23 Mar 2006

When a group of 30 Australian chefs visited Vietnam earlier this year on an educational trip organised by Meat & Livestock Australia, they found – among all the outstanding experiences – that one place especially touched their hearts and stirred their sense of professional community.

The place was KOTO, where they had dinner. KOTO, which stands for Know One, Teach One, is a unique hospitality teaching program established by Vietnamese-born Australian Jimmy Pham, and increasingly supported by the hospitality industry in Australia. When Jimmy Pham visited Australia in October, he attended a series of fundraising events for the KOTO school.

In Melbourne, about 90 chefs came to the Grand Hyatt for a lunch organised by Restaurant and Catering Victoria in conjunction with Shared Tables, the Victorian chefs’ group set up by Gerard Doherty, Victorian food services manager of Meat & Livestock Australia. Each of those chefs provided some kitchen equipment for the school – useful donations that ranged from a set of 80 plates to a container in which to ship all the gifts.

What could so energise and stir so many chefs? The KOTO program is an 18-month schooling that enables its students to find jobs in the hospitality industry in Vietnam, usually in the growing number of five-star international hotels. What makes it so utterly remarkably is that its students are usually street kids: 18 months later they have skills, income, a sense of community, and future prospects.

Jimmy, who left Vietnam when he was two years old, returned as an adult nine years ago to work in tourism. On one trip, he encountered four streets kids selling coconuts. ‘The most amazing thing to me was their smile…in a way, they were smiling at life,’ he recalls.

There are an estimated 20,000 street kids in Hanoi alone. Some of them have been orphaned, some have family tragedies, some have been sent to the city to earn money to send home to their families.

For four years, Jimmy used his own income to look after about 60 homeless children. Then they said they trusted him, but thought it was impracticable that he supported them. They came up with the idea of running a street food outlet. That was in 1999, when hospitality started to boom in Vietnam.

KOTO began as a simple sandwich shop, and then moved to larger premises in 2000. Its teaching also gained accreditation status, with recognition by Box Hill TAFE (Technical and Further Education) College in Melbourne. The college provides some administration, and sends its staff to give classes.

KOTO has just had to move out into larger premises, which need renovating and fitting out – which accounts for the fundraising drive in Australia.

What’s offered at KOTO is more than the cooking skills that are learnt and then practiced every day in the training restaurant when people come to lunch – just as they might at, say, the training restaurant at Box Hill TAFE.

Jimmy says there are three elements to the learning. The student are taught hospitality (including cooking), of course. Equally important, however, are English language skills (essential for the hospitality industry), and life skills. Jimmy identifies competence, a sense of purpose, and a sense of community as the most important life skills.

The students often have few, if any, life skills when they arrive. As Jimmy knows, kids who live on the street don’t have the opportunity to learn about budgeting, buying clothes, and all the other domestic skills that most children acquire at home.

The students live in houses (which is one reason sponsorship is so important for the scheme), and are given an allowance of $40 a month.

‘It’s about empowerment, it’s about trust, it’s about ‘we believe in you,’ Jimmy Pham says of the training.

More than a hundred former street children now have jobs and a future in the hospitality industry, as well as faith in their own future. Many of them are now involved in training others.

There were reasons for choosing hospitality as the training medium. Jimmy knew that tourism was not an option for most of the kids, since tourist guides need extended education and good English. But it turned out there were specific advantages in setting up a training school eating place.

‘Food brings people together,’ as Jimmy says. ‘Food enables you to express your culture, and in this case, it enables the kids to reclaim their culture. They’ve been so marginalised – they’ve been the dust of life, blown here and there. These are kids who deserve to be loved. It’s not just vocational training, it’s a sense of family.’

The food knowledge that exists in and through families, where traditions and recipes are passed on through generations, is one of the casualties of war, conflict, and homeless children. But families and their traditions can be re-born, it appears from the KOTO experience.

Some of the students who cooked for the Australian chefs in Vietnam were asked what KOTO had meant for them. ‘KOTO is good for my life,’ said one. ‘KOTO is my family,’ said another.

The word keeps recurring. Jimmy says the kids have changed his life, and given him a sense of purpose. ‘I’ve learnt that family comes in all shapes and sizes,’ he says.

He says the long-term goal is to replicate KOTO elsewhere in Vietnam. There has been some interest in the scheme from the Philippines. It may also extend to Australia one day – first world countries also have homeless children.

Rita Erlich is an Australian food and wine writer based in Melbourne

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