Dishing Up Success
Thanks to a Heller foodie, culinary arts come to the rescue of Hoi An street kids
by LAURA GARDNER
One evening a dozen years ago, as Neal Bermas, Ph.D.’81, strolled the crowded streets of Vietnam’s capital, Ho Chi Minh City, he was approached by a group of poor 8- and 9-year-old boys and girls. They weren’t begging for money for drugs or alcohol.
“I had never come face to face with kids actually living on the streets. They were begging for money to buy a glass of milk,” says Bermas, a tall man with a shaved head who admits to being at least 50. “That experience registered with me in a way that I couldn’t let go of. I wasn’t tormented, but it stayed with me,” he says.
Although he didn’t know it at the time, that encounter planted the seed of an idea that would take root and eventually blossom into an organization based in central Vietnam that helps get homeless and orphaned teens off the streets, out of poverty and into productive careers as chefs and hospitality professionals.
In retrospect, founding Streets International in Hoi An, Vietnam, seems like a perfectly natural outcome for a Heller Ph.D. with a meaty background in business, hospitality consulting and successful restaurant management. (One of his restaurants made National Geographic’s list of “Fifty Best Little Bars and Restaurants in the U.S.”)
It wasn’t just Bermas’ background and initial success raising money, though, that paved the way to open Streets, a nonprofit that trains disadvantaged kids, many of them orphaned by parents too poor to feed and educate them, for culinary and hospitality careers. Bermas felt emotionally tied to Vietnam after his first visit more than a decade years earlier.
“As an American, I felt ashamedly connected to this country; I was prepared for some bad experiences, so I was shocked by the warm, gentle welcome I received, and I was touched by that,” says Bermas. “And I was fascinated by this whole other world — the smells, the marketplace, the food. All of that really spoke to me, so I kept going back to visit almost every year.”
Bermas didn’t invent the idea of teaching street kids culinary skills, but he developed a program that enables graduates to get professional jobs as chefs or managers in the hotel industry, rather than as just dishwashers or prep cooks. “I was just enough of an arrogant New Yorker, with a background in food and the hotel industry, to think I could do this better, because washing dishes and cutting vegetables won’t lift you much out of poverty anywhere,” says Bermas.
He developed an intensive 18-month curriculum in conjunction with the Institute of Culinary Education in New York, where he served as a consultant and lecturer, that offers classroom instruction and hands-on work experience, along with housing, health care, and the emotional and community support the trainees need to make a successful transition out of poverty.
The trainees get their work experience at the Streets Restaurant Café; in Hoi An. The eatery maintains international standards of cleanliness while using fresh local ingredients, including herbs that are biked in to the restaurant kitchen daily from nearby farms. Many customers come from the ranks of world tourists who are visiting this small country in bigger numbers than ever before. "A night doesn't go by when we don't hear that this is the best food in Vietnam," says Bermas.
The first class of 15 students, aged 16 to 22, graduated in January, and two more classes, with a total of 35 trainees, are under way. “We’re training our students for five-star restaurants and hotels, and the top hotels in Vietnam are hiring all our trainees. We already have two to three job offers for every graduate,” says Bermas. Well, the proof is in the pudding, as they say.