A multicultural culinary journey
Polain Prak is a self-taught chef with an adventurous spirit and an innate talent for blending diverse flavors. Caroline Schmitt is a spirited young entrepreneur on a quest for business ideas allowing to express her love for freedom. Both hail from France, each with a unique cultural background. Polain, born in Bordeaux -a city renowned for its wine and kissed by the Atlantic winds- comes from a family of Cambodian and Vietnamese heritage. Caroline, on the other hand, hails from Alsace, an inland region where France and Germany converge, both in geography and culture.
Their paths crossed in Cambodia, love blossomed in Paris, and the French Riviera became the canvas for their shared future. The question arose: which city, apart from Nice, could better harmonize the South and the North, the ocean and the valley, the herbs and the spices, the sweet and the savory? How could a young couple resist the allure of “Nizza la bella” and her enchanting Mediterranean melodies? How could they look away from the gentle curves of the “Promenade des Anglais” or the breathtaking views from its lush cliffs? In the French Riviera, where everything seems to say “yes,” the answer was clear.
And so, they said “yes” to sharing a city, a business, a life. After a successful foray into the culinary world at the prestigious Cap Ferret, Polain and Caro embarked on a new adventure, launching Mr Pô, a gastronomic street-food haven in Nice. Their cuisine, a harmonious fusion of Western and Eastern influences, offers inventive, palate-pleasing dishes that reflect the essence of the French Riviera: open-minded, playful, easy-going, and cosmopolitan. The people of Nice embraced this exotic newcomer, Monsieur Pô, with open arms, perhaps because of – not in spite of – his embrace of the unfamiliar. For the French Riviera is a place woven from the fabric of open-mindedness and a love for transcending borders. Throughout the centuries, it has been the region’s joyful transience that has made it irresistible to both travelers and residents alike.
Through the lens of their story, Caroline and Polain unveil the intricate layers of the French Riviera, much like a millefeuille composed of myriad cultures, languages, aromas, and flavors, all presented for the pleasure of our readers.
Citimarks: How did you two guys meet?
Mr Pô: (Caroline) We first crossed paths in Cambodia in 2015, where I was working as an intern. Following my time there, I relocated to Europe to pursue a career as a financial consultant in a prominent information services company. Despite the distance, we maintained our connection over the years. In 2020, our paths converged once more in Paris, and it was at that juncture we decided to embark on a new chapter in our lives, together.
Today you are partners at Mr. Pô, an Asian fusion restaurant in Nice. What made you decide to work in the food industry?
Caroline: Polain is never far from a kitchen; his childhood memories are entwined with food stories. A dedicated food traveler, he posseses a natural talent for blending flavors from various cuisines to achieve the perfect balance. A few years back, he was offered a job opportunity at a restaurant in Cap Ferret, a renowned summer resort in the southwest of France. It was here that his culinary skills began to garner acclaim. As for me, I’ve always wanted to start my own independent business and Polain’s culinary prowess became the driving force behind our decision to venture into the restaurant industry together.
Polain: In Cap Ferret I crafted my “fusion” cuisine from the ground up, giving birth to signature dishes like the “Crispy Chicken” and “Poulet Wafu”, both now staples at Mr. Pô’s. Despite a modest advertising budget budget in a locale saturated with upscale restaurants, we were full every day. Word-of-mouth communication played a pivotal role, drawing people from afar to experience something new and authentic. Their enthusiastic reviews fueled my confidence to take the next step, leading to the opening of our own restaurant in Nice.
Polain: Nice is an accessible, easy-going city offering high quality of life. Contrary to larger cities like Paris, Nice allows us to be more independent in shaping our work rhythm and achieving a healthier work-life balance. Our love for the sea drew us to sunny places near the beach. Although we initially knew little about the French Riviera, Nice captured our hearts instantly.
Caroline: What’s more, the restaurant is just a 5-minute walk from "Liberation", one of the largest food markets in Nice; this proximity is crucial for ensuring that our ingredients remain consistently fresh. "Liberation" not only hosts organic farmers but also several Asian spices and herb shops, which are rare to find elsewhere in Nice.
Is there a particular place, monument or landscape that impressed you the most in your first visit in Nice?
