Jimmy Pham's appetite for charity

By Nici Wickes

Jimmy Pham's Vietnamese restaurants dish up great food for tourists while giving local kids an opportunity to better their lives.

Jimmy Pham says he remembers all of his students' stories, and when he feels like giving up just thinks of the kids. Photo / Supplied
Jimmy Pham says he remembers all of his students' stories, and when he feels like giving up just thinks of the kids. Photo / Supplied

Jimmy Pham is no ordinary restaurateur. Born in Ho Chi Minh City during the Vietnam war and raised in Australia, he returned to his homeland as an adult in the 1990s only to be shocked by the poverty children were living in. Determined to give the street kids a chance in life, he opened Koto - a sandwich and milkshake shop for tourists - and employed the homeless. Since 2000 he has helped more than 400 children learn the skills of the hospitality trade - and life.

The not-for-profit Koto - which stands for Know One, Teach One - is now a 120-seat restaurant, one of the most popular in Hanoi, listed in guide books and visited by royalty, celebrities and politicians. Another restaurant has also opened in Saigon.

Pham, described by the BBC as a social entrepreneur with a recipe for lifting street kids out of poverty, was in Auckland last week to raise money for the 24-month live-in programme which teaches a cross-section of skills from the kitchen to the front-of-house, with the curriculum being provided by Tafe (Technical and Further Education) in Australia.

The dinner held at Cafe Hanoi at Britomart is the first of its kind in NZ, but Koto has received financial support from all over the world and, earlier this year was honoured by the World Economic Forum as a Young Global Leader.

I had the pleasure of eating at Koto on my first ever visit to Vietnam. I came across a cafe in Hanoi that was like a haven of cool tranquility as well as a place bursting with energy and inspiration. Five years after that visit I returned, this time while filming World Kitchen, to meet the students and to talk to Jimmy about the cooking school he had set up. I have never forgotten how smitten we all were by his gentle nature, wicked sense of humour and big smiling face. He's much more than a social entrepreneur, he's a legend, so when I found out that Cafe Hanoi in Britomart had arranged for Jimmy to come to Auckland for a fundraising event to raise money for more students to attend the Koto hospitality school I jumped at the opportunity to find out the latest on where he and Koto had gotten to since we last met.

How did the partnership between Cafe Hanoi & Koto come about?

Krishna Botica and Tony McGeorge of Auckland's Cafe Hanoi made contact with Koto after visiting the restaurant because they wanted to see if there was a way they could help. They arranged for me and my team to come to Auckland for a fundraising dinner when I was en route to Australia. We are so pleased at how this has worked out that we plan for the relationship to be long-term. Possibilities include having Koto students intern at Cafe Hanoi and having Cafe Hanoi chefs conduct exchanges with Koto for intensive skills transfer.

What were you hoping to achieve with the fundraising dinner at Cafe Hanoi and did you succeed?

The Cafe Hanoi dinner raised more then $15,000 - enough to sponsor six students through Koto's two-year course. I'm so, so happy. Even better, we've made friends at Cafe Hanoi, the team are so welcoming and supportive, and just like us they love food!

After 10 years, what is the biggest challenge for you in managing an organisation such as Koto?

Really, constantly trying to build up an identity as a social enterprise. Ten years later people are still asking, are you a charity or are you a business? I answer that we can be both, but we meet a social need, that's the focus.

And the biggest reward?

Always it's the kids. You know, throughout the process they tell me their stories and I'm calm; they hit trouble, whatever they tell me, I'm calm, I can guide them through. But seeing them at graduation, on the podium receiving their certificate, how they've grown in confidence, I cry.

How have these rewards and challenges changed over the years? Are they different from those that you faced at the start?

Certain things change but our focus remains the same, and the rewards are the same - Koto prides itself on its 92 per cent student retention rate and 100 per cent job placement rate. Lots of the kids face emotional and psychological issues we didn't see 20 years ago. Then there's the challenges of building a bigger organisation, much higher staffing levels and much higher skill levels, managing many more people, balancing different personalities, everything that goes with a much larger enterprise.

Can you remember the very first intake of students for Koto and where are they now?

That first intake are doing very well! Some work for five-star hotels or restaurants or in private businesses. Some have become part-owners of their own businesses, some have studied overseas and come back. One from that first intake has started a Koto joint project with venture capital and she's going really well. Some have had families and are secure enough to raise their kids well and make sure they go to school and so on. I'm so proud.

Is there one student story that particularly impacts on you if you look back over all of the trainees that have graced Koto?

