Aimee Lawrence sits down with Ye’Nanda Khin to hear how in the face of adversity he became a force to be reckoned with.
Rising from the eastern shore of Kandawgyi Lake, Karaweik Hall is spectacular, even under the overcast skies marking the arrival of the monsoon season. Its majestic form, which sits fronted by the two gilded bodies of the mythical karavika bird, is a view Ye’Nanda Khin indulges in daily.
The 29-year-old’s ‘edgy’ appearance, by Burmese standards, can be said to be as noteworthy as this famous landmark that the Executive Chef has claimed as his work place for one year.
The large earlobe flesh tunnel and the dynamic sleeve tattoo he wears with unapologetic pride are centric to his story that began a decade ago. The stereotypes and prejudice he battled on account of the stigma attached to modern body modifications, became the driving force behind his rapid progress, which has seen him cook for, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and clinch the highest position in the industry in just ten years.
“I was written off as a ‘gypsy’ because of the way I looked,” Ye’Nanda recalls. “Ten years ago, tattoos were a taboo, and the older, more traditional generation believed it must mean you are a gangster or something like that.
“I wanted to become a chef after briefly following in my father’s footsteps as a seaman. I traveled to Malaysia, Singapore and China and found that you couldn’t get Burmese cuisine abroad. I wanted to specialise in Myanmar traditional cuisine and modernise the dishes so that one day our food could be as popular as Thai food is in other countries.
“I had a strong goal and ambition, but in the chef community I wasn’t at first accepted. I saw it as a challenge to prove myself and show my work colleagues that I was even more serious than they were. I wanted to change out-dated attitudes and create a modern chef personality, like the chefs I saw on TV who had tattoos.”
It was a challenge he capped in his first placement at the Sedona Hotel, where he closed the ranks from cook to Commis 1 in just under three years. “I applied myself and it paid off. People took me seriously then, but some weren’t so happy with my fast-track promotion. It came quicker to me than most, so the standard of the work of my peers looked slow. I raised the bar and it caused some resentment.”
The pull of the Andaman Sea beckoned, with Ye’Nanda being promoted to Demi Chef of a kitchen on board a naval training vessel in Malaysia. His finesse in this role of responsibility was quickly recognised, and after three months he was promoted to the Bella Vista Hotel in Langkawi – an archipelago in Malaysia – where he would specialise in Western cuisine.
As quickly as the depths of the ocean lured him overseas, he was drawn to return to his homeland in the advent of Myanmar’s momentous New Year water festival celebration, Thingyan. “I couldn’t miss Thingyan. I’m really proud of my country and the water festival is the most important celebration of the year for us. Many other Burmese people do the same. We all rush to get home and be back with our families and friends to celebrate.”
Since his brief, yet valuable stint overseas, Ye’Nanda has chosen to remain in Myanmar, working toward his goal of modernising Burmese national dishes.
This natural ease he displays in the kitchen, feeds fluently into his fragrant dishes. It is an attribute savoured by the woman who spearheaded the nation’s laboured ongoing fight for democracy, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
“We have a saying in Myanmar that once you have a piece of your own life history, you can die peacefully happy,” he reflects.
It was during her fifteen years of house arrest that Ye’Nanda was first selected, as head chef at the Sedona Hotel, to prepare a prawn curry for the much-loved Nobel Peace Prize winner. It was a request he honoured on five occasions.
“When I found out I was cooking for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, for sure I put extra love and care into the dish. She got a generous helping. Her father, Bogyoke Aung San, is the father of our country and she is continuing on fighting for democracy and the rights of her people. She sacrificed many years of her life for us by choosing not to leave Myanmar and to stay here under house arrest.
“I never dreamed that I would be cooking for such a heroine. I now have a piece of history so I can die happy.”
He is quick to state that his life experience, which is pivotal to his personal and private life, isn’t something he reels off in the company of others. It’s a source of great pride, but pride he wears with humility.
A box full of medals and a folder’s worth of certificates, vouch for his abilities in the fast-paced hectic arena of the kitchen. As a valuable member of Myanmar Chefs, he helped bring home the bronze medal, and win most popular national food in the recent Third Thailand Culinary World Challenge in Bangkok.
“The flavours of Myanmar won that day. Ten other countries took part so this is such a proud moment for our team. It goes back to why I wanted to become a chef. Our national food couldn’t really be found elsewhere in Southeast Asia. To be able to show off our culinary skills in Bangkok will put us on the map.”
When he isn’t found in the underbelly of Karaweik Hall, carving up an evening’s feast, as a member of the Myanmar Chef association he is very much involved in working with the local community.
He is involved in various charitable causes, including working with the Yangon School for the Blind, the Free Funeral Service Society and traveling to the conflict affected Rakhine state.
He may well have satisfied the taste buds of Myanmar’s political heroine, but what lies in wait for the 29-year-old Executive Chef at the top of his game?
“I’d love to have my own restaurant in five years’ time,” He confesses. “It would be traditional Burmese dishes but with a twist here and there. And I’ll definitely be covered with more tattoos.”
The inked-up, punk music loving ‘gypsy’ from Mayangone Township has surprised his nearest and dearest with his fireball career. His success is a just dessert for the persistent doggedness he has applied since he first set foot in the heat of the kitchen.