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Hanoi restaurant turns poor kids into gourmet chefs

In old Hanoi, there is a small restaurant where your dinner could mean the beginning of a great culinary career for some of Vietnam's poorest children.

by: Diane Davis | 19 Jun 2007

Street children and other disadvantaged kids learn to cook delicious Vietnamese and Western dishes, tend bar, wait tables and speak "hospitality English" at Koto before they go on to work at some of the finest hotels and restaurants in Vietnam.

"I want to be a famous chef and I want to have my own restaurant to help other kids like myself," said Tran Ngoc Lam, 21, standing in his white chef's hat and grey apron as the sounds and smells of lunch cooking swirled in the hot kitchen.

Lam's father died when he was very young and he said he had to give up his studies to help support his family.

Koto, which stands for "Know One, Teach One", is on Van Mieu street opposite one of the capital's oldest and most famous landmarks, the Temple of Literature.

English lessons and a bicycle
Diners are served meals in a cool, well-lit room on the first floor by trainees of the non-profit programme, which provides English classes, accommodation, food, medical insurance and a bicycle to each student.

They earn 600,000 dong ($37) a month and make an average of 150,000 dong ($9) in tips.

Restaurant revenues go back into the training, said Daragh Halpin, the Irish-Australian CEO of Koto, which has an international charity arm in Australia.

Halpin has been CEO for less than a year but already he describes as "fantastic" the changes he sees in young people. More than 200 students have graduated from Koto so far.

"For them it is the discovery that they can achieve their potential, that they are valued, that they are loved, that they are cared for," Halpin said.

Many of their smiling faces can be seen in framed photographs on the third floor, showing the students at work in five-star hotels such as Hanoi Opera Hilton and Sofitel Metropole. Some return to work at Koto to help teach classes.

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