Of all these challenges, one thing I know I do well, I remember every one of our 500 kids. In my eyes every one has their own unique story to tell and I remember each one. But you've asked for one, so to pinpoint one kid, a boy grew up with a horrific violent drunk for a dad. One day the father locked up his wife and his son and torched the house. Fortunately a neighbour discovered them in time and rescued them. His father died a couple of years later. His mother was mentally unstable, and piggybacked the boy around while she walked the town without clothes on. If the boy was hungry he would point to the food he wanted and she would steal it for him. She did this so many times that the shopkeepers beat her and then threw her and her son in lake. When his mother died authorities didn't know where else to put him so the boy was housed in a juvenile detention centre. When he came to Koto he had two incredibly difficult years because of issues trusting others and following rules. But when he graduated he was offered a job in a five-star Movenpick Hotel in the Middle East and I took him took to the airport myself. He said to me as we said goodbye, 'I don't have a family but Koto is my family and I'll do anything to make you guys proud.' And I am.

When we read stories of how you set up Koto in Hanoi, it almost sounds effortless in a "meant to be" way but I'm sure it required a huge amount of hard work and tenacity. Did you feel like giving up at any point? What techniques do you use when the "give up factor"creeps in on a project, if it does?

Every day I feel like giving up and every day the project grows and I'm in way over my head - this is out of my league.

But this incredibly simple focus on the kids means giving up is not an option. When I feel this way I do two things. The first is I go down to the computer room or the resource centre or the canteen and just sit down and talk to the kids in a simple uncomplicated way. When they smile, it's my encouragement. The second thing is I think of my mum. She gave up so much and made such sacrifices, incredible really. She moved three countries, and raised six kids and she was a street kid herself. If she can do it, then I think I can do it too.

What do you think has made Koto such a successful not-for-profit and model?

Koto is so visible, and we have never relied on charity. You come to Koto for the incredible food and ambience and service - just like at Cafe Hanoi! People can tell when they visit it that we are a family. The foundation of Vietnam is about family and food and that makes us a success.

Does the restaurant support the foundation 100 per cent or are donations still a critical source of income?

Our restaurant funds about 70 per cent of our operations, so we still need fundraising to of get Koto Saigon off the ground. The global financial crisis meant tourists dropped off, so it's even more important to fundraise.

We have 100 students in Hanoi and another 100 in Saigon, and we take care of all their living costs, not just tuition fees. So the restaurants must be successful and we must fundraise. You know how much it costs to raise the kids in your family; food and school and health and so on, and two or three kids costs a bundle. Here we raise 200 children!

Do the students have input into the restaurant menu and what dishes end up on it? (I still make the iced fruit cups drizzled in sweetened condensed milk that I learned there.)

Absolutely. At least 25 per cent of our staff are Koto graduates, so that's trainers, teachers, head chefs. Our trainees influence everything including the menu and decor. And that dish you mention is a very Hanoi dish, we love sweetened condensed milk with fruit and with coffee.

When I first met you in 2009, the Saigon Koto was just an idea, now it is a reality. How is it going and how has the journey to setting up in been different from Hanoi?

Koto Hanoi grew organically - you know we started as a sandwich shop because there was nowhere for tourists to buy lunch - and we learned as we grew. Koto Saigon benefits from all that knowledge, because we could strategically plan every detail, and we know the support it will need because we had that experience in Koto Hanoi. It's like a full circle.

Are there differences in the trainees in Saigon compared with Hanoi - their backgrounds, the challenges they have faced?

Absolutely. In the north where Hanoi is, it's very conservative. The kids are not used to being asked their opinions or having to decide for themselves. In Saigon, in the south, life moves much faster. Saigon kids have had to deal with things like sex much earlier, a lot of our kids have been trafficked or experienced terrible domestic violence. But either way, our focus is the same and we work to achieve the same result.

Where to next for you and Koto?

First we need to consolidate Koto Saigon. Then I'm looking to replicate in other Asian cities. Maybe we could have a fee-paying Koto school- we know our curriculum is very successful, so this would be a way to funnel money back into Koto. Maybe we could take the Koto model and apply it to other vocational options. . A Koto hotel - why not?

Are you considering a Koto in New Zealand for our street kids?

Saigon is our first test of how we can replicate Koto and so far it is doing well, and we have more plans for Koto. None yet for New Zealand - maybe that's something for local social entrepreneurs to look into.

Any other comments?

Starting a New Zealand relationship for Koto has been so encouraging, you have been so generous. When you come to Vietnam, please come and support us by eating with us, we know New Zealanders love to visit Vietnam and we're ready to welcome you.

* People interested in supporting Koto can buy a brick in the new Saigon restaurant for US$100 - the brick has your name on it and will be there permanently - or sponsor a student for a year, or just make a donation. All forms and payment engines are found on the website. Or visit next time you're in Hanoi or Saigon!

- NZ Herald

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