Daily Special at Vietnam’s Koto Restaurants: Hope for Street Kids



kotoExteriorTucked behind Hanoi’s ancient Temple of Literature, a top draw for tourists, KOTO Restaurant offers respite for sore feet and grumbling tummies. The menu of Asian-meets-Euro dishes includes nem (spring rolls), beef baked in bamboo, delicious salads, sandwiches and baked goods. It’s welcome fare for visitors and is spiked with a secret ingredient: Hope. KOTO is a wildly successful training restaurant for former street kids.

Started by Jimmy Pham more than 15 years ago, KOTO stands for “Know One, Teach One.” Pham, a Vietnamese-Australian, began with a small sandwich shop in Hanoi that provided disadvantaged youth with jobs. After meeting a few homeless young people battling everything from poverty to addiction, he understood that they needed more than handouts of food and money; they required a purpose in life, something that could change their lives forever.  In 1999 he opened a training centre that offered training for careers in the hospitality business. Since then Pham, who was named Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2011, has opened another training centre and restaurant in Saigon. The business has also expanded to include catering and cooking classes.

Class 11 014Every six months KOTO takes on 30 trainees, aged 16-22, recruited through local NGOs and orphanages. To date, Koto has launched more than 500 graduates into Vietnam’s thriving tourism/hospitality sector with a certificate accredited by Australia’s Box Hill Institute (a vocational school with international partners). The two-year course includes professional culinary skills, English and soft skills required for the service industry. Life skills workshops provide information on personal hygiene, anger management, personal financial management, sex education, first aid and communication skills. During the four-week orientation period, new recruits are provided with a health examination, vaccinations, a uniform, dormitory and monthly expenses. Once they pass orientation, they become official trainees.

Real life experience in the training restaurants is key to students being able to succeed. “It is a source of immense pride when all of them have good jobs and sustainable lives after graduating,” Pham says. Placements have included positions at the Sofitel Plaza Hanoi, the Intercontinental Asiana Saigon and the Movenpick Hotel Hanoi. Graduates can also be found at high-end restaurant Pots ‘n Pans, a partnership between KOTO and Small Giants, a boutique Australian impact investment company dedicated to businesses that are changing the world.

kotocooking3At KOTO Restaurant, the menu offers everything from snacks and dips to signature main courses with homemade cakes and pastries for dessert. The cozy Temple Bar is located on the second level, and on level three, the Graduate Gallery offers a function and meeting room for groups of 50 to 150. Leafy views of the adjacent Temple Gardens can be glimpsed from the rooftop terrace on level four.

KOTO’s training is thorough and challenging. Not everyone makes it through, but those who do are transformed from neglected, insecure individuals with low self-esteem into empowered, knowledgeable and confident young men and women. Those visitors who just came for the food end up leaving KOTO not only with full bellies, but also with the knowledge they’ve contributed to a young person’s future.

For more information, check out their website or watch the following report from ABC in Australia.



Maureen Littlejohn

Maureen, a seasoned travel writer and communications consultant, currently lives in Hanoi and works with the Uniterra program as a communications/marketing advisor for a local partner college.

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