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Tucked 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  – welcome fare for visitors that is spiked with a secret ingredient. Hope. KOTO is a wildly successful training restaurant for former street kids and disadvantaged youth.

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 and is the first social enterprise legally recognised by Vietnam’s government.

“The KOTO formula is simple. Practical and work-based activities provide this target group of beautiful young adults an opportunity to learn skills that provide the platform to gain employmet. A key part of the formula is focusing on personal and social development to empower informed and confident decision making in all aspects of life,” explains Pham.

1612-hope02Every six months KOTO takes on 50 trainees, aged 16-12, recruited through local NGOs, orphanages and in the rural countryside of Vietnam. To date, KOTO has launched nearly 1,000 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 holistic training program includes professional culinary skills, English and soft skills required for the service industry. In addition, 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, and dormitory accommodation and a preliminary traineeship. 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. In addition, 62 per cent of KOTO’s staff is alumni.

At 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.

“The greatest accomplishment for someone who has helped you is for them to see you stand on your own feet and in turn help someone else who reminds you of yourself, because if you know one then you should teach one,” says Pham. His example is inspirational. Paying it forward, no matter what your skill set, makes our world a better place.

For more information and ways to contribute, check out the KOTO website,

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Maureen LittleJohn
Maureen Littlejohn is Culture Magazin's executive editor. She is a Canadian award-winning journalist who has practiced her craft around the world including in the United States, Africa and Vietnam. Currently based in Toronto, she has a keen eye for detail and has a deep appreciation for the “East Meets West” approach of Culture Magazin. Travel is her passion and she is happy to be able to share her adventures on a regular basis with the magazine's readers.