German-style: A student practices to serve European dishes under foreign instructors in Anre Maisen Hospitality Training Centre.
Viet Nam News
by Bích Hường
Mai Sen Bistro on Nguyễn Văn Lạc Street, HCM City, is more than just a good restaurant that offers European and Asian dishes. Its staff are trainees from the Anre Maisen Hospitality Training Centre, a vocational school that provides free cookery courses of international standard for underprivileged young people.
The model, which follows Germany’s dual vocational training system, was brought to Việt Nam by Francis Nguyễn Văn Hội, a Vietnamese German chef and businessman.
Hội, one of the most successful Vietnamese in Germany, is invited on national TV cookery programmes. Big companies often ask for his advice when they organise big parties.
“In 36 years in Germany, I have never been unemployed thanks to my cooking skills,” 67-year-old Hội said.
Following the fall of Saigon (former name of HCM City) in April, 1975, young Hội, fell into confusion and fear because of massive change in the south and so decided to leave the country.
In January, 1976, Hội set foot in Germany. To earn his living and survive, he started working in a damp cellar in a Bavarian tavern, washing dishes and making salad.
Three years later, as his legal status changed and with his small savings, he applied for a two-year cooking course. As a cook, Hội worked as a director for a group supplying meals to companies and offices across Germany. He then opened his own restaurants and started a company that supplies Asian food to German restaurants.
“I’m so impressed and grateful to the German education system, particularly the dual vocational training system in which trainees attend classes at a vocational school and receive on-the-job training - and wages - at a company,” he said
“So I told myself that if I could bring this system back to Việt Nam, I’d give young Vietnamese a similar chance.’
The idea of a hospitality training centre became stronger when he returned to Việt Nam for the first time in 1990, seeing the changes brought by the first stage of dổi mới (renewal) policy.
Tourism and the hospitality industry were still at a modest stage of development at that time, but the country had huge potential for tourism, including its rich culture, history and nature.
“I know the hospitality industry well and want to contribute to the development of my homeland,” Hội said.
“I also want to help poor people. Wars stole many Vietnamese opportunities for a good life and bright future, forcing many families and children to live in hunger and poverty.
“I deeply understand what hunger and poverty is like because I was a poor child and I never forgot it,” Hội said.
Grateful: Chef Hội (right)and trainees in the kitchen of the centre.
All eyes: Chef Nguyễn Văn Hội and trainees at the training centre at a theory class. Photos Courtesy of the Anre Maisen Hospitality Training Centre
He recalled his parents and eight siblings. He was the oldest child of his parents, who were poor farmers in the southern province of Đồng Nai. They had only about 3,000sq.m of barren farm land.
Thanks to an acquaintance, his parents sent him to a charity school in Sài Gòn, expecting better meals and schooling for their son.
“I was always grateful to the charity school and especially Pastor Anre Mai Sen, a Slovenian pastor who arrived in Việt Nam to bring love and help poor people,” Hội said.
“Pastor Anre Mai Sen is an example for me to follow. He called on well-off people to help the disadvantaged. As soon as I succeeded in my career and led a better life, I wanted to help the poor,” Hội said, adding that this was the way he said thanks to Pastor Anre Mai Sen and other donors.
In 2013, Hội returned to Việt Nam to realise his idea about a non-profit hospitality training centre while his family stayed in Germany.
“No one wants to live far away from his family, neither do my wife and sons," he said. "But I told them that for 30 years in Germany, I had fulfilled obligations as a husband and father and that what I have is due to the help of many people. Now is the time for me to return the debt directly or indirectly.”
Hội gained his family’s favour. So he returned to his nativeland in his sixties and offered free training courses and accommodation to underprivileged young people aged from 18 to 22.
At his school, trainees learn the hospitality ropes for three years. The traineeship ends with an exam conducted in English by the German Chamber of Industry and Commerce. The whole curriculum follows Germany’s high standards. Trainees also learn English to be able to communicate with foreign teachers, customers and further, it’s a preparation for their future jobs at international-standard restaurants.
To prepare for the first enrollment of the school in middle 2014, Hội sent letters to parishes, churches, pagodas, charity schools to inform disadvantaged children about the training course. He even talked to street children he met on streets, encouraging them to join.
“Many people were sceptical about my non-profit centre, especially when it came to funding. We needed a big fund to raise the children, provide them free training and accommodation, pay foreign trainers and rent the restaurant.”
Hội’s money was not enough, so he started calling for donations in Việt Nam and from overseas.
“Some told me that Vietnamese parents didn’t want their children to be cooks, waiters or bakers. They wanted them to attend colleges or university to become engineers, doctors, accountants or bankers instead,” he said.
Mai Sen School enrolled 36 trainees for its first course. In the middle of last year, they graduated from the school. Ten graduates stayed to work for the school while the others got jobs in restaurants or hotels across the city.
They are paid about VNĐ8-10 million monthly, a relatively high salary for new cooks.
“The students’ maturity is my happiness and encourages me to continue my work,” Hội said.
“A graduate told me that she lied her family about studying at Mai Sen School because they did not want her to become a cook – a hard, but disregarded job. But when she received her first salary, she told her family the truth and they changed their mindset,” Hội said.
The senior chef said he was unhappy to see discrimination about vocational schools.
“Every job should be respected and treated equally,” Hội said, adding that it was a pleasure to have himself and his job respected in developed country like Germany.
Phạm Thị Thu Hậu, 21, attended the first course at Mai Sen School three years ago after graduating from high school. Hậu, who is a waitress in a hotel in District 1, said that the three years’ living and studying at the school was full of unforgettable memories.
She said that she was very impressed by the strictness of chef Hội when he taught in class or instructed students in the kitchen. However, outside class, he was so pleasant and humorous.
Hậu remembered days when the Mai Sen Bistro had few customers, funding for the school was modest, so both students and teachers ate only rice and vegetables.
They joked with each other that they ate so many vegetables that their stomach would turn green.
Hội said that during the first three years, the school faced a lot of difficulties. He usually got up at 3am to go to market. Around 5am, both trainers and trainees started preparing dishes. Some set the tables, others cleaned and cut vegetables. At their first lesson, many trainees did not know how to hold a knife or distinguish or identify the cuts of meat.
“Things go more smoothly now,” Hội said. There are 125 young trainees at Mai Sen School and monthly accommodation costs for them is about VNĐ45 million (US$2,000).
More youngsters have applied to study, but Hội cannot accept all of them. School donors also want to limit the number of trainees to maintain the quality level of training and living conditions. VNS