Worthy Cause Alert: Streets International, Training Vietnamese Kids Culinary Arts

Neal Bermas holds a Ph.D. in policy and management and worked with blue chip companies like Disney and Sheraton while teaching at the Institute of Culinary Education. His life was on the fast track to a beach on Maui when he left the United States in 2007 to relocate to Hoi An, an ancient port city located along Vietnam's central coast. The region is spectacularly beautiful in parts, but also spectacularly different from Manhattan.

As Bermas and I walk around Hoi An's tightly woven lanes in late February, he explains how he had to build a bathroom in the house he was renting (it was not included with the lease). We pass street vendors selling bowls of steaming mi quang as we walk to the offices and classrooms of Streets International, a non-profit that he has run for the past five years. Streets is a hospitality prep school for poor, many times orphaned, Vietnamese teenagers. And for Bermas, a straight talker who prides himself on getting things done, there wasn't time to focus on the creature comforts of NYC living. Work was to be done nearly 10,000 miles away.

The rigorous 18-month program at Streets is designed to teach students the skills needed to acquire jobs in the many nearby hotels. Early on, along with English language courses, students are provided lessons in hospitality basics, before picking between concentrations in front-of-the-house or back-of-the-house. Once students complete the introductory course work, they work in the Streets restaurant located in the heart of Hoi An's historical district. The restaurant, run primarily by the students, serves classic Vietnamese dishes like banh mi (banquette sandwiches), banh xeo (crepes stuffed with shrimp) and the city's most-prized dish, cau lau.

Bermas points out that in developing economies, the tourism business is often the largest sector for growth, giving these trained students an advantage to rise within the booming hotel business. And, in fact, he proudly says that his placement rate is 100 percent and he just started his fifth class.

But as anybody from the non-profit world knows, running these types of programs takes some serious money — much of which is raised in this case at the annual Streets International Gala, being held on Wednesday, May 1 at Astor Center in Manhattan. Tickets range from $100-$225 and include bites from some heavy hitter chefs. Also, for the first time, two Streets students will travel from Vietnam to participate in the event. Tickets can be purchased from the event website.

Participating chefs include:

• Robert Newton, Nightingale 9

• Michael Chernow & Daniel Holzman, The Meatball Shop

• Kenny Callaghan, Blue Smoke & Jazz Standard

• Floyd Cardoz, North End Grill

• Josh Eden, August

• King Phojanakong, Kuma Inn

• Ratha Chaupoly & Ben Daitz, Num Pang

• Edi Frauneder & Wolfgang Ban, Edi & The Wolf

• Joe Quintana, Rosa Mexicano

• Pete Vasconcellos, The Penrose (Mixologist)