It was a sunny October afternoon when MYANMORE’s writer arrived at Le Cellier, the culinary jewel of Novotel Yangon Max. Its new director and head chef Joseph was busy with a photo shoot of his new menu. “Just a moment,” he requested with a smile.

Friendly and down-to-earth, Joseph has already found success in the tight-knit community of Yangon’s F&B industry since the mid-2010s. He enjoyed popularity after appearing as one of the three no-nonsense judges of the latest season of MasterChef Myanmar last year. His camaraderie with fellow judges, eye for talent and insistence on nothing but the best from contestants made him an instant household name.

After cooking for the photo shoot, he was finally free for the interview and the conversation began.

So, let’s give our readers a little background.

I have been passionate about cooking since young. I was born and raised in Kyaukme (a town in northern Shan State). We ate simple food. We lived a simple life. We didn’t keep a fridge at home. Everything was freshly bought, prepared and enjoyed. I was in charge of cooking breakfast for our household. Looking back, my desire to use fresh ingredients started in the family kitchen.

Chef Joseph and Team Le Cellier. (His Facebook)

Fast forward, I opened a teashop in Mandalay for three years after graduating from the university. I loved seeing people enjoy the meals I prepared. Best feeling in the world. The business was good but I wanted more from cooking. My brother was working in Singapore at the time. So, I brought my savings and moved to Singapore to go to a culinary school. It was around 2008. One thing led to another and here I am.

How would you describe your first experience working in a professional kitchen?

Brutal! (laughs) During my second year of culinary school, we had on-the-job training. There were various options, including catering and bistros. I chose fine dining because it demanded complete mastery of cooking from bread to desserts and I believed I was up to the task.

I still remember the first of training. I reached there around 8:30 in the morning. The job was done around 10:30 at night and I missed both lunch and dinner! I lost track of time completely. These kitchens are like complex machines. Each piece has a purpose and must move at an exact time. If the timing was out, the whole process went out of order. No place for mistakes. Trainees were especially pushed hard as the saying goes: A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.

As I said before, fine dining chefs must be up to every challenge. So, if you handle canapes today, be prepared for desserts or something else tomorrow. Everything you make must have consistent taste and quality. This is what makes diners come back. Fine dining is not just meals arranged on fancy plates. It’s a culmination of training, experience and passion of the whole kitchen team.

You also worked as a judge at MasterChef Myanmar. What’s your view on the representation of chefs in popular culture?

I think it’s very positive. Shows like MasterChef raise awareness of this profession and the industry as a whole. No matter who wins the contest, the coaching and the exposure the contestants gain are priceless. So it’s a win-win.

When I first came back to Myanmar, people didn’t recognise cooking as an art. They would say to me: “You studied cooking in Singapore? Are you out of your mind?” (laughs) I didn’t blame them. To them, people who came back from foreign countries usually brought engineering or medical degrees with them. Now they realise cooking is a form of art and chefs are more than glorified cooks. It’s all thanks to shows such as MasterChef and, of course, K-drama.

You’ve been back in Myanmar for eight years and worked at many prestigious places. How did the industry change?

A lot. Now the Western market is dwindling and we focus on the local. So we made a few tweaks around the traditional dishes. As you might know, most people love hot food. We have to find a balance that is appealing to the local palate while honouring the original recipes. For example, instead of using chili flakes, I add paprika to give the dish a little spicy kick. Instead of serving the fish directly after steaming it with white wine, I consider coating it in miso caramel sauce. Japanese and Thai flavours are already accepted by Myanmar diners so we can play around them.

Industry-wise, we see fewer standalone restaurants. Back in 2018-19, when we went night out, we would fill our stomachs at some restaurant and move to a bar for drinks. Bar bites were usually chips and sandwiches. Nowadays bars double as restaurants. Most of them have dedicated food menus and some of them even serve gourmet stuff like steaks. It shows every establishment must go the extra mile to appeal to customers with different needs. It’s interesting.

What do you have in store for Le Cellier customers?

My current focus is French classics. You can try grilled pork neck with black pepper sauce or mackerel or saba fish fillet as the main course on this week’s business lunch menu. All of them are made carefully to meet the expectations of both Eastern and Western palates. So, come enjoy and tell me what you think.

Le Cellier’s Business Set Lunch Menu is available 11:30 am – 2:30 pm Monday through Friday at US$18 net per person for a starter, main course and dessert.

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