Neal Bermas spent years working in the hospitality industry, both as an owner and operator of restaurants and as a consultant, offering his advice on restaurants and hotels around the world. Fifteen years ago, he touched down in southeast Asia, and he was moved by the place. “I felt really connected,” he says. “It felt particularly vibrant and alive and authentic, especially Vietnam.”
He returned frequently, but he struggled with seeing the rampant poverty that characterized that country’s cities, particularly when it was young kids asking him for money. “I came across kids living on the street who were eight, nine, 10 years old, and they were begging for money for food or a glass of milk,” he says. Around the same time, he stumbled on what he calls “street kid restaurants” — not-for-profit eateries that trained poor kids in the hospitality industry in an effort to set them on a lucrative career path.
Bermas began to hatch a plan for STREETS International, a hospitality school and restaurant that would propel these kids not just into the kitchen, but into the burgeoning five-star resort field growing up around Vietnam.
Bermas saw a couple of holes in the market that needed to be filled: The street kid restaurants that existed, he says, were “simple. For me personally, as a good traveler, you go to those places to support them, and there are a lot of them throughout Southeast Asia. They’re run by big-hearted people, but they’re underwhelming. They’re not ambitious enough.” Bermas was convinced that those kids could do a lot more, that there was no reason not to train them rigorously in the front- and back-of-the-house as we train our front- and back-of-the-house here in the States.
Second, tourism was taking off in Vietnam, and the big resorts were desperate for workers. “Five-star resorts, hotels, and restaurants can’t find the resources they need,” says Bermas. “So they either import from other countries or run a bit handicapped for a few years.” The STREETS founder saw an opportunity to serve that need by carrying out his ambitious training program.
STREETS launched five years ago with a lot of help from New York City restaurant industry vets, and it just started moving its seventh class of kids through what the founder calls “a very structured 18-month program. Half go to the front-of-house, half go to the back-of-house.” And all of them learn skills they’ll need in luxury resorts, like English. The kids start in a training center, where they spend time in classrooms and training kitchens, and then they move over to the restaurant the school operates in Hoi An that’s gained such a strong reputation for its food, says Bermas, that many people don’t even realize it’s a training restaurant.
After graduation, kids are placed in nearby resorts and restaurants, and Bermas boasts that the employment rate is “virtually 100 percent,” a remarkable life change for kids that were trafficked, living in orphanages or leper colonies, and extremely poor. “Kids from beginning classes are starting to make salaries equivalent to college-educated English teachers,” says the founder.
Now, Bermas is beginning to consider additional sites; STREETS is considering another program in Vietnam, and it’s also looking at Cambodia and Laos. It was initiated into the Clinton Global Initiative this year, and it also released a cookbook, which profiles kids who’ve been through the program.
In support of those activities, the organization is hosting its annual fundraiser tomorrow, May 28, at the Astor Center, where chefs like Toro’s Jamie Bissonnette, Annisa’s Anita Lo, Pok Pok’s Andy Ricker, Daniel Boulud, and the Meatball Shop’s Michael Chernow and Daniel Holzman will turnout Southeast Asian street food for a crowd of 250. Guests will also be privy to a bar stocked with specialty cocktails and a silent auction. Proceeds from the event go to fund all the activities of STREETS, bolstering the revenue that comes from the revenue.
Tickets are $100 for general admission, or $225 for VIP, which gets you in the door for a private cocktail reception an hour early. The party runs from 7 to 9:30 p.m.
For more information on STREETS, head on over to its website.