In 2007, 19 year old Australian Tara Winkler embarked on a backpacking holiday through South-East Asia that would change not only her life forever, but that of an entire Cambodian community.
During her holiday, Tara volunteered at an orphanage in Battambang, Cambodia where the children were living in such extreme poverty that she felt compelled to do something and so returned to Australia to hold a fundraising event. After raising funds through an art auction, Tara returned to Cambodia only to learn that the orphans were being subjected to physical, emotional and sexual abuse at the hands of the orphanage director who was also using the children to embezzle donated funds. Tara says she “couldn’t turn her back on the situation” and so with the help of the Social Affairs Department, offered the kids the choice to leave the orphanage. She established the Cambodian Children’s Trust, gave the children a new home and at the age of 22, was responsible for 14 Cambodian orphans.
Seven years later the number of children supported through CCT has grown from 14 to over three hundred children and their families. As the number of children within her care grew, as did Tara’s awareness that an orphanage was not the solution that the kids of Battambang needed. In 2011, a UNICEF report found that the number of orphanages in Cambodia had doubled in a space of only five years. Many families in Cambodia are living under the poverty line, and the majority of orphanages are not only made up of orphans in the traditional sense but also children from poor families who can not afford to look after them.
CCT recognised that there were serious problems with the orphanage model and that it was in no way helping families to break free from the cycle of poverty. This lead to the realisation that the best solution was for children to be living with a family and so CCT decided to close the orphanage. The orphanage is now gone, and all of the children supported through CCT now live with a family. Foster care is found for children without families and the Trust provides support to families which enables them to keep their children with them, ensuring that the family unit remains intact.
The Cambodian Children’s Trust is now better described as a community development organisation and the focus is now on enabling the children of Battambang to break free from the cycle of poverty, and become educated, ethical and empowered future leaders of Cambodia. CCT are achieving this and creating sustainable growth for the community of Battambang through community support programs, health services, educational programmes and social enterprises.
Jaan Bai Restaurant is a social enterprise run by the Cambodian Children’s Trust which is focused on the training, professional development and employment of underprivileged youth in Battambang. All of the profits from the restaurant go to the overall sustainability of CCT and will ultimately contribute towards boosting the local economy.
Technical advisor Tom O’Sullivan works closely with each staff member to help them realize and reach their individual goals and constantly provide new learning opportunities. There is a strong focus on independent learning and the staff are continually encouraged to develop new ideas and think for themselves. This has evidently given the staff a new found confidence, and only drives their thirst for knowledge and personal development. They’re proactive in not only finding new ways to improve the overall running of the restaurant but also to improve themselves, finding and investing the time to fine craft their skills. Day in and day out they shine with such passion and enthusiasm that it’s infectious. You can feel it when you’re there, big things are happening at Jaan Bai and it kept me there for hours on end, just wanting to be apart of it. To the people of Jaan Bai, this is more than just a job, it’s an opportunity for a better future.
It’s not only the training and business model of Jaan Bai that’s impressive; just wait until you try the food. The staff have had the opportunity to train with Chef David Thompson of Nahm, regarded as Asia’s best restaurant and Sydney restauranteur John Fink, of Quay and Otto who have been backing and working with the restaurant since conception. The quality of the menu is indisputable and the influence from David Thompson speaks through the South-East Asian dishes which in line with Khmer tradition are encouraged to be eaten through sharing. All of the dishes are made using local produce as well as organic ingredients grown by CCT at their Kitchen Garden, a project teaching children within the program about sustainable agriculture and how to grow their own food.
I ate my way through the menu during my time at Jaan Bai, and while I can tell you every single dish is worth trying, you definitely, under no circumstances, want to go there without eating the beef ribs. My god. The ribs. Twice cooked coconut braised beef ribs that are so ridiculously good, they would send even Gordon Ramsay into submission. There’s also the Kampot Pepper Crab with Chilli Jam which is equally delicious. I think the staff secretly enjoyed watching my fight to make sure no piece of tender crab flesh was left behind, but the act of cracking and breaking the shell in the hunt to find and suck the flesh from the shell only makes the dish that more satisfying.