The almost-70-year-old Francis Van Hoi is what you’d call a personality: a person who loves food and has a story to tell.
“As a child, I always scolded my mother. Every meal was the same: cooked fish, cooked vegetables, cooked rice. And that in a fruitful country like Vietnam, so rich in natural ingredients!”
The native of Vietnam spent 35 years in Germany before he came back to open the Saigon-based not-for-profit organisation in 2014 that trains underprivileged young people to be professional waiters, cooks and bakers.
Almost 40 years earlier, in January 1976, he set foot in Germany. He was a destitute 22-year-old with little hope for the future, stranded in a small town in the south of the country called Murnau. “As a refugee, I didn’t have a work permit. My only chance to survive was black labour. And where do you do that in Germany? In gastronomy. So I ended up in a damp cellar of a Bavarian tavern, washing dishes and salad.”
Three years later, his legal status changed. So he scraped money together for another two years to do a traineeship in cooking. This was the starting point of a roaring career in the food and beverage industry.
His early beginnings instilled a profound fondness for the German educational system: “I didn’t have a penny, but I ended up as a successful chef. This is something that impressed me over there. Trainees get paid, they’re independent. So I told myself: ‘If we’d bring this system to Vietnam, then we’d give young Vietnamese similar chances.’ This is how I got the idea to found Mai Sen.”
All You Need Is Confidence
At his school, trainees learn the hospitality ropes for three years, not only at Mai Sen’s own German restaurant in Binh Thanh District, but also during a one-year internship at one of several partnering 5-star hotels: Le Méridien, InterContinental, Park Hyatt, Caravelle, The Reverie… the list reads like a who’s-who of Saigon’s hospitality sector.
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. When the young Vietnamese graduate from Mai Sen, they are ready for the big, wide world.
Mai Sen receives far more applications than it can accept, but not all would-be trainees get the full support from their families.
“When a trainee comes here with the objective to become a cook or a waiter,” Francis says, “the parents often say: ‘Others go to the big city and study engineering or finance—and you want to be a cook?!’”
But when they visit and see that their children are trained in noble 5-star establishments, their eyes grow wider: “You work here?” This gives students something they’re often lacking: confidence.
These disadvantaged young people have all been brought up in poor circumstances. “They feel stupid, like punished by God, they’ve accepted poverty as their fate,” Francis describes. “This is a real inferiority complex.” Self-esteem might be the single most valuable thing Mai Sen teaches them.
Minh, Mai Sen’s shift leader, is living proof of this. He’s one of the first 21 graduates, and now provides training to young students. As his family couldn’t support him to go to college, he joined the vocational school in Saigon.
When asked about Mai Sen and its principal, his eyes sparkle:
“Francis is our teacher and also more than that. He changed my mind, he gave me a job and not only a job, but a future.”
Barkeeper Ngan, who’s also a dessert expert (ask her for a cup of panna cotta!), seconds him: “Mai Sen has changed my life,” she states. ”I never planned to work in hospitality, but when I came here, I started to see that this is just the right thing for me.”
Would Francis recommend his trainees to follow his path to Germany? “They’re free to do whatever they want, but no, I wouldn’t recommend them that. Germany has enough skilled workers. We need them here more urgently.”
He sees a lot of untapped potential in Vietnam’s hospitality sector. Well-trained gastronomic labour remains a rare commodity, and his graduates obtain an internationally recognised degree. “In the next 50 years, none of them will have to be worried about their job.”