Minutes after leaving the jetty, some 65 chefs are getting a taste of the “disaster cooking” that Oliver E. Soe Thet has promised. Monsoon rains whip against the weathered ferry, gales beat against its ripped tarpaulin, the sky concedes its pre-dawn darkness to a miserable grey.
Oliver, a tireless 57-year-old German chef who has lived in Myanmar for over two decades, swerves between three teams dressed in black Mandarin collar shirts and carrot-colored pants. Expectedly rumpled, Oliver speaks with urgency to the chefs, who chop carrots, tear basil, scoop onions into big metal pots, and stir stew with wooden paddles.
By 6.30am the old boat is an open kitchen wafting hearty aromas down a silty colonial-era canal: a kitchen floating between the Yangon and Ayeyarwady rivers that in one go has taken 8,000 orders. As soy sauce is squeezed by the bottle-load on the lower deck, flags of about 25 nations flutter on the tier above.
Malaysia; Iceland; China; Germany; USA; Hong Kong; Norway; Taiwan; all and more are represented in World Chefs Without Borders (WCWB) Humanitarian Myanmar Tour 2018, a whirlwind cook-a-thon that fed 4,000 people outside Yangon’s landmark Shwedagon Pagoda on June 10 and now, a day later, is heading for the Ayeyarwady Delta.
Ten years ago Myanmar’s worst natural disaster on record, Cyclone Nargis, tore through the region, destroying crops, animals, and bamboo and thatch homes. Nearly 140,000 people were killed and 2.4 million were severely affected. Within days Oliver, president of the Myanmar Chefs Association, was delivering aid and cash to the survivors, fusing the relationships that eventually led to this trip.
He looks to the river banks, the rusty hulls giving way to a stretch of lush green interrupted by the odd golden stupa, and reflects that much development has taken place since the cyclone—medical clinics established, shelters built, homes rebuilt.
But the delta is still poor and relatively isolated. Sold on the idea of helping, the chefs each donated 1,000 euros and paid their own travel expenses for the tour; now they are about to discover how much the villages appreciate the visit.
Nepalese chef Kumar Chalise, 39, sticks his head through a black bin bag, a hip trend on the boat since the heavens opened. “I saved up my salary for five months to represent Nepal,” he laughs. “I am happy and excited to be involved with world chefs.” Nearby, his comrades sing cheerfully and pin red noses on each other in the downpour.
About 20 of the 150 orphans living at a local monastery wait at Twante, a delta town known for its pottery, ancient pagoda, and association with George Orwell, who served here as a colonial police officer. The monastery’s head monk rescued many of the boys as he combed the aftermath of Nargis. One of them, shy 14-year-old Myat Phone Nady, survived the storm surge by clinging on to two corpses. He was four years old. “Now I want to be a doctor,” he says. “I want to look after our people.”
The boys receive colorful Shan cotton bags filled with stationery and toothbrushes before the chefs jump aboard to tie up 4,000 bags of meals for the next village.
Norwegian ambassador for WCWB, Kristine Ovrebo, who trains cooking apprentices in the Norwegian Navy, is one of two female chefs on the tour. Many of her colleagues are at a fancy food conference in Italy, “and I am here,” she says, sipping an energy drink. “They’re two opposites. The contrast is something to think about.”
Kristine helped judge a Myanmar food contest at an exhibition on June 6-8. She had time to soak in Yangon culture, see people sharing laphet thote and paratha in the teashops. “They are also around food on the streets. That brings people here together, and I really like that.”
The stew has brought a motorboat to the ferry, with its crew reaching out to transfer the meals and chefs back to Napyaw Su village. Slicing through the choppy waters, the boat reaches a small pier lined either side by school children all the way down to a pagoda hall where a band plays to a sitting audience. Everyone, though, has their backs to the musicians, facing two tables of world chefs, ostensibly the real rock stars.
Some cooks are speechless, others beaming, but when the formalities are over their instincts kick in: time to feed people. They man a frontline of rice sacks and begin serving rice and stew along with a green bag of essentials: 1 kilogram salt; 120 grams green tea; two kilograms rice; toothpaste and brush; soap; fish paste.
The crowd cheers and claps and the whole giveaway flits close to chaos. In theory, feeding 4,000 people is a commendable action perhaps done in a few swift dollops. In reality it is a messy, Herculean task—rice is missing from some boxes, bags leak, but, supported by a bobbing trail of boxes carried up the pier, the chefs pull it off.
“Donations like this have happened in the past, but never on this scale,” says 70-year-old local Daw Min Sein, whose farm and home were razed by Nargis. “We are very thankful and happy.” Zayar Myon Zim, 25, a primary school teacher, jokes that WCWB should come more often.
With the tour one year in the making and the team chugging energy drinks like the elixir of life, Zayar Myon Zim may have to wait some time. Kayin Kyaung village, on the other hand, is an hour or so away.
Among the thousands of people greeting the party here are a few faces familiar to Oliver, who lingers by the pier. The crowds began gathering at 9am and the school students rushed to the jetty when the bell rang.
Once past the jam and into a community center on the river bank, a pair of Icelandic and American chefs look down at the remaining 4,000 meals and embrace, their hard work almost over. Outside, the heavens open again, triggering the crowd to open their umbrellas in tortoise formation like a Roman battalion.
Taiwanese chef Jimmy Chang Chen Ming, 68, is taking a breather next to a bucket brigade passing portions of rice to the entrance. Would it be more practical to transport the food and supplies—or perhaps even just cash—via a group of low-key volunteers? Why the fanfare?
“Because we are World Chef Association members, we have a community that wants to donate to humanity,” answers Jimmy. “We are chefs; we want to cook for the people. The money is a different way of thinking.” What is important is not the food but the fact there are “chefs from 25 countries who want to come to Myanmar and cook for the Myanmar people.”
Pots and barrels used to cook the food are donated to this final village, and a veteran dentist who is traveling aboard takes some supplies to the local hospital.
On the way back to Yangon, Oliver encourages each chef to help release 50,000 native fish from a local farm into the river. Beyond the silvery school sliding down the tarpaulin is a boat carrying women and children smiling gleefully as they point at their green bags.
Oliver sits down, finally. The folks waiting for him at the pier included a young boy with large, sad eyes who his family supported with books and clothes over the years. Another was a mango farmer whose ripe crop was ruined by the cyclone, almost costing him a livelihood until Oliver and MCA gave him an interest-free micro loan and other support.
“He was waiting there with sheets of dried mango as a reminder of this,” croaks Oliver. “I didn’t know that he would come. Emotions.” His bulky shoulders shake and he cries. All the chefs agree: it’s about more than food.