THE HISTORY OF ONE CHEF AT A TIME
Brian Pern, co-founder of One Chef at a Time (OCaaT), traces its history back to the day on which he read a newspaper article – he thinks it was in the British paper, the Daily Telegraph – about what a wild frontier town Mae Sot was. This was in about 2007.
Mae Sot, in Tak Province in Thailand, is close to the border with Myanmar, and is noted for its large population of Burmese refugees.
Soon after reading that article, and while driving home to Chiang Mai from Bangkok, he happened to see a road sign pointing to Mae Sot. He has a spare-time interest in photography. On impulse, he decided to visit the town.
He walked into a joint called the Aya-Bar and got talking to its Burmese owner. He learned that this bar owner also owned and ran a school for 90 refugee children. Brian visited the school; it provided the rudiments of education, and an NGO fed the children once a day. Perhaps not entirely surprisingly, it lacked almost all basic facilities.
He later raised some money and had a much needed bathroom facility installed there, plus a well pump, water tanks, and a water purification system. He has continued to visit and support the school ever since, usually arriving with a pile of blankets or a trunk full of food or something else of immediate use.
A waiter at the I-Bar later took him to visit a refugee camp to see his family. There, and subsequently at orphanages and other voluntary schools, he saw homeless and stateless people with no rights at all. It made an impression. And as he gained the trust of the bar owner, who now had a modern bathroom in his school, he learned that some of the bar’s patrons were former political prisoners in Myanmar.
He started to meet other people in Mae Sot, and this, in retrospect, was how OCaaT began. He met a destitute Burmese named Joe, who spoke some English. Joe had spent time in a refugee camp in Thailand after making his way across the border, and told Brian that he wanted to become a chef.
Thinking this over, it seemed to Brian that he simply could not do nothing. It might turn out to be inconvenient and it would certainly mean extra work, but he was unquestionably in a position to pass on skills that could change Joe’s life entirely – provided Joe was sincere in his expressed wish to learn. Brian decided to take a chance.
It took a while to arrange matters such that Joe could legally move away from the Mae Sot district. But once that was done, he was driven to Chiang Mai, found a room to live in, and began to work and to be trained in Pern’s Restaurant. He did well, and in time he moved on and moved up. (So far, it has not been hard for any graduates of Brian’s training courses to find work that pays a living wage.)
Now, a few years after his graduation, Joe is second chef in a brigade of nine at a first class restaurant in Yangon, back in Myanmar, and is training to become head chef. He has married and has a daughter and remains sincerely grateful for the chance he was given.
Six more trainees have followed in Joe’s footsteps. One now owns a bakery. One has a cooking stall. Another was in charge of 26 chefs after training at the Shangri-La Hotel in Yangon. One has remained at Pern’s Bistro and Bar, as it is now called.
Brian’s Thai is less than fluent, and a trainee fluent in English would be most unusual. So the training is mostly done by demonstration, and the trainees record what they see.
And that, briefly, is the history of OCaaT.
For the future, Brian’s wish is to greatly increase the number of trainees he can help. Seven over a period of a few years is a lot better than none, but he would like each year to help dozens of candidates who hope only to be given the same chance that Joe was given.
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