After visiting Cambodia for 18 years, Robert Carmack and Morrison Polkinghorne fell in love with Battambang, and decided to call it home.
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When acclaimed food book author Robert Carmack and his partner, textile designer Morrison Polkinghorne decided to settle in Cambodia, the untouched colonial beauty of Battambang captivated them. The town sits on a river, the Sangker River [Stung Angker], that runs into the vast central lake, Tonle Sap. French period shop houses line the river bank, and the central market, Psar Nath, is the town’s social and commercial hub. Robert and Morrison bought a small building just a block from the marketplace, and converted it to a Boutique +Atelier. Here Morrison’s famous passementerie classes teach students to make tassels and braids. Then the idea struck them to establish a small guest house — Bric-à-Brac. From here, the multi-tasking couple runs gourmet tours under the name Globetrotting Gourmet — catering to small groups to favourite Asian destinations. Their latest book, The Burma Cookbook has just been awarded “Best Asian Cookbook of the Year” by Gourmand World Cookbook Awards 2015.
Bric-à-Brac was established after a visiting friend suggested Robert and Morrison formalise their hosting skills and make more use of the fifty year old building. “It was an absolute junkyard to start,” recalls Robert. ‘The work we did here would have taken couple of years in Australia, but we did it in three months with twenty-three workers on board.”
“The hardest thing for them was the carpentry,” adds Morrison. “The locals smell the wood first, to check if it’s the good stuff. Many woods are quickly becoming rare and endangered, so we tried to ensure we were using strong locals woods, like Kooki, that are still in supply.”
“We were the only people who had ever moved to Battambang to live rather than for work,” says Morrison, noting that Bric-à-Brac is the only higher end accommodation in the colonial heart of town. “We remembered how wonderful it was to stay in a friend’s guest room with the best of everything the best linen, the best pillows, the best towels — and we wanted to emulate that.”
“We have a King, a Queen and a Single room,” says Robert. “The single room has access to the rooftop. There was no plumbing and no electricity on the top floor before, just piles of garbage!” Robert, who learnt his cooking and hospitality skills in Paris and Lyon before working alongside James Beard and Ann Willan, says that training staff is almost a full-time occupation. Bric-à-Brac runs to a butler service and two maids, and he puts together a pretty mean cheese platter in their bar at night.
The proximity to the Psar Nath markets means that food is readily available, although milk and butter are not so easy to find. “We used to have to ride ten minutes on the bike to get milk,” recalls Morrison, “But now we can get it in a stall just across the road.” “Tomatoes at the markets are usually sold green,” adds Robert. “If you ask for red tomatoes the vendors look at you as if you’re crazy.” But the quantities of fresh coconut cream made in front of the customers is a big compensation for any other shortcomings.