He may well be at the forefront of Yangon’s culinary renaissance, but the man behind the city’s best restaurant admits the hard work starts now.

“We have to keep on delivering, people have an expectation,” said U Ye Htut Win, known to most people as Sharky.

“We have the responsibility to keep up to that reputation and that is the hardest part.”

He was speaking after Sharky’s was named Restaurant of the Year at the MYANMORE Dining and Nightlife Awards 2017.

The Yangon institution, famed for its delicious organic artisan food, beat off strong competition from Rangoon Tea House, Gekko, Le Planteur, and Shan Yoe Yar to win the inaugural award, which was sponsored by VISA.

It was one of four prizes won by Sharky’s this year, including Best Pizza Restaurant, Best Western Cuisine, and Best Express, Deli and Bakery. The awards for this year’s event were held in a glitzy ceremony at the Chatrium Hotel with more than 900 participants – a record in the event’s four-year history.

“Of course it’s great to win and to get the recognition, especially with so many other good competitors,” the silver-haired Sharky added. “I told my staff that if we win, they would get a good bonus. But the hard work begins now. It’s like climbing a mountain. Reaching the top is very tough but going down is equally important,” he said.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that a man who learnt his culinary trade in Switzerland – he ran a cocktail bar and nightclub in Geneva – should use an Alpine analogy to describe the challenges that lie ahead.

What is surprising is that Sharky, named for his sharp-edged ambition and who toiled for years to set up his business under Myanmar’s former military regime, should admit the hardest part is yet to come. He says that Yangon’s exploding restaurant scene will undoubtedly provide his biggest challenge.

“When I first started, it was pretty much me and no one else. It was hard work but there was very little competition. Now, Yangon and Myanmar’s restaurant scene is developing so fast, especially as more money and investors pour in. Taxes are rising and so are costs. To compete and survive, you have to be the best,” he said. So how will Sharky’s continue to be the best?

“Sharky’s concept is based on ingredients. Our ingredients shine through and it is my dream to produce all our ingredients here in Myanmar. At the moment it’s 85 percent. I want to be able to give the best paints I can to the chefs so they can create their masterpieces,” he said.

And he admits it’s a shark-eat-shark world in the restaurant business, wherever you are in the world. “Two out of every three restaurants fail so not every Tom and Jerry can open a restaurant and make a success of it,” he warned.

As the son of a Burmese diplomat, Sharky says his nomadic upbringing in Britain, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, and the United Arab Emirates helped shape his culinary influences and prepared him for the restaurant industry. After returning to his native country two decades ago to “work on the land”, Sharky recruited rice farmers from three villages in the delta of the Irrawaddy River and introduced them to exotic foods.

He experimented with milk from Indian buffaloes brought to the country during its days as a British colony. The dairy farmers were descendants of  Indian Muslims who had come to Burma with their buffaloes.

He initially smuggled in his equipment and ingredients from Thailand.

In 1996, Sharky began selling salads and vegetables from his family home. He experimented with seeds from across Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. His first restaurant was opened in 2007.

Not only does he have a head start on most newcomers, but he also has loyal customer support including that of Aung San Suu Kyi.

“She ordered some of our yoghurt just the other week,” he said.

“But it doesn’t matter who you are, people know that with Sharky’s, the food has been healthily produced and will be very good quality.”

Sharky’s, which has long been a favourite among residents and visitors alike thanks to its delicious dishes and products made using fresh, locally sourced ingredients, is steadily expanding. In Yangon, there are two shops, on Inya Road and at Marketplace, and two restaurants with delis attached, on Dhammazeddi Road and Pansodan Road. There is also a restaurant in Bagan with an on-site vegetable and aromatic herb farm.

Sharky’s hugely popular downtown outlet in a renovated colonial building is a personal favorite of the owner, who helped save it from demolition.

The 120-year-old property was originally a high-end department store and boasts high ceilings supported by Scottish beams and Lancashire steel. After a painstaking yearlong restoration, it is now a buzzing environment at the heart of Yangon’s restaurant scene.

Not only is 56-year-old Sharky determined to preserve Yangon’s heritage but also the country’s culinary legacy.

“I have an ongoing project of an artisanal factory outside of Yangon, which I’m making into a food destination. From start to finish: flour is grown in Shan state, stone mill from Germany, milk turned into cheese, the meat turned into sausages. All in one site. You can see and take food tours when it’s finished,” he said.

He also has ambitious plans to cultivate olive tree plantations in a valley near Bagan.

“We are trying out some Italian olive trees using biodynamic techniques from Israel. If they work then we’ll create a plantation. The valley, which I call the ‘Bagan Valley’, has its own micro-climate so we are hopeful.”

He added that a plantation of the Tree of Life could well be his longstanding legacy.

“They can live for more than 1,000 years. That would be some legacy,” he said.

For now, he’ll have to make do with the here and now and owning Yangon’s best restaurant in 2017


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