'Where street kids get a taste of success'
The Weekend Australian 7 May 2011

Kids in the kitchen reap rewards by Kerrin O'Sullivan

Choosing between the prawn and papaya salad and the chicken and lemongrass skewers at Hanoi's KOTO restaurant is difficult, but choosing to dine here presents no such quandary.

The restaurant, located opposite Hanoi's Temple of Literature, is the brainchild of Jimmy Pham, a Vietnamese-Australian who founded KOTO - a grass-roots not-for-profit charity - a decade ago as a response to the plight of the estimated 20,000 street kids who eke out an existence on Hanoi's pavements.

Some of these children have been abandoned, others come from poor rural areas and are trying to earn or beg money to send back to their families.

Pham's mission is emblazoned on the restaurant's signature lime-coloured walls. "I knew the youths needed skills and jobs to earn a living to have a better life, and from this KOTO was born," he says. Here, disadvantaged youths are not only trained to be chefs, waiters and bar staff but offered a culture of family where they can feel loved and protected - something that is absent from their lives on the streets, where falling into drugs, crime and prostitution pose an everyday hazard.

Pham was born in Saigon in 1972 and left a war-ravaged Vietnam at age two with his family by boat, eventually resettling in Sydney. His awareness of the plight of the street children of Vietnam was heightened when he returned years later as a tour guide. Had his family remained in Vietnam, he felt he too could have ended up on the streets.

From an initial sandwich shop employing nine street kids emerged the concept of a hospitality training centre and restaurant, with profits invested back into the program.

The idea of KOTO ("Know One, Teach One") is powerful; trainees help other young and disadvantaged people facing the same problems they once did. As Pham says, "With this ripple effect … they in turn are helping others."

Trainees receive free accommodation, food and medical care, along with front-of-house and kitchen training. The broad-based program encompasses English language and life skills, including personal hygiene, money management and adolescent reproductive health. With burgeoning tourism in Vietnam, the graduates are in high demand.

In 2000, then President Clinton famously dropped in and, post security check, enjoyed a meal surrounded by stunned diners; last October Prime Minister Julia Gillard dined at KOTO while in Hanoi for the ASEAN Conference.

KOTO is popular with both tourists and expats; on the evening I visit, every table is booked, and diners are heading upstairs to the KOTO bar to enjoy a local Larue Biere or glass of Australian red, while waiting for a table.

The kitchen is abuzz with chefs-in-training; there's much sizzling and steaming over flaming woks. A young trainee hands me a menu and I waiver between a passionfruit juice and a mango lassi. It strikes me that the choices KOTO offers are considerable - and not just on the menu.

The humanitarian Pham claims he is just "helping young people to lift themselves out of poverty and live their lives with integrity." But the success of his social enterprise model has won him the World Economic Forum's Young Global Leader award for 2011.

Now the KOTO model is being replicated in Ho Chi Minh City, extending vocational training, shelter and support to street kids from southern regions of Vietnam. A hospitality training centre opened last year and the new KOTO Saigon restaurant, will open next month.

Pham, who plans to keep establishing KOTO centres across the world, says, "Wherever there is abandonment, neglect or abuse, we will be there."

© 2012 Kerrin O’Sullivan