Thursday, March 17, 2011

Chef-Training Restaurant Helps Thousands Of Street Kids In Cambodia

You only have to walk through the streets of Phnom Penh for a few minutes to see the terrible lives led by the hordes of malnourished children who live rough in the Cambodian capital. It is heart-breaking, especially when you see the shiny new Chelsea tractors and limos driven by Phnom Penh’s elite.

Some of the street kids are barely more than toddlers, owning nothing more than a grubby T-shirt, shorts and flip flops. They scratch riels from tourists by begging, shining shoes, and hawking travel guides, bags of prawn crackers and fruit.

Some work as prostitutes, and an estimated 80% are addicted to glue, heroin or yaba. Nearly all of them are boys. Girls don’t last long on the street – they are usually found and sold to brothels.

But talk to the kids, and one name comes up – Friends, a huge complex where many eat and shower. The NGO was set up to train the youngsters in a trade like cooking, welding, or hairdressing so they can find a job and get off the streets.

Part of the organisation is Friends The Restaurant, which was launched in 2000 by Austrian chef Gustav Auer, to train them to become cooks and waiters. Over the years it has helped thousands of street kids get jobs in the capital’s restaurants and hotels.

After graduating, they usually walk straight into a $100 a month job – which is not a bad wage in this third world country. Sewing in a dark factory ten hours a day, for instance, pays just $40 a month. Some work for a few years, gaining valuable experience in kitchens, and then return to the centre as teachers.

They are taught about hygiene and safety procedures – the first of three levels in their “hospitality vocational training” – and are then sent to Friends’ sister restaurant Romdeng, where they are taught to cook traditional Cambodian dishes like amok (fish curry). They then move to Friends, where they learn international cuisine.

They spend half their time in the kitchen, and the other half front-of-house, so they get to learn all aspects of the restaurant business. Serving tourists helps them brush up on their English, which is a sought after skill in Cambodia’s catering and hospitality industry.

I went to Friends The Restaurant to see how it worked, and the whole experience blew me away. It wasn’t just the standard of cooking, the service was impeccable – and put many so-called top restaurants to shame.

The place was filled with tourists and travellers, and the dishes on the tables around me looked incredible. There was roasted pumpkin and goat’s cheese salad, couscous-crusted pork fillet, tropical cheese cake with coconut Breton, mushroom and leek spring rolls, young watermelon soup with prawns and paddy field herbs, and Khmer spiced fish wrapped in banana leaves.

I went for their most famous dish, Khmer chicken curry, which was scrumptious. It had a lovely rich taste of fall-apart chicken, with a backdrop of coconut, potato, green peppers, and curry powder. And it was real thigh and breast, rather than the processed strips of meat, chemicals and water you get when you order chicken curries and stir-fries in 99% of restaurants in Thailand, and many Asian take-aways and eateries back in the UK.

The difference between the traditional Cambodian curry and far runnier and spicier Thai curries was astonishing. It was better than the ubiquitous green and red curries, and even a match for the mighty, lip-smacking chicken Penang.

The meat had been cooked for a long time, as it should be in a decent curry, and was more reminiscent of Indian food in its heavy use of onions and potato. It was almost like a vindaloo without the chilli or tomato. And its mildness and rich chicken stock flavour reminded me of French and Spanish stews, with its simmered-to-a-squelch green peppers.

They made it by pounding lemon grass, galangal, fresh turmeric, lime zest, star anise powder, garlic, and a half a dozen shallots into a paste, and then soaked some dried chillies in water. They boiled down coconut milk until it had almost reduced to nothing, and then added the paste and fried it until it was fragrant.

Then they added fish sauce and shrimp paste, and the chilli paste. They fried it again and then added the chicken, potato chunks, and more coconut milk. They topped it up with chicken stock as the sauce reduced, and then added palm sugar, green beans, green peppers, onion chunks, salt and Vietnamese curry powder, and boiled it for at least another 15 minutes.

People ordered it with steamed rice or French bread. They sell baguettes on every corner in Cambodia – a legacy from its years as a French colony – and they are expertly baked and crisp.

I’ll definitely be having that wonderful curry again. And if you go to Phnom Penh, I urge you to do the same. Not just for the cooking and amazing service, but to support what is an incredibly good cause.

It was wonderful talking to those chefs and seeing the joy in their faces rather than the dead-eyed looks of the street kids that bed down in dark alleys. The organisation had clearly done an amazing job in transforming their lives. And there wasn’t a celebrity chef, dream academy, or film camera in sight.

Friends The Restaurant, 215, Street 13, Phnom Penh, Cambodia