Asia-Pacific

Vietnam's Jamie Oliver trains street kids

Jimmy Pham
Image caption Jimmy Pham with his team of cooks at his Koto gourmet restaurant in Hanoi

Meet Jimmy Pham - Vietnam's answer to Jamie Oliver.

Since opening the doors to his famous Koto - Know One Teach One - restaurant in Hanoi in 2000, he has helped around 400 homeless children to become industrious cooks.

At his non-profit hospitality training centre he has passed on both cooking and life skills.

"I came to Vietnam never wanting to start a project as big as Koto, I just wanted to make a difference," he recalls.

"I look back now and realise that it has given me this incredible joy."

Hand to mouth

Born in Ho Chi Minh City to a single mum with six children during the Vietnam war, Mr Pham lived in Australia from the age of eight before he returned to his homeland in the early 1990s.

It was there his Koto project was born after he stumbled across a group of children selling coconuts on the streets in 1996.

"I found these street kids carrying coconuts and working 16 hours a day," he explained to the BBC World Service's Outlook programme. "They were living from hand to mouth.

"So I took them and 60 other kids to dinner for the next two weeks."

But it was another three years before the idea for his restaurant first came to fruition.

"At the time I thought I knew better," he admitted. "I gave them fish everyday for that period but then they pulled me aside."

"They said: 'Look we trust you now but you can't keep on looking after us this way. We're going to need a job. We need you to show us how to fish for ourselves'."

From there, his Koto project was launched. Children not only learned how to cook but were taught lessons in life too.

"The first thing you receive is housing and medical checks along with vaccinations," Mr Pham explained.

"You learn about team building and life skills programmes, vocational training and English, which gives you the confidence to meet people."

Presidential visit

Interest in his restaurant gathered pace and within months former US President Bill Clinton dropped by for a bite to eat with an entourage of 80 reporters.

So suspicious were the Vietnamese government following Mr Clinton's stop-off that they feared Mr Pham was a member of the CIA.

"I think I was under watch for about three or four years after that," he laughs. "But I'm glad we went through that phase because I've got the green light now to go on and do the wonderful things that Koto is doing."

Mr Pham - a former travel agent in Melbourne - has no formal cooking or hospitality qualifications.

The only culinary skills he possesses he picked up as a boy making doughnuts and selling sandwiches.

"The funny thing is I don't have any hospitality, development or psychology skills," he said. "I'm just someone who is very passionate about what I do and I just want to make a difference."

Looking back, Jimmy Pham admits that despite feeling a sense of achievement, his Koto project has been very difficult to deal with emotionally over the years.

"I've seen visible changes in front of me," he added. "Four hundred kids later, I'm seeing them with their own families and breaking the cycle of poverty which gives me great joy.

"But it has also given me incredible sorrow and sadness because I've seen so much pain caused to a kid."

Correction 11 Nov 2010: This story has been amended since it was first published to correct the mis-spelling of Jimmy Pham's name. An earlier version of the story referred to him as Jimmy Sham.

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