Nikki Barltrop, Chief Operating Officer of 57 Below and its caravans; Gekko, Parami Pizza and 57 Below Catering as well as working alongside Pun & Projects at Port Autonomy, has spent a lot of time in supporting and promoting sustainability and environmental awareness in Myanmar such as the Straws Suck campaign, Thant Myanmar, Farm-to-Table initiatives and many more. She has been claimed as an ambassador of Myanmar’s F&B industry by her peers for her honest food reviews about restaurants, and is committed to developing her teams, and most importantly, helping them to grow, and succeed together. She often invites guest bartenders and chefs from overseas to do “Pop Ups” here in Myanmar, and hosts events to endorse the lead in the game. This year, Nikki won the Special Contribution to Excellence award 2019 by Myanmore Awards for her dedication towards the promotion and development of excellence within the organisation and beyond. Verily, Nikki is a nice, lovely and friendly lady. Min Ye Kyaw runs into her at Port Autonomy to discuss her passion, journey towards the future and plans ahead. Photos by Zwe Wint Htet.
What is your background?
I was what you might call an “Expat Brat” and I lived overseas before I was a teenager. My family moved back to the UK where I studied and worked until the recession hit in 2009. I’d just come back from an amazing trip to Burning Man and the idea of getting back into the daily London grind wasn’t appealing at all, so when I was made redundant I took it as a sign that I needed a change of scenery, and I took a role revamping and reopening a couple of prestigious F&B projects in Beirut.
What motivated you to get into F&B?
My mum is one of the most hospitable people you could meet and not to mention, an amazing cook. When I was growing up she used to throw these big, extravagant dinner parties which I longed to be involved in. I started working as a waitress when I was a teenager for some extra cash to help fund my travels, and although I ended up studying something else at university, I knew that hospitality was where my heart was.
Tell us about your career path. How did you end up in Myanmar?
I was managing gastropubs and high street restaurants in London from the age of 21 and realised that I had a lot more to learn, so I applied for a job with Gordon Ramsay, whom I spent four years working for. This in turn led to a job managing a high profile private members club in London, and subsequently into 5 star hotels across the Middle East and Southeast Asia. I visited Yangon on holiday, and when a friend posted on Facebook that his friend was looking for someone to head up his restaurant operations here, I leapt at the chance.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
I love my job, no two days are the same, which is great as I get bored very easily. There are a lot of variables that all come into play which can be frustrating sometimes, but then the same things that drive me nuts are often the same things I love, with the exception of the non-stop power cuts!
What is the key to developing a good team?
Hiring the right people and looking after your team. I am so lucky to work with some incredibly talented people. I’m sure I am not the easiest person to work at times, but I think they know me well enough by now to know how much I value them and what a great job they do. I trust, and support them, and try to ensure that we give them the tools to grow and develop with us. Whilst I am always sad when people leave us, nothing makes me happier than to see them go onto achieving great things and I hope they know I am always there to support however possible.
Can you explain the Straws Suck (Zero Plastic) campaign?
Whilst plastic pollution is a global issue, I live in Myanmar and its impossible not to notice its impact here. Straws, for the most part, are totally unnecessary and are just so wasteful. I did the maths and calculated how many straws we would save from going into the bin over a year and was shocked. The great thing about Yangon is that it is quite a small scene and it is possible to make an impact, however small, with a campaign like this. I’m keen to do some more work with Thant Myanmar, and try to spread the message to the broader Yangon restaurant and tea shop community. We would love to get the Myanmar restaurant association on board to help with this as there is a lot of work to be done, not just on straws, but single use plastics as a whole.
What did you think about winning the Myanmore special award for contribution to excellence?
It was a huge surprise and I was really touched and honoured to win it. I was so excited that Puia (our bar manager at Gekko) had won something that I didn’t hear them call out my name, so I was shocked when my name came up on the screen. So many people had lovely things to say to me about it and it was all quite embarrassing to be honest, but it was a really fun night and I was very flattered to be honoured by my peers this way.
What are your thoughts on the F&B scene here?
The change in the F&B scene from when I arrived 3.5 years ago is huge. You have any number of events to attend on any given day of the week. I love the increasing creativity and talent coming onto the scene and just wish I had more time to check everything out!
What is your vision for 57 below? Any upcoming plans?
2019 was a year to consolidate our operations and work alongside Pun & Projects to bring Port Autonomy back and make it a success. We are always looking for opportunities for growth, especially the Parami brand as I think there is still a huge potential there. We are also back at Wonderfruit in Thailand again this year, and this time we have the main stage which will be even crazier than ever. It is so great seeing so many people from the Yangon community in the fields, I can’t wait to do it all over again!
What are your hobbies?
I love travelling and have been lucky to be able to visit some incredible places, both here in Myanmar as well as overseas over the past few years. I am also an avid reader and have bought pretty much every English language book (and a few French ones) from the lovely book seller outside of Gekko. I especially like reading books that are set here in Myanmar or written by Burmese authors. Oh, and eating and drinking of course – I think I’m pretty much at Olympic skill level for that now! I especially enjoy trying regional, traditional Myanmar dishes – its just so diverse and I’m always learning new flavour combinations and being introduced to new ingredients or cooking techniques.
Have you thought about leaving Myanmar?
I love Myanmar, it really is my home. There is a great energy here and I can’t imagine living anywhere else for now. I am lucky to have a Yangon “family” in my team, not to mention a great group of friends, so I don’t have plans to leave anytime soon.
Find Nikki, usually, at Port Autonomy on Strand Road.