Why do rich and poor, famous and ordinary, all gather at this place? What's the secret to its success? What lessons can we learn from how they operate, for ourselves and businesses? After countless visits to (and takeaways from) the restaurant during 2020 and many conversations with the team, here is my take.

1. Substance and style

We live in the age of Instagram, where the camera eats first. I'm a part of that culture - I've gone to very "Instagrammable" places for very average (at best) food and drink. It reflects our wider culture, which values style over substance - from glitsy "tech" "start ups" (both deliberately in inverted commas) to people espousing "fake it till you make it" as their mantra. With the reduced attention span of audiences, loud and shallow is en vogue. People are losing patience and cognitive / spiritual ability to digest substance, leading to popularisation of platforms like TikTok, "content creators" such as Nas, Nightshade, and politicians like Donald Trump.

Awards handed out left right and centre for those that are connected and in-the-know, who play along with the sexy and shallow media. "Influencers" sell and promote products that they wouldn't ever buy - products that they sometimes can't even afford.

We live in such a world. I'm not going to moan about it longer here (but happy to over a beer). The point instead is that, in such a world, true substance can still be felt. Despite our love for style, our souls still crave substance. When we feel it, we fall in love.

There is no wagyu beef served at Kungfu Kitchen (in contrast to the nearby fancy bar that I had been frequenting recently). Rather, one of their most popular dishes is Sichuan Beef - unglamorous, down-to-earth local beef cut in such a way that it becomes oh so tender when cooked in the famous Sichuan or Chong Qing hotpot.

Kungfu Kitchen Sichuan bEef

They are uncompromising on using fresh, high quality ingredients that are not fancy. Prices are thus kept low. You'll also never get food poisoning. If your stomach aches the day after, that's due to the chillies and the beef fat in the Chong Qing soup. The food is delicious - countless taste tests are done within the Kungfu Kitchen team, and sometimes focus groups are invited to give feedback.

And, as a bonus, the food is plated beautifully. No, it's not Michelin-starred flair, but it's appetising and you can tell it's done thoughtfully. The restaurant is clean, modern, and the decorations are considered. Apparently it's also quite Instagrammable, from the number of smart phones out at the dining table.

Style will make people come once. Substance keeps people coming back.

2. Respect & warm welcome

What else is striking about Kungfu Kitchen is how you're made to feel when you enter the restaurant. You feel welcomed and respected. And this respect extends to customers from all walks of life.

Twenty year old students get the same warm welcome as wealthy business people. Owners of a luxury sports cars was made to wait for a table during a particularly busy lunch hour. Everyone is treated equally. In a society which is very hierarchical, and there there seems to be one rule for the elite and another for everyone else (and this is widely accepted and expected even), KFK cuts through the bullshit with their integrity and values.

But this respect does not veer into uncomfortable subservience, either. Rather, it is reminiscent of a true 5 star establishment, where you feel like the staff have a great deal of self respect for themselves, as well as for the guests.

I don't think this is accidental. Sean, the hugely experienced restauranteur and owner of Kungfu Kitchen, always speaks to his staff in a very respectful manner. There is no air of superiority, only care, even during difficult conversations. There is no "dressing down" (being told off) or humiliation here. You get the sense that people feel valued and safe - crucial for an effective team.

I have also rarely seen disrespect from customers to staff. Perhaps it's the respectful culture and environment that encourages respect even from the guests. I think there is a lesson to be learnt here on how environment shapes individuals, as much as individuals shape environments.

3. Consistency and discipline

I recently asked Denise, a friend and foodie who recently became co-owner of Kungfu Kitchen, if Sean even likes Kungfu, or if it was the product of a carefully researched marketing strategy on what would appeal to the Cambodian market. She told me that he loves the discipline and consistency of kungfu practice. The same old "boring" moves practiced over and over again.

Kungfu Kitchen Sean Bruce Lee

I still believe this Bruce Lee looks a bit like Sean.

Linking back to style over substance, perhaps when we see kungfu movies, it's easy to fall in love with the fancy moves, the twirls and flurries of fists and feet. However, looking beyond the glamour is years of consistent, boring practice.

It reminds me of my experience with the piano. For 12 years I learned the piano. I hated it then, but part of learning the piano was practicing scales and quite boring drills to train up the finger muscles to be able to play pieces beautifully. There are many people who are self-taught, as in they bought a keyboard and learned to play some pieces that they love. Now, I genuinely admire and love that they did this and enjoy playing the piano, and at the same time it's quite easy for me to spot the difference between pianists that play pieces only, compared to those who have done their drills.

Sean drills consistency into his team. There is no tweaking of the recipe here and everyone receives the same training regardless of whether they end up waiting or cooking. All the experimenting is done beforehand, and once they have a winning formula, they focus on providing that consistent experience - taste, welcome, service, all of it.

We come back because we know what we're going to get - delicious food served in a warm way with excellent service at a good price. Behind that sits discipline.

