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At the end of last year, Hak Lina, who has been general manager of Topaz since 2013, was elected president of the Cambodia Restaurant. Warm-hearted, generous and almost always wearing a smile, Lina is a woman of character who fought her way up through ambition and hard work. She sat down with Cambodge Mag earlier this year to share some thoughts on her journey.

How would you describe yourself in a few words?
I’m 33 years old and the general manager of Topaz restaurant. I was born in Sihanoukville, though my family is originally from Kratie.

With regards to your childhood…
I come from an ordinary family. My mother stayed at home while my father worked in order to take care of the five of us. We lived in a house that was just over 60 square metres, but there was not only us. From time to time, there were as many as 12 or 15 of us in that house, including nieces and nephews from the provinces who came to live with us. When I was young, I mostly played with the boys. I never played with the girls. I didn’t like the way they played. My parents even cut my hair like a boy! Thus, I was always stuck with the boys. When my parents were looking for me, they knew to go first to the football pitch.

What were your dreams as a child?
When I was 12, I wanted to be a model, movie star or tv presenter. At that age, these were just childish dreams. I also dreamed of going on long journeys.

About your education…
I learned English at school and on the street. At that time, I paid 500 riel an hour in order to stay in school. I didn’t have enough to go every day, but I managed to follow and keep up. When I had the money, I went to school. If not, I waited outside so I could borrow my friends’ copybooks. I made copies and managed to get by alone. That way, I never fell behind the programme.

Your first career?
After school, I had a number of small jobs and then, in 2004, I took part in a beauty contest in Malaysia. There I realised that, even if this was my childhood dream, I didn’t really like this profession. But I told myself that I at least had to try. After returning from Malaysia, I had some more shoots for publications like Comin’ Khmer and Mobitel, but nothing really exciting.

How did you start at Thalias?
I met Arnaud Darc during a dinner when I was 19 years old. He asked me some questions during the meal. At first, I considered him to be just a stranger and, outside of my teachers, I didn’t really speak to strangers. I didn’t really want to talk to him. He asked me questions about the situation in Cambodia, and I shared my opinions with him. He told me he was very impressed by how frank I was. He was surprised that I spoke to him so openly. I wasn’t afraid to give my opinion and I think he appreciated that. Afterwards he asked if I wanted to work for him; his secretary had just left and he was looking for a replacement. I was already working, but I wanted to try. I told myself that working with a Westerner would help me to improve my English. It was also a good opportunity to discover a new way of working.

How did the first years go?
I applied and had a number of interviews, and then I started to work for him. For me, that worked because I regarded him as a mentor. He taught me everything. If he asked me to do something that I didn’t know how to do, he took the time to explain it to me. Sometimes, when I made mistakes, he didn’t blame me but himself for not having explained it properly. He is a professor who, to me, is very efficient. He preferred the carrot to the stick. In Cambodian families, it’s usually the opposite. The methods he used motivated me a lot to work harder and better.

When did you become the general manager of Topaz?
I officially became the general manager of Topaz in 2013. In 2012, I was just the executive director of the restaurant. At the beginning, I didn’t feel very comfortable. I had to manage a French restaurant, and I didn’t speak the language well. It was quite difficult for me to impose myself as the general manager. If colleagues or customers started speaking to me in French, I couldn’t respond to them. For the first few months, I never gave out my business card. I didn’t have the confidence for that. But, soon after, the restaurant started to flourish. Arnaud encouraged me constantly in my work and I finally started to feel real confidence.

How does a day with Lina look?
My day at Topaz starts with a tour of the restaurant and its environs. I check the mise en place, that everything is clean and any needed maintenance is carried out. Then I head for my office to consult the reports from yesterday. I prepare the team briefing for the one-hour meeting we have each morning. We talk about the small problems of the day before and prepare for the day ahead. After the meeting, I return to reception to see if there are any specific requests from clients or other important issues to deal with. I have lunch at midday. Sometimes I taste the dishes and propose new menus. The executive chef often asks for my opinion. After lunch, I need to face the financial reports and after that I take an hour for a little sport before coming back to the restaurant. Sometimes I dine early, around 5pm if there are a lot of people. Then, I work with the team until around 6:30 or 8pm. If there is a special event which will go on until later, I stay with the team. Finally, I go home.

Are you proud of your progression?
My family is very proud of me, but I am sorry that I was not able to thank my father. He died before I could express my gratitude. He took care of me, sent me to school. Now, I have almost everything I dreamed of, but I can’t repay him. I remember what he told, “never wait for any inheritance from me. I don’t have anything to pass down to you like a daughter of a rich person”. He earned enough to send me to school. The knowledge, the will, the desire to work and succeed that I have today, this is what he passed down to me.

You’ve just been elected President of the Cambodia Restaurant Association…
Yes, and I want to make sure that the association really represents and promotes the interests of the industry through supporting all those who are part of it to improve. This means more collaboration and sharing between members for the benefit of all, and events for networking and development of apprenticeships.

Your free time?
Today, I love travelling. It’s a dream from my childhood; I want to travel the world. For my holidays, I choose a country to visit. I would like to visit a different one every year. I have already been to 11, but there are still so many more to see…