Tim Belcourt looks the part of an outlaw biker, a long white handlebar moustache gives him the appearance of a grizzled walrus, tattoos cover his forearms, there are lasting scars, inside as well as out. A veteran Harley rider who would regularly do a solo run from Singapore to Cambodia just to blow out the cobwebs and perhaps out run a few demons.
Tim was born in Montana, cattle country USA; his father was a butcher who used to ride around on an old Indian motorcycle. Tim remembers his love of playing American football and helping out his dad in the butchery, he tells me his old man was a better cook than his Ma and weekend barbecues where a regular treat, he looked forward to the day he would master the tongs and take command of the hotplate himself, he doesn’t say it in so many words but he obviously idolized his father.
The young Montanan quit school at seventeen and immediately enlisted in the Marines, ending up in Reconnaissance, ‘Force Recon’. In the August of 1968 Tim Belcourt arrived at The Rock-pile, (Elliot Combat Base) in Quang Tri, Vietnam six months after the Tet offensive, he was just south of the DMZ, just north of Khe Sanh and he was just eighteen years old, welcome to South East Asia.
By 1970 Tim Belcourt was in a hospital stateside with leg wounds, he clams up and doesn’t talk about it, says it was ‘just one of those things that happens’. I learn that The Rock-pile was only accessible via helicopter and that in military operations ‘reconnaissance’ is the exploration outside an area occupied by friendly forces. The Marines Force Recon are special-ops forces that operated behind enemy lines on ‘deep reconnaissance’ and were sometimes tasked to perform ‘black ops’ and ‘implement unconventional techniques for counterinsurgency warfare’.
I know that over 13,000 Marines were killed in Vietnam and over 88,000 were wounded; the Marines in Vietnam suffered more casualties than both WWI and WWII combined. Fifty-seven were awarded the Medal of Honor. Tim says he was young and naïve and just looking to serve his country back then, he sees things differently now.
Tim struggled to settle back into life stateside as his injured legs hampered his military career, ‘they didn’t know what to do with me’. He eventually left and learned the electrical trade and this led to work back in Asia a place he said he felt drawn to after the war, he spent twelve years working in places like Singapore, Taiwan and Mongolia.
Having got his first motorbike at thirteen and working his way up to the cheapest Harley Davidson he could scrounge for, he was now earning good money and riding a brand new Harley around South East Asia. Thailand became a base and on regular visa runs to Cambodia he somehow fell in love with the place. Sharky Bar which opened in 1995 was an early and favoured watering hole.
He says he went out to get some milk in Thailand one day, jumped on his bike and never went back.
He built Reef Resort down in Sihanoukville in 2004 and enjoyed ten good years down there; it was a mid-priced resort with air-conditioned rooms and a swimming pool back when the only alternatives where high end Khmer resorts or $5 a night back-packer dives, he did well.
It was during this time that he reintroduced himself to cooking and deciding that he had access to the ingredients and there was a gap in the market he started to cook Tex Mex style cuisine. Tim is curious, fastidious and obsessive when it comes to cooking, he never stops tinkering and trying to perfect whatever he is cooking, Reef became a constant renovation of barbecue areas, smokers, roasters and more. He bought a sous vide machine to slow cook meats and was forever ‘experimenting’ with it. Reef Resort’s restaurant became a must visit on any trip to Sihanoukville.
Belcourt sold the ‘Reef’ and soon became bored so he decided to move back up to Phnom Penh after ten years, he had come full circle and found his way back to Sharky Bar. After local legend and founder, Big Mike Hsu passed away in May there was a great deal of sadness and a fair bit of confusion at Sharky, it wobbled for a bit but, Mike was an institution but the bar seems to be sorting itself out.
The remaining owners offered Tim the run of the kitchen and he has taken to it like a duck to water. He has already had a custom built smoker installed and the menu is loaded up with his classics, from pulled pork sliders, smoked short ribs, smoked chicken quesadillas, jalapeno poppers, spicy chicken wings, soft beef tacos and taquitos. Prices are incredibly good value at $4.50 to $5.50 for most dishes and there are special smoked rib and chicken nights with the promise of more additions and special menus to come. I recently tried a Rueben’s sandwich made with some of Tim’s homemade corned beef that was amazing as is his home made barbecue sauces.
Tim’s says nothing makes him happier than cooking good food and watching people enjoy it. He doesn’t ride a Harley through four countries to find inner peace anymore, cooking is now his Zen.