Dressed all in black, four fresh-faced students with watchful eyes crowd around chef Pak Sokal in the kitchen of the Lotus Blanc restaurant in Phnom Penh, hungry to learn everything the veteran chef knows about food preparation.
Sokal, who was previously a chef for some of the capital’s top restaurants, including Topaz, The Spoon and T-Bone Steakhouse, completes his tutorial before turning to explain that all of his students hail from underprivileged backgrounds.
Their tuition at the training restaurant is covered by French NGO Pour un Sourire d’Enfant (PSE), which for over a decade has helped impoverished youth engage in hands-on experience to find careers in the hotel and restaurant industry.
“I want to share my experiences with the students so that they can get a job at any hotel or restaurant [in Cambodia] or overseas,” explains Sokal, garbed in his profession’s signature white double-breasted jacket and tall hat.
Monday to Friday the students carefully follow Sokal’s guidance to prepare a top-notch meal for a room full of customers ready to pay $9 for a set lunch that includes both Western and Asian cuisine.
Program managers insist the setting is more conducive for learning than a regular restaurant as students are guided through their mistakes rather than being reprimanded for them or having their salary docked. Customers tend to be a bit more forgiving as well.
Tim Ficher, program director for PSE cookbooks and himself a frequent patron of the Lotus Blanc training restaurant, said customers are well aware they are proverbial guinea pigs for the student’s lunch service, but come to support their career development.
“This is one restaurant among many restaurants, so there are many places people can choose [to eat], but I think people come here for the purpose of supporting PSE and its training programs,” he said.
As Cambodia’s visibility on the global tourism radar grows, the demand for skilled hotel and restaurant workers rises. Tourism has been growing swiftly since 2009 and last year more than 4.2 million tourists visited the Kingdom. By 2020, the Tourism Ministry expects the number to swell to 7.5 million a year.
The tourism sector’s growth has driven demand for vocational training programs, and a number of private organisations have responded by establishing hospitality training centres.
One of the longest-running of these is the Sala Bai Hotel & Restaurant School in Siem Reap, set up by French NGO Agir Pour le Cambodge in 2002. The facility, which targets young Cambodians from underprivileged families, offers one-year cooking, front office, restaurant service, housekeeping and beauty therapy training.
The courses are free of charge for at-risk youth between the ages of 17 and 23, who also receive a $25 monthly stipend.
“Most of the other vocational programs in Siem Reap are just training in food and cooking, or are not free,” explains Anne-Laure Bartenay, communications manager for the school. “There is such a huge demand that even more training programs [would be beneficial].”
Since its inception 14 years ago, the Sala Bai School has received an average of 400 to 500 applications per year, but only has space for 108 students. Its capacity will increase next year with the completion of a new facility near Wat Svay in Siem Reap.
Despite their humble beginnings, Sala Bai graduates have gone on to staff some of the country’s most prestigious tourism establishments. According to Bartenay, every graduate has found a job in the tourism sector within three weeks of graduation, and 90 per cent have landed positions in five-star hotels and restaurants.
“We have some already working in the Malis [restaurant] that opened in Siem Reap last week,” she said. “Most of our students are still in Siem Reap because of all the job opportunities here thanks to tourism.”
Sala Bai’s 18 partner hotels – all four- and five-star establishments – are located in Siem Reap. The hotels regularly organise fundraisers for the program, while the rest of the school’s expenses are covered by private donors and revenue from its training hotel and restaurant, where students practise their skills with real patrons before interning at one of Sala Bai’s partner hotels.
Prominent restaurateur Luu Meng, co-chair of the Government-Private Sector Working Group on Tourism, said privately operated hospitality schools supply much of the new staff for the country’s hotels and restaurants.
“These schools are training people to be a cook’s helper, a waitress or a cashier,” he said. “That’s how [hotels and restaurants] get them. We let them start from there, and then they train another few years with us for medium and top management positions.”
While hospitality schools and in-house training programs help prepare Cambodians for entry-level positions, Meng said what is really needed is a government-backed institution that trains individuals for senior management positions.
“We are growing very fast and have more and more new opportunities opening, so even the hotels training their own staff is not enough,” he said. “We need to set up a specialised school that is professional and of high quality, but that will take some time.”
In the meantime, independent hospitality schools continue to flourish. David Fong, a new teacher at Don Bosco Hotel School in Sihanoukville, said he was impressed with the “real hunger” his students exhibit to learn.
“Another thing I am impressed with is the number of students who stay on at the hotel school after they graduate,” he said. “They stay on and pass on that baton to the next year of students, and I find that very encouraging.”