Both: The Promenade des Anglais. A simple walk along its endless beach creates a vacation-like ambiance. The air is filled with a medley of foreign languages and the sight of people casually walking in bathing suits carrying surfboards or cycling -all this contributes to the sensation of being in a cosmopolitan resort, somewhere distant from France, even from Europe.
"A simple walk on the Promenade des Anglais creates a vacation-like ambiance. The air is filled with a medley of foreign languages and the sight of people casually walking in bathing suits carrying surfboards or cycling - all this contributes to the sensation of being in a cosmopolitan resort somewhere distant from France, even from Europe."
Mr. Pô’s menu is inspired by many different cuisines, such as the Cambodian and the Vietnamese. Which ingredients are most typical of each of these two cuisines?
Polain: Cambodians have a penchant for incorporating sugar into their recipes, while the Vietnamese favor Nuoc-mam, the renowned fermented fish sauce, which imparts a distinctive umami -a savory touch- to the dishes. Vietnamese cuisine is characterized by its refinement, emphasizing the use of fresh herbs, while the Cambodian is a well-seasoned cuisine relying on ground spices, Kaffir lime leaves, Galangal (a ginger-like aromatic rhizome) and lemongrass -ingredients shared with Thai cuisine. At Mr. Pô’s we revel in blending the sweet and the savory, the spicy and the sour, creating fusions with unescpected flavors that captivate the palate.
Is the French cuisine part of Mr Pô’s culinary melting-pot?
Polain: It sure is. We use white French wine into our chicken, vegetable broths and wok ice-creams. The wine serves as an ideal flavor enhancer, imparting richness and full-bodied depth to our dishes.
Caroline: Additionally, leeks play a prominent role in many of our recipes. This vegetable, synonymous with French cuisine, is a key component of the 'pot-au-feu,' one of the most renowned dishes in French culinary tradition.
Are people here in Nice eager to try out unknown flavors?
Polain: Absolutely. Our first patrons, predominantly neighbors, were pleasantly surprised by our authentic approach. They were willing to explore something entirely different from what they were accustomed to –even by Asian cuisine standards- and were enthusiastic about supporting a fledgling business in its early stages.
Caroline: We've noticed a growing community of returning customers eagerly anticipating our latest menu additions. Their loyalty extends beyond simply savoring favorite dishes; they wholeheartedly embrace our experimental spirit and are eager to be the first to experience our new recipes.
"Nice is an accessible, easy-going city offering high quality of life, and a better work-life balance."
Where does Mr. Pô stand with regards to a more sustainable food industry?
Caroline: We've embraced a more responsible business model, aligning ourselves with customers who share our values. We exclusively collaborate with food delivery companies that prioritize environmental sustainability and uphold fair labor practices.
Polain: Additionally, we've introduced an eco-friendly service, encouraging customers to bring their own food containers to promote awareness of waste management. This initiative has been warmly embraced by the community.
What are the sources of inspiration for your cooking?
Polain: Our journeys abroad serve as constant sources of inspiration, leading us to discover new ideas, ingredients, and flavors. During my recent trip to Italy, the concept of incorporating Thai basil leaves into a revamped version of the classic Cambodian curry struck me. In just a matter of days, a new dish was born: beef sautéed with Khmer pesto sauce, creating a delightful fusion where Italy met Cambodia.
If the French Riviera were a film, which one would it be?
Both: "Would I lie to you?" The narrative playfully acknowledges those adept at eloquence, skilled in crafting promises that often fall short. This disposition is notably prevalent in the French Riviera, a region that seems to attract individuals with ostentatious and superficial tendencies like a magnet.
If it were a song?
Both: “Parole, Parole, Parole” by Dalida. A subtle Italian breeze graces the shores of the Riviera, carrying with it a culture of seduction through the artful use of empty words.
Polain: the Niçoise salad. - Caroline: the pizza. Venture out onto the streets of Nice, and it won't be long before you come across someone carrying a pizza box.
If you could turn back time for one day, which point of the French Riviera’s history would you like to discover?
Caroline: The '60s and '70s marked a golden age for the French Riviera, where iconic stars like Brigitte Bardot and Alain Delon graced the scenes of Cannes and Saint-Tropez. It was an era untouched by the masses of tourists traveling on low-budget flights that characterize the present day.