Hom Raksmey spent the first 17 years of her life getting used to the smell of burning trash. She started working at Stung Meanchey dump as soon as she was old enough to pick up recyclable plastic and cans. These days, though, the aroma of fine, freshly cooked food is what most often greets her nostrils.
Hom Raksmey is training to be a chef at the new vocational training center of the French NGO Pour un Sourir d’Enfant (For a Child’s Smile), which assists people living on Phnom Penh’s largest dump site.
“When I was at the dump, I never imagined my life would improve,” she said. “But today, I know how to cook and speak English, and I hope that my training will enable me to support my family.”
Dressed in chef’s white cap and overalls and seated in the elegant setting of the White Lotus restaurant—where the public can sample the food Hom Raksmey and her classmates have prepared—the young woman’s future looks bright.
“Now I hope that the bad smell will disappear from my life,” she said.
The hotel and catering school opened in November and offers 18-month courses in cooking, bakery and pastry, service, and housekeeping and laundry to disadvantaged students—95 percent of whom live on the dump site.
Courses include a six-month placement in a top hotel and are free. Food and uniforms are provided for the students, and their families are each awarded rice to supplement the income they would otherwise be earning on the dump. Fifty-six students are currently enrolled on the course, but the center has the capacity to train more than 130 per year.
Some of the skills being taught, such as pastry-making, require expensive, specialized equipment. But from the start, the management was determined to do things properly.
“We wanted a professional-standard training center,” said the school’s coordinator, Amelie Thibierge. “The students need to have skills suitable to the highest class of hotel, so they must have the right equipment.”
The center boasts a fully equipped bakery and pastry kitchen, two professional hotel-scale kitchens, a laundry, a small hotel, a canteen where younger children in the organization’s schooling program eat twice a day, and the restaurant.
Christian de Palliers, who founded Pour Un Sourir d’Enfant, explained on Thursday how the concept of the training school came about.
“I spent a long time thinking about which skills would be most useful in these young people’s lives,” he said. “I tried to think about the long term, about giving high quality, professional skills to support the needs of Cambodia’s fastest-growing sector: The tourism industry.”
Tourn Kiv is the school’s cooking training coordinator. He is also from a disadvantaged background, so he well appreciates the opportunity that the training scheme represents.
“This is the best training center I have ever seen,” he said. “Everything is perfect—I feel like I am working in a five-star hotel.”
The professional surroundings seem to inspire professional results. “At first I was very surprised by how fast the children from the dump site changed and became professional chefs. Now I am very proud of them,” Tourn Kiv said.
© 2003 – 2013, All rights reserved.