Three years ago, 25-year-old apprentice chef In Voleak was scavenging for steel, aluminium cans or plastic bottles amid the foetid stink of Stung Meanchey dump in Phnom Penh, along with his family of eight.
Today he’s looking beyond the confines of the dump to a new life working in a restaurant kitchen after his stint studying with non-profit organisation Pour un Sourire d’Enfant (For a Child’s Smile).
Lotus Blanc is PSE’s training school for hotel and restaurant staff in Phnom Penh. During a visit to the headquarters in Stung Meanchey district, young people move easily around the spotless kitchen, dressed neatly in clean white uniforms and chef’s hats.
Drawn from among the city’s poorest families and those living off the district’s rubbish dump, these youngsters have been given a second chance at education through PSE’s hotel school, established in 2002.
And for young chef In Voleak, the school has been a fresh opportunity.
“I feel sympathy for my life when I was younger. I used to collect cans and bottles from the dumpsite to sell. The job was quite risky because of all the viruses, and my legs used to be cut to pieces by shards of glass or sharp cans,” he says.
Born to a large family in Oudong district in Kampong Speu province, In Voleak moved with his family of eight to Phnom Penh in 2002. They lived near the city’s Stung Meanchey, collecting recyclable garbage for several years. But in 2008, In Voleak’s life changed when he was offered the chance by PSE to study cooking at its hotel school.
At Lotus Blanc, he’s learning how to cook Khmer and Western dishes, and the work has also taught him the importance of keeping clean, as well as food hygiene.
“To make our customers like our food, we have to make our service fast enough and our food hygienic and tasty,” In Voleak explains.
He’s one of about 48 catering students at Lotus Blanc, where customers can choose a wide selection of Khmer and Western dishes at the 95-seat headquarters’ restaurant and also at a second branch in Phnom Penh on Street 51.
PSE’s hotel and restaurant operation manager Tourn Kiv says that most of these students didn’t even have access to schools, so PSE offers them classes up to grade six to catch up on their education.
By the end of their two-year training stint, he says, they will be able to work in large commercial kitchens, Khmer or Western restaurants. They’ll also learn some English and French, maths, computers, sports, and get skills to enable them to have a successful social and professional life.
Tourn Kiv keeps lessons practical and steers away from a lecture format, believing that his students learn better by preparing dishes to exact recipes.
And many of the ingredients for Western dishes can be unfamiliar to students, he points out. The school imports some foods if they cannot find Cambodian ingredients.
“For our purpose, we want our children to understand how to cook, preparing and measuring out ingredients in dishes, and using food so they can develop by themselves more when they eventually work for other companies.”
PSE has brought in professional chefs from various restaurants in Cambodia to tutor the students, and graduates are trained to work to a standard suitable for hotels of three to five stars in Cambodia, said Tourn Kiv.