KOTO, A Culinary Charity In Vietnam

Photo of Andrew Kingsford-Smith
10 December 2016

KOTO is an innovative not-for-profit organization which trains street kids in Vietnam to work in restaurants, where they learn vital skills while gaining employment at one of the various KOTO restaurants throughout the country. Andrew Kingsford-Smith investigates…


The proverb ‘give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for the rest of his life’ has been adopted by many charities. It is an effective model to ensure that organizations help the disadvantaged to improve their whole life, and not just receive benefits for a small portion of it. In Vietnam, this saying has been taken quite literally, with several charities and not-for-profit organizations using fishing as a way to train those in poverty as a way to help them gain employment. For KOTO founder Jimmy Pham however, teaching how to fish wasn’t enough. Instead, he has been training people to run their own fish shops.

KOTO is a growing non-profit organisation in Vietnam that has been in operation for 12 years. The aim of this institution is to help disadvantaged youths not only improve their own lives, but also improve the lives of those around them. The programme recruits up to 30 teenagers and young adults with troubled backgrounds every six months, and places them in a two-year training program. During this time, the trainees are taught a large range of skills such as English, hospitality, cooking, computer skill, social skills, job research and much more. The participants are also provided services such as accommodation, food, regular health checks and allowances, so that they can learn in a nurturing environment. Once the basics are learnt, the participants are then able to practise and perfect their skills as they work at the various restaurants owned by KOTO in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. It is this employment element that makes KOTO so innovative; the program doesn’t simulate work, it is work.


Throughout the mixture of education and vocation, the trainees are able to gain confidence in themselves. They know at the end of their training they will be qualified, experienced and able to find work. However, it is not only the young people involved who are positively affected. The curriculum also consists of 30 hours community service per year. This gives the trainees a chance to give back to their local communities and is a vital part of their education. Knowledgeable, professionally skilled and socially aware, the graduates leave KOTO feeling confident in their future, and with some graduates going on to study at universities, starting their own businesses and even running their own restaurants, it is evident that the KOTO program works.

The greatest attribute of this innovative public service organisation is that it removes the stigma of one-way giving that is inherent in many charities’ models. While KOTO still requires donations to be able to operate, the supplementary income from the restaurants makes this non-profit organisation much more sustainable and distinct. It also means that individuals need not be generous saints to contribute; they just need to be hungry. Through dining at a KOTO restaurant, locals and tourists alike not only change the lives of disadvantaged youths, but also the greater communities in which these young people live.

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