Shwe Sa Bwe has always been more than a restaurant. From the beginning, it has served as a platform to nurture youths in gastronomy and hospitality, providing them with opportunities for a brighter future, all free of charge. MYANMORE sat down with Davy and Phyu Phyu Eek, the owners of Shwe Sa Bwe, to delve into their reflections on the past and aspirations for the future. Words by Nay Thiha. 

Adaptation and resilience

Davy’s story with Shwe Sa Bwe began a decade ago when he served as its head chef. Although he loved the place and all its purposes, life had other plans for him. He got married, and following the birth of his first daughter he left the place to explore broader horizons.

Fast forward to 2019, Davy found his way back to Shwe Sa Bwe as they transitioned ownership from its original proprietor.  Reflecting on this return, he chuckles: “Basically six months before Covid! It was very challenging. We lost a lot of customers and had to be innovative by creating other businesses.”

“Refuel” emerged as one such venture, offering healthy meal plans. They also made a partnership with a popsicle brand called Chupitos, utilizing its proceeds to cover rent, overheads and salaries concurrently.

“Another challenge was the reduction in tourists. So, we had to diversify and try to attract more local people to come and enjoy the food, services, and overall experience.”

Leveraging his Dutch & Filipino heritage, Davy infused fusion elements into European cuisine, rendering it more palatable to local tastes. Embracing seasonality, Shwe Sa Bwe’s set menu changes every few months to incorporate locally sourced products.

Social enterprise has always remained the core value of Shwe Sa Bwe. Since its inception in 2014, the establishment has been dedicated to training and mentoring numerous youths in culinary and hospitality skills, a commitment that endures to this day. In addition to his culinary responsibilities, Davy also serves as the English and life skills trainer.

“At first, I was running it entirely by myself for two years. My wife was a housewife for