From street kids to culinary stars in Vietnam

As I strode into the restaurant, relieved to take a brief respite from the chaos that is Saigon’s streets, a warm smile greeted me. A young man, probably in his late teens, led me to a table and handed me a menu. There were fried pork ribs with lemongrass, ginger-braised chicken, steamed prawns in coconut juice. Not terribly surprising southeast Asian fare. But this was a surprisingly different restaurant.

People don’t come to Vietnam to eat. At least not historically. They came for other reasons. The Khmer, the Chinese, the French, the Americans came to occupy, to settle, to pillage, to exploit, to push back, or various other things that didn’t always sit well with the locals. And while they didn’t come for the food, their influence on Vietnamese cuisine is now indelible. The Khmer influence can be seen-or, rather, tasted-in the south, the Chinese in the north, the French all over the place (banh mi, anyone?).

But, like a lot of people these days, I came to Vietnam to eat. And I ate everything I could that didn’t previously bark. Including the wince-inducing stuff: rat, snake, pigs blood and various “other” parts of mammals. The Vietnamese are fiercely omnivorous and, like other southeast Asians, they don’t waste much of a plant or animal.

And while I left thinking that I could spend a decade or so eating my way through the country-the steaming bowls of pho in the morning, street cart sticky rice flavored with exotic fruits, the sweet, caramelized clay pot dishes have left me dreaming for more long after I departed-there was something else that was tugging at me: namely the estimated 19,000 street kids in Vietnam.

And the restaurant I was eating at in Saigon was trying to do something about it. Welcome to Huong Lai, a pioneer of sorts, not because of the acclaimed food it serves, but because of the employees. They’re all street kids, orphans whose first years of life were one of begging for money and sustenance.

Haong Lai isn’t the only restaurant and training center in Vietnam to turn streets kids into culinary stars. Koto, in Hanoi, has been doing the same. There’s also a similar school/restaurant in Cambodia. And they’re not just learning how to prepare spring rolls. They’re trained in cooking western dishes as well as other aspects of restaurant hospitality and they’re taught English.

The latest to throw its toque into the kitchen is Streets International. Located in Hoi An, on the central coast of Vietnam, Streets was founded by Neal F. Bermas, a resident of Hoi An and New York City who teaches at New York University. The school and restaurant, located smack in the center of UNESCO-protected Hoi An, received donations from various international organizations as well as an annual charity event in New York City. Which was where I caught up with Bermas last week. While the attendees were munching on food from restaurants such as Blue Smoke, Cabrito, Tabla, and Colicchio & Sons, Bermas told me about that light bulb moment for Streets: “It was my first night in Saigon over a decade ago and I came across these streets kids. They had these dark yet beautifully compelling eyes. And as time went on, I just kept coming back to that image.” Bermas hopes to expand the model to other parts of Vietnam and even southeast Asia.

Which got me wondering: what is it about southeast Asia, in general, and Vietnam, in particular, that has bred this great idea to deal with poverty? Bermas had an intriguing answer: “This model works particularly well in so-called developing countries when the tourism industry is just starting to take off.” And in Vietnam it’s doing just that. Tourism is up fifteen percent in the last few years. The economy grew last year by four percent, which is a lot considering most of the world’s economic activity has slowed to a crawl.

Because Streets International is about a year old, no one has graduated from the 18-month training program yet. But the endeavor can already be called a success. Not just for taking a handful of kids off the streets. As Bermas told me last week, Nam Hai, the upscale resort on the coast near Hoi An, has said they would hire the entire first batch of trainees.

Now that’s well worth tucking in to a bowl of steamed prawns in coconut juice during your next visit to Vietnam for.

David Farley is the author of An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town.