17 December 2020

Mastering the art of cooking in Cambodia

by Deanna Ramsay / in Op-ed

Academy training youth for a global trade

While the kitchens in Phnom Penh now are a bit quiet because of the pandemic, last year they would have been bustling with students basting, broiling and baking. Those students were laying the foundations for careers in food, and they are readying to get back to school.

This is the Academy of Culinary Arts Cambodia, the first chef’s school in the country to offer an internationally recognized diploma. Started in 2016, the Academy trains recent graduates and those looking for a career switch with a two-year curriculum that includes two six-month domestic and international internships.While the kitchens in Phnom Penh now are a bit quiet because of the pandemic, last year they would have been bustling with students basting, broiling and baking. Those students were laying the foundations for careers in food, and they are readying to get back to school.

Of Cambodians of working age, approximately 43% are youth ages 15-29, and that population is growing. And while the country’s total unemployment rate is low, for young people in urban areas who left school with few skills, many resorted to finding high turnover work in the informal sector.  

Enter the Academy, filling a gap for those wanting to embark on a creative trade with promise.

“The uniqueness of this project is due to where Cambodia is at and the great need for formal, high quality vocational training,” said Academy of Culinary Arts founder Pierre Tami.

“We need to invest in youth, if you look at the statistics – skills, productivity and efficiency – they are low here, but this school is proving the point that with good support both financial and otherwise and with a new approach we can actually do something very, very good for the nation,” he added.

The school was developed as a public-private partnership (PPP) agreed to with the Government, and with funding from the Enhanced Integrated Framework (EIF) and Sweden. A key feature of the training the Academy provides is via its partnership with the Swiss Hotel Management School in Lucerne, where selected students can go for additional skills development. Others have done internships in Dubai, Malaysia, Thailand, Japan and Spain.

This experience in restaurants and hotels outside the country is a draw for students and helps them into good jobs.

“We filled up our school with 200 students – which is our maximum capacity – within a year so that means the concept is working. Now we’ve been investing a lot in tracking our experience, learning what works and what doesn’t. With COVID and the government closing all schools in April, we have been taking the time to analyze and prepare something that is even stronger and better for the students when we open again,” Tami said.

The effort to create a space that helps Cambodian youth get marketable skills and into jobs is part of the Cambodian Trade Integration Strategy to support sectors with potential.

“The Royal Government of Cambodia has identified human resources as a priority for the next phase of the economic and social development of Cambodia. Tourism is among the country's largest export sectors in employment terms. However, the hospitality industry is suffering from a shortage of qualified personnel to meet market demands,” said Hang Tran, Senior Coordinator at the Executive Secretariat for the EIF.

The school’s students range in age from grade 12 onwards, with the majority between the ages of 18-20, and a smattering over 25.

“We visit high schools throughout the country as part of our partnership with the Ministry of Education. Young people who are looking for a career and don’t know what to do can take advantage of this particular opportunity where we offer an entire career,” said Tami. He noted that the school offers scholarships to students who can’t afford the tuition fees.

“We prepare them to work as professional cooks in 5-star hotel kitchens, and they can eventually work their way up to chef. Whether its western or international or Cambodian or Japanese food, the most important is they learn the techniques. So they learn how to roast, how to poach, how to boil, how to filet a fish, to understand the meat cuts, to work with all kinds of herbs and spices and ingredients,” he added.

In an evaluation of the project, students described the training they were provided as much needed, as those skills offered them more work opportunities and higher income.

“The project was the first PPP initiative in Cambodia, bringing together the Ministries of Commerce, Tourism and Labour, and hotel associations, the private sector representative and development partners to close the gaps in skills,” Tran said.

The school, as part of its creation as a PPP, was designed with sustainability in mind. It is funded by a mix of Government budget, support from the private sector and the tuition fees of students.

 “You come with a Mercedes you come with a motorbike you come with a bicycle – we take you because we believe in giving opportunities to succeed not because of your economic or social background but because of your dreams,” Tami said.

Any views and opinions expressed on Trade for Development News are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect those of EIF.