KOTO: providing hospitality training to at-risk youths in Vietnam

Know One, Teach One. This is the mantra by which Vietnam’s first social enterprise lives and thrives on. KOTO is a non-profit that endeavours to end the cycle of poverty by supporting and empowering underprivileged youths. It does this by utilising what Vietnam knows best… Food.

During June of this year I was lucky enough to spend a month in Ho Chi Minh City where I met and worked with the team at KOTO Saigon, a training restaurant that serves as a professional platform for disadvantaged youths to fine tune their skills in hospitality service and the culinary arts.

Those who have lived in or visited Ho Chi Minh City will be familiar with the chaos of the roads, the concoction of smells, and the sheer volume of activity overwhelming the senses. KOTO Saigon somehow manages to soothe that chaos. The restaurant is tucked away in one of the less frenzied streets of District One. The building is tall, bright yellow and surrounded with Abaca plants and palm leaves. The menu boasts an extravagant and mouth watering selection of food that encapsulates the modern-Vietnamese style, and best of all? The staff, who follow in the footsteps of the friendly founder, Jimmy Pham.

KOTO Saigon Training Restaurant, 2018

Vietnamese-Australian Jimmy is a big man with a big heart and an even bigger vision. He was one of six siblings born during the Vietnam War, the son of a Korean father and a Vietnamese mother. He and his family fled Vietnam when he was two years old, and after a turbulent few years eventually settled in Australia when he was eight. Despite struggling to make ends meet, Jimmy’s mother did all that she could to provide for her family and ensure they had a good education. Jimmy took on jobs in restaurants and bars throughout school, and in his early 20s, after getting his degree in hospitality, he returned to Vietnam.

Jimmy arrived in Hanoi in 1996, a time when Vietnam was still considered a third world country, and when as many as 80% of its inhabitants lived on less than $1 a day. He witnessed the plight of at-risk youths on the streets, bought them bowls of pho and listened to their stories. It wasn’t long before he came to realise that his money only went so far; that more had to done. His philosophy was:

“You give a poor person a fish and you feed them for a day. You teach them to fish and you give them an occupation that will feed them for a lifetime.”

And so KOTO was born.

The journey began with a small sandwich shop in Hanoi. He employed nine trainees and one accountant, and one year later the first KOTO restaurant was opened, soon followed by the first training centre. 2003 saw the introduction of English lessons and the Box Hill TAFE kitchen curriculum, and in 2011 came the Box Hill TAFE partnership, as well as the opening of the new KOTO training restaurant in Ho Chi Minh.

Head Chef Quyen preparing his new menu at KOTO Saigon

As it stands today, in addition to the two restaurants, the KOTO enterprise also includes a bakery, a cooking class and a catering service, all of which provide education, opportunity and income to at-risk youth.

KOTO now provides care and education to youths from all kind of troubled pasts; children who have been trafficked, hill tribe minority groups, youths in conflict with the law, and those who are abandoned, neglected, disengaged or exploited, all of whom range from 16 to 22 years of age, and are eager to learn.

Kitchen antics at KOTO Saigon Training Restaurant

During the 24-month training period, KOTO students are taught three broad areas: English, hospitality training and life skills. In addition to these they are also provided with 36 workshops that range from anger management to stress management to first aid training to budgeting. The students go to karaoke nights, movies, and away on holidays. They are given their childhood back.

The two-year program is completely free of charge and by the time they finish, students are equipped with the qualifications and life skills that make them employable in the professional hospitality industry worldwide.

Since its beginning KOTO has trained over 1000 students at its two training centres in Hanoi and Saigon, with more than 200 currently enrolled. Each student is unique though they have all endured difficult pasts. You can read about some of them on the KOTO website.

One of the stories I got to hear first-hand was that of Quyen. Like many others, he had his life transformed by the KOTO enterprise. He was born and raised in an underprivileged community and, despite his desire to peruse higher education, dropped out of school at age 12 to support his family. He moved from his rural hometown to Hanoi where he became a shoeblack, and it was there in 2007 – two years later – that he was introduced to the KOTO training centre.

The course gave Quyen the chance to gain skills, meet likeminded young people and truly indulge his passion for cooking. He graduated from the program and shortly after was offered a scholarship to study in Australia.

During his time studying for a Diploma in Hospitality Management in Melbourne, Quyen also worked in several local restaurants and bars to further his knowledge of international cooking. Embodying KOTO’s “Know One, Teach One” ethos, Quyen also became an International Student Ambassador for Vietnam, which gave him the opportunity to support and advise new international students at the Box Hill University.

Trinh Quyen head chef koto

Quyen, KOTO alumni and head chef at KOTO Saigon Training Restaurant

After two years in Melbourne, three culinary awards and countless memories made, Quyen retuned to his home country to become a member of the KOTO alumni at the training restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City, where he is now the head-chef… and so the cycle continues.

Over its 19 years in operation KOTO has partnered with 164 businesses in Vietnam and abroad, and has deservedly been profiled in both national and international news, with visits from Bill Clinton, the Queen of Denmark and most recently the Prime minister of Australia.

One unique and personal way that people and businesses alike can fund KOTO’s teaching and infrastructure is through the Dream Wall. Located at the training restaurants in both Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, the Dream Wall is a shimmering metallic wall sculpture comprised of etched medallions that honour donors – past and present.

In addition to donations KOTO also organises international fundraising events, such as their up and coming KOTO One evening events in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Auckland; a night full of good food, good wine and inspiring stories – as well as an opportunity to meet the founder Jimmy Pham and the KOTO alumni – all in the aim of supporting KOTO to build its first ever hospitality school in Vietnam.

Although founded in 1999, KOTO was not officially recognised as a social enterprise until 2016, when it became the first legally registered entity operating as a social enterprise in Vietnam. Since then it has blazed a path for many incredible organisations just like it that strive to make a difference to this amazing country and its beautiful people. Jimmy has been on the Board of Directors for CSIP (Centre for Social Initiatives Promotion) since 2008, a Vietnamese non-governmental organization that mentors, incubates and funds social enterprises in Vietnam.

Despite the title, social enterprises still receive no special treatment or tax breaks in Vietnam, and until they do, KOTO will continue to be treated like any other business, continually battling with multinationals in the competitive hospitality space. Nevertheless, they are putting up a good fight.

Cooking class at KOTO Saigon Training Restaurant

Cooking class at KOTO Saigon Training Restaurant

The thing that stands out most about KOTO is that it not only educates and employs people in need, but it instils in them the passion to teach others. This is something that is truly invaluable. KOTO has evolved a lot since the early days, but this part of their philosophy remains prominent in everything they do.

“Social entrepreneurs are not content just to give a fish or teach how to fish. They will not rest until they have revolutionized the fishing industry.”

– Bill Drayton

There are plenty of ways to support Koto and other organisations like it – by donating money or time, booking a table or simply spreading the word. You can find out more about Koto on Instagram, Facebook or their website. Get involved and as Jimmy would say – Know One Teach One.

Comments (1):

  1. Catherine

    July 3, 2018 at 2:30 pm

    Written with great inspiration and wants you to go and see for yourself.
    Opens recognition internationally for their cause.
    May they continue to grow and do well.


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