“The first drink I ever made was a Martini,” Hung Sung says. “I chose it because I like the strong flavour of Vodka.”
Hung reaches for a bottle of Smirnoff and removes the cap. Behind him a range of all sorts of liquors sits idle. It’s a quiet, warm Hanoian afternoon, the kind of day that pairs well with a nice smooth martini.
Hung is from Mu Cang Chai in Vietnam’s Yen Bai province. It’s a popular tourist destination for locals and foreigners alike. It’s rice terraces, carved into the mountains, have served as the backdrop of thousands of photographs of people from all over the world, particularly when the rice matures and yellows in the Autumn.
Yen Bai, however, is also known as a particularly poor province. A mostly agrarian economy, despite huge strides in its development, poverty is still common.
Hung brushes the hair out of his eyes with his shoulder. His hands are occupied adding vermouth to the vodka already in a glass jar. He adds ice. He adds a long, twisted stirrer and he goes to work.
“Of course, there's a secret to making the perfect martini,” says Hung coyly as he ferociously stirs the contents of the shaker.
“To do it just right you need to stir super fast,” he says. “But more importantly you need to be consistent.”
Consistency isn’t just important behind the bar but it’s also a big part of KOTO training.
A lot of KOTO trainees come from homes and lives that have been anything but consistent. For many, working at KOTO’s flagship restaurant KOTO Villa is the first, formal full time job they’ve ever had - many have had unstable, unreliable jobs in Vietnam’s informal sector selling trinkets or tea on the streets of Vietnam’s cities, often hard, sometimes dangerous.
As a result, the routine trainees find at KOTO is more than welcome.
“I like that when I get back to the dorms after a hard day that I have so many friends to talk to. There is always someone there to listen. It’s like my second family,” Hung says.
The liquid whirls around inside the glass jar. A whirlpool forms and then Hung, sensing his martini mix is just about right, stops stirring and lets it settle. He dumps the ice from the martini glass sitting on the black marble bar into the sink. The glass is chilled, frosty.
“The glass has to be cold,” he says. “Icy cold.”
He finds his strainer, he covers the jar and then he upends it vermouth and vodka pouring into the glass. He adds a toothpick with three olives. The final piece of the martini puzzle. A martini that looks almost too good and is a shining example of what you can do with the right ingredients: great teachers, a fantastic curriculum, and an ambitious young man from Mu Cang Chai.
You can help train more at-risk young people just like Hung by donating here: https://tinyurl.com/yzv5eewp