All photography by Christian Berg
KOTO, which stands for ‘Know One, Teach One’, began as a humble banh mi stall in the Old Quarter in 1999. Its purpose then was to provide disadvantaged street children with essential skills to find stable jobs. Over time, the outfit expanded to its own training centre and a larger restaurant near Hanoi’s Temple of Literature, where trainees could practice in a professional kitchen and serve nourishing meals to tourists in the capital.
KOTO’s trainees come from poverty-stricken and at-risk communities across Vietnam. Many are orphans or belong to Vietnam’s ethnic minorities. Others are victims of violence, abuse or trafficking. The KOTO Foundation accepts 200 new trainees to its programme each year. Each trainee receives vocational training in hospitality or cooking, education in life skills and English, healthcare, accommodation and board, and internships and help with job placement after graduating. Importantly, they are given a safe working environment where they can work toward future careers for themselves.
In 2020 KOTO’s social enterprise moved its operations to Tay Ho, into a graceful colonial-era villa with a garden courtyard. Comfy sofas and iron-wrought tables are ready to welcome diners, underneath the shade of tropical trees. Inside the villa, tables are laid on cool terracotta tile floors, with views of a nearby pond and more greenery. Every day 20 trainees work in shifts in the kitchen and front of house, gaining real-life skills on the job.
The restaurant offers an extended brunch menu, complete with mimosas and Bloody Marys on weekends. For lunch, patrons can choose from an array of sandwiches and paninis, and for dinner the kitchen serves enticing starters, Western mains and tempting desserts. Happy Hour is a great time to pay a visit to KOTO Villa. Sip a refreshing cocktail outdoors and sample Vietnamese small bites, such as the ‘Leaf Lilies’ with prawn, shallots, and betel leaves, or bánh khọt, crispy rice cakes with pork, mushroom, and herbs.
TIP: If you can’t make it out to Tay Ho you can also support KOTO’s mission by stopping by the KOTO Cafe in Tan My Design, a stylish boutique in the Old Quarter.
KOTO graduated its first class in 2002, and soon KOTO graduates were in demand at top restaurants and hotels across Vietnam. Some alumni opened their own cafes and restaurants. Others returned to help as trainers and supervisors within the foundation. One KOTO alumni won the ‘Taste of Australia’ cooking competition, and another Vietnam’s National Barista Championship, bringing pride to the organisation’s trainers and supporters.
Over 20 years, KOTO has served more than 1 million diners and graduated more than 1,000 trainees. All graduates receive an internationally recognised certificate from Box Hill Institute in Australia, which they can use to find employment anywhere in the world. Many choose to stay in Vietnam and improve their skills further. Today KOTO is still serving delicious food to travellers. Each meal cooked and served by its trainees carries with it the hope for a better future.