The Academy of Culinary Arts turns out the top chefs needed to feed the millions of international tourists visiting the country, writes Daniel Kalinaki.
Tourism is the heartbeat of Cambodia’s economy. The number of international tourists visiting the south-east Asian country rose from 300,000 in 1998 to 6.6 million in 2019, according to the Ministry of Tourism.
Attracted by historic temples in Angkor Wat, a 400-square kilometer UNESCO world heritage site, and by luxury hotels and casinos on the seaside in Sihanoukville, the tourists make up more than three quarters of Cambodia’s services exports, and a fifth of total exports of goods and services.
The growth of tourism has powered investments in supporting infrastructure, including the $2 billion Sihanoukville expressway, a $1.5bn international airport in the capital, Phnom Penh, and two smaller multi-million-dollar airports elsewhere in the country. This, in turn, has triggered private investment in the hotel and hospitality industry, reaffirming the Cambodian government’s tourism development masterplan, which seeks to turn the country into a destination for top-end tourists who spend more.
However, investment in tourism industry requires software to run, including high-end chefs to work hotel and restaurant kitchens. But top chefs able to serve world-class cuisine to discerning tourists have always been hard to come by, says Pierre Tami, who arrived in Cambodia as a diplomat in 1990.
“People came in off the streets to clean restaurants and quickly turned into chefs,” he says, “but they lacked training in safe and hygienic management of food as well as planning and creating menus.”
The few professionally trained chefs were constantly poached from one establishment to another, leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of facility owners and their guests.
Tami, who became a social entrepreneur after leaving the diplomatic service, saw an opportunity to train chefs to fill this gap. “I was told that it was impossible to set up the school,” he says. Shaken but not stirred, he pushed ahead with a cocktail of partners.
From 2014 work began on renovating a property in the heart of Phnom Penh and fitting it out with kitchen equipment, with support from the Enhanced Integrated Framework’s Cambodia Export Diversification and Expansion Program II.
The Swiss Hotel Management Academy in Lucerne was signed on as a technical partner to develop the curriculum and ensure that students in Cambodia would receive the same world-class hospitality training undergone by their peers in Switzerland and elsewhere.
When it opened in 2017, the Academy of Culinary Arts in Phnom Penh was the first of its kind in Cambodia. The first lot of 29 students was admitted on a two-year diploma program, followed by another 51 students a few months later, and 103 a year on. By early 2022 it had graduated 436 students, including some from outside Cambodia.
Cooking up careers
Tit Makara, a twentysomething Cambodian woman, has always loved cooking. So as soon as she finished high school, Makara went straight from classroom to kitchen.
Makara was one of the first female graduates from the diploma program. After internships, including one in the Middle East, she returned to Cambodia and, together with a fellow graduate from the academy, set up a pastry business during the Covid-19 pandemic.
With the pastry business now profitable and under the care of her colleague, Makara has now rejoined the academy as a junior instructor to teach the next generation of Cambodian chefs. “I know how hard it is in the beginning,” she says, “but I want to show others that it can be done.”
Although only a few years old, there is already a sweet aroma of success wafting out of the cooking school. Ninety-five percent of graduates reported a positive view of the academy’s quality and effectiveness according to an audit of the program. The starting salary for graduates is about two times that of graduates from other vocational training institutes, and demand for the trained chefs far outstrips the supply.
The academy, which now boasts 25 staff members, has now, on top of the two-year diploma, rolled out five upskilling and six short courses for on-the-job trainees.
For Tami, it is about higher pay and higher ideals. “It is about giving dignity to people by giving them the skills they can use to get jobs and earn a decent income, as opposed to merely turning them into the working poor”, he says.
With the concept proven, attention has now turned to expansion and sustainability. Tami is replicating the model in Afghanistan, and there is interest from partners in Indonesia, Myanmar and India – proof that other developing countries can expand and diversify their export earnings by improving the skills in and the revenue from the tourism and hospitality industries.
Cambodia also offers lessons on sustainability. The academy was started as a public-private partnership but has now been taken over by the Cambodia tourism and hospitality industry players. “It means that they can benefit from government funding while managing it as a private sector entity,” Tami says.
In 2019 the Cambodian government estimated there were 800,000 people employed in the tourism sector and announced plans to raise this number to one million. These plans were, as elsewhere, held back by the coronavirus pandemic – Chhay Sivlin, head of the Cambodia Association of Travel Agents estimates that 3,500 locations closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The reopening of the economy is warming things up again. Ninety-five thousand international tourists visited in the first two months of 2022, up 131% from the previous year, and the number continues to grow as economies elsewhere lift travel restrictions.
The World Bank estimates that the number of people living below the poverty line in Cambodia dropped by 1.9% every year between 2009 and 2019. Tourism is key to this economic transformation.
One in four jobs created in Cambodia is in the tourism and hospitality industry. Initiatives like the academy that raise the skills of workers enables them to earn more money, climb above the poverty line, and raise overall standards of living.
With its temples and breathtaking scenery in Siem Reap, Angkor Wat and elsewhere, Cambodia remains a top draw and a feast for the soul for tourists. And when they sit down to dine in one of the country’s many resorts and restaurants more and more of them will be feasting out of the hands of chefs like Makara trained at the academy.