4. Thoughtfulness, excellence and customer-centric orientation

Behind every dish is a huge amount thought that has gone behind it. Rounds and rounds of product testing and quality control is carried out before a new dish is released to the public (where is the crispy pork that we've been waiting months for?) And each new dish is part of a story, complementing the existing dishes in a way that honours tradition and the current tastes of the customers of Phnom Penh.

I mentioned earlier that people have been requesting Sean to open up new branches across town and to expand rapidly while demand is high. Like style over substance, this is part of the zeitgeist of our times. But Sean has other plans. He speaks of how quality is of utmost importance to him, and that there's a lot of infrastructure and staff preparation that needs to happen in order to ensure consistency of quality when opening new branches. This does not come from fear of playing big - this is a man with a track record of operating multiple F&B outlets. This comes from hard earned wisdom and dedication to serving his customers. Just think of Tim Ho Wan at Aeon 1 - you already know how easy it is to let standards slip with new branches / franchises.

Another example of this dedication to quality and putting customers first can be found in Kungfu Kitchen's response to Covid-19. In the early months of the year when Cambodia was becoming wary of the spread of Covid-19, Kungfu Kitchen was one of the first restaurants in town to move to serving takeaway and deliveries only. This was before even the government encouraged it. They were putting customer and societal safety first ahead of short-term profits.

Moreover, they quickly restricted certain items off the delivery menu, including one of their most popular dishes - sweet and sour chicken. Though I thought it was a shame on countless nights where I craved the dish, I admired the values behind that decision. The quality and taste of the dish suffered when not eaten immediately, losing a bit of crunchiness in the takeaway container. The value that Kungfu Kitchen would not compromise on is ensuring that their customers get the best, and nothing short of that.

5. Leading from within

Sean, the restauranteur who started this place, is the leader responsible for the vision and direction of the restaurant. But his leadership is not just from the front. From very early on and until recently, when the team expanded significantly, Sean would be found getting stuck in with service, taking orders, serving dishes and sometimes even cooking.

During the Khmer New Year holidays, when he allowed his staff to spend time with their family (even if the official holidays were cancelled by the government, Sean was manning the kitchen himself, cooking up all the dishes and packing them up for delivery. Despite being a proven success, no task was beneath him. He is the leader, and he is very much part of the team.

The team structure also mimicks his leadership. There are no "managers" or team leaders (although given their expansion that may change in time). All team members have to rotate roles so that each team member knows how to do each other's jobs - there is no arbitrary hierarchy despite the differences in experience of staff members (one staff member used to cook at the super luxury resort Song Saa Island). This kind of structure was set up intentionally and is responsible for creating trust, empathy and effective team work that makes Kungfu Kitchen such a success and pleasant place to visit.

6. Pay well and train well

"Train them well, feed them well, pay them well. Constant improvement." - Sean

I roll my eyes when managers and business owners in Cambodia complain about their employees moving companies for an extra hundred or two hundred dollars a month. Business leaders and owners, sitting comfortably on their millions, complain about how rapidly the wages are rising and how difficult it is to retain staff as a result. And express a wariness to give their staff the best training, in fear that their competitors will poach the improved individuals.

As someone who's struggled to get by, being paid barely above minimum wage (having graduated with an honours degree in science from a top UK university), I know how much difference an extra hundred or two can make. It must be even more impactful in Cambodia where a hundred dollars can go a very long way.

In a city where top kitchen and bar staff at $400 per night luxury hotels earns only a little over that in a month, it pays to pay staff very well compared to the market. Contrary to the mindset of many business owners that try to squeeze the pennies from their staff for their own benefit, being more than generous to provide security and a decent living to your staff can reap rewards.

I now study the human mind for my career and life purpose. In my previous career, I worked in performance and reward for the number 1 consulting firm in the field in the UK. As a result, I know that best performance, creativity, and happiness cannot be achieved by someone who's in survival mode. To have ones back against the wall fighting for survival is not the way to tap into top performance, as a team or as an individual - to think otherwise is outdated thinking that has been proven to be incorrect.

What, then, is? To provide a solid base in terms of remuneration, so that the staff don't have to worry about security. To ensure that the company's success is passed on in some way to the people who work the hardest to generate it. And to ensure that sufficient training is given so that the team can achieve the best results.

I don't know how the staff at Kungfu Kitchen get paid. But I know behind every successful team is a well thought out performance and reward philosophy. If Sean's quote is anything to go by, I know it's a key part of Kungfu Kitchen's success.

Isn't it just a restaurant?

Yes, in the end, Kungfu Kitchen is just a business. It's just a restaurant. It's ordinary, just like our own jobs and businesses and the lives we lead. Yet when we are thoughtful, considered and act in line with our values and principles, we can turn the ordinary into something extraordinary.

Yes, these are just the stories I tell myself, the stories that the Kungfu Kitchen team tells themselves. And these stories are what turns something mundane into the sublime.

I've shared the lessons that I mined by observing and studying the phenomenon that is Kungfu Kitchen. This is my lesson for you.

Thanks to the Kungfu Kitchen team for allowing me to use them as a case study to write this.

Note: I haven't been incentivised to write this in any way. I am in no way connected to Kungfu Kitchen aside from the fact that by visiting so often and through our various conversations, we've become friends.