Students Learning Culinary Creativity, Job Skills at School

Tears filled Thon Sit’s eyes as he described what it feels like to achieve a dream at the age of 18.

Learning to cook, he said, “has been my ambition since I was a child” in the border camps after his father died. “Now, when I finish school, I will be able to find a job and cook for my family.”

The job Thon Sit can expect to find will be a far cry from cooking noodles at a street stall. He is one of 15 students who, over the next six months, will learn advanced culinary skills in the kitchens of Cambodia’s finest hotels.

Thon Sit is assigned to the kitchen of the Hotel Le Royal. Others are working at the MiCasa Hotel Apartments or at the Grand Hotel d’Angkor in Siem Reap.

“If I do well at my training session here, I believe the hotel will hire me,” said a hopeful Thon Sit.

The training program, organized by the Cambodia Hotel and Tourism Academy, aims to provide highly skilled cooks for Cambodia’s growing tourist trade.

Melvyn Young Yew Yong, a culinary trainer with the program, says the academy inaugurated the school in February.

“The hotel industry in Cam­bodia is going to develop as more and more tourists come,” he said. “Hotels will need skilled employees, and these students will be one step ahead.”

The cooking course is extensive, including practical cooking, kitchen organization, ingredient knowledge, introduction to food and beverage operations, food hygiene and nutrition.

It also includes segments on first aid, computer skills, and training in basic English for the hotel trade. Graduates will re­ceive certificates attesting to their specialized training.

After six months in the classroom, the first group of students has moved into area hotels for six months of on-the-job training.

Students say the work is de­manding. “I remember my first lesson. It was difficult for me to learn to hold a knife to cut and slice vegetables,” recalled Sar Chhornvong Palyneth, 18, who is also assigned to the kitchen at  Hotel Le Royal.

The fact that students are working with unfamiliar foods and recipes, and must learn the names for everything in English, make it more of a challenge, she said.

“Some of the ingredients are from abroad, so when I forget their names I have to ask my chef,” she said.

In a typical week, students watch an average of three hours of cooking demonstrations, taking notes as master chefs prepare dishes.

The demonstrations are followed by practice sessions, as students prepare soups and main courses, learning how to season properly and how to slice meats.

“They see and they try, so they pick up the lessons and remember them very fast,” said Melvyn. “After cooking they learn how to decorate the food on the plates, so that customers enjoy eating it.”

Student Nou Lakhena, also assigned to Le Royal, said she loves all kinds of cooking because it makes people happy, but baking is her favorite.

“Making cakes is easier than cooking,” she said as she rolled rum balls in sugar; her favorite dessert is baked cheesecake.

The students learn more than culinary techniques.

They study nutrition, including what foods are high in vitamins and minerals, and how to cook tasty, low-fat meals.

They also learn basic first aid, as a busy kitchen can be a dangerous place for employees, with open flames, sharp knifes and boiling fluids.

The students say they rarely try their new skills out on their families, in part because they are too busy, but also because the necessary ingredients are hard to find and expensive.

Students in the Le Royal kitchen rotate through six different areas: the cold kitchen, the bakery, the butchery, the hot kitchen, the cafe kitchen and the banquet kitchen.

“We want them to become [proficient] in each section before we transfer them to another section,” said Um Viwath, chief chef in the cold kitchen.

Students spend the first six months studying in five classrooms with three teachers. The tuition is $500 per year, and poor students can pay on the installment plan: $100 when they register, $150 when school starts, and $50 monthly thereafter.

But their economic picture improves during the second six months, when they no longer have to pay tuition and receive a stipend from their workplace. Le Royal, for example, pays $40 per month.

Like Thon Sit, Sar Chhornvong Palyneth says the school is a good investment. “I take this course because it will make it easy for me to find a job,” she said.

“And when I have the money, I will run my own restaurant.”

Thong Khon, secretary of state for the Ministry of Tourism, said programs like the cooking school help to improve Cambodia’s human resources.

“It is good that they help us,” he said. “This is a policy of the government. We are encouraging private [institutions] that provide training.”

He said the ministry is also drafting a sub-decree to create a National Vocational Tourism Training School, expected to be sent to the Council of Ministers in October.

 

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