September 10, 2011

The Koto Project

Many children as young as ten were selling wares like postcards and chewing gum to support their large family units. Many of these children he talked to had come from poor rural areas by themselves to seek work in the busy city of Hanoi. Jimmy straight away had a vision of how he could turn his knowledge of tourism/hospitality into training these disadvantaged youth, giving them a helping hand into a worthy career and providing some stability in their lives.

All the money that Jimmy earned as a tour guide went into feeding and sheltering a small group of children, but he knew he had to do more to get to the bigger problem of the growing street kid numbers. This is how KOTO was born, and 11 years on it is now a well recognised institution throughout the whole of Vietnam as a quality hospitality training provider. KOTO stands for ‘Know One, Teach One’. The philosophy is the basis of this charitable organisation, that has trained hundreds of young adults and helped them to become hospitality professionals.

Jimmy moved to Australia when he was two years of age and was part of a hospitality background, with his family running a busy Vietnamese restaurant in Sydney. He could see how hard work in the hospitality business gives excellent life experiences, and this also guided his own life cycle. Jimmy let us in on a little secret: his mum was also part of this street scenario, living and working for food as a small child in this once war torn country – a circumstance that is very hard for us to imagine. One of the best rewards Jimmy has received since his time with KOTO is the endorsement by his mother for all his hard work and dedication to this youth project.

KOTO is now a world recognised hospitality training organisation, with affiliations to world class hospitality leaders. This is how we received the chance invitation to visit KOTO in Hanoi – via a barista training module arrangement with Box Hill Institute in Melbourne, who have an ongoing partnership with KOTO. Fellow travelling companion Justin Metcalf and I jumped at the opportunity to go to Hanoi to help hand pick and train baristas to compete in the Vietnam Barista Championship, which is held in September. Barista courses are part of the 24-month traineeships through KOTO, and the students get to learn a lot of coffee theory, but don’t get much practical experience.

Espresso coffee is slowly starting to emerge in the wealthier sector of the Vietnamese social scene, and it is hard for students to benchmark quality of service. This is where Justin’s skill as a World Barista Judge came into the mix. We had four days to train over 100 student trainees in the practical side of coffee making. The passion and work ethics of these young kids made the task surprisingly simple, and the entire group of teenagers came away with a good understanding of basic espresso presentation.

KOTO is funded by sponsorship and fundraising, and they also have a group of restaurants and corporate catering. The restaurant in Hanoi is a place of high energy, run by the KOTO kids, and the two levels of café restaurants on all our visits were full to the brim with a mixed audience of international business people, ex pats and tourists. All diners at KOTO look for high end quality food and beverage, and it was interesting to look at the the walls, which were adorned with pictures of high profile patrons like US President Clinton, the King and Queen of Denmark and our own PMs, John Howard and Julia Gillard. It was obviously the ‘in place’ on everyone’s itinerary when visiting Hanoi – to drop by KOTO for a cuppa.

KOTO international is run by Lorette Brown in Australia, a long time supporter of Jimmy. She has a massive task of seeking financial support from Australian businesses and the public to fund the training of over 60 trainees a year. Box Hill Institute in Melbourne throughout the year hosts special variety nights to raise money for KOTO, with an event pencilled on the calendar for August 3 this year. At the previous event, Australian media personality Mick Molloy ran the silent auction and hosted the fun gala night, raising much needed funds for this charity.

While we were in Vietnam, we took the opportunity to explore the colourful café culture of Hanoi. When most people visit Vietnam, they discover the importance of freshness in this food culture. Food is a very important daily ritual for Vietnamese people, and every street corner has a gastronomic delight – from deep fried tofu and stewing Pho, to hand rolled rice paper rolls filled with fresh herbs and crab meat. I had no problem eating from street stalls, because of the freshness of the products and the eye for detail in presentation. My stomach lasted the week undisturbed – which is a first for me. Vietnam has a Colonialist attachment to France, and the art of baking is one of the few good overflows from this questionable relationship. Good bread can be found all over Vietnam.

Vietnam is the world’s second largest producer of Robusta coffee and provides the world instant coffee market annually with 1.2 million tonnes, which equates to 2.6 billion dollars in export revenue. The local café scene uses mostly local coffees, which are dark roasted Robusta, brewed through a metal cup drip filter. The beverage is then put into a cocktail shaker with ice, shaken well and poured over a good serve of sweet condensed milk. It is a refreshing, sticky brew – with a massive caffeine hit that is more than enough to start your day with a bang. The espresso industry is slowly developing through the international hotels and through a few newly developed coffee chains like Highlander Café, Illy concept cafés and the odd Starbucks. Like most developing Asian countries I have visited, I know it won’t take long before the espresso culture goes crazy and western café influences will become a part of these quickly growing cities.

It was a very short visit to Vietnam, and it has sparked my appetite to see more of this wonderful country. I’m hoping to get the chance to visit the coffee growing areas in the southern parts of the nation.

We had the hard task of narrowing the trained KOTO baristas down to a small group, who will be put forward to compete in the Vietnam Barista Championships on 28 September in Ho Chi Minh City.

This was one of the most worthwhile industry experiences I have been lucky enough to be involved with during my hospitality career. The direct feedback I received from the KOTO kids during the short training time was inspiring and also changed my skeptical outlook on our industry and why I got involved. I would like to give credit to this small group of teenagers, as they have set great examples of a passion for living and showing the world what they can do with a second chance in life. I would like to urge Australian hospitality suppliers who would like to donate products, services or finances to this great project to please get involved; it does not take a lot to make a real change to a child’s welfare.

To Support KOTO, please contact Lorette Brown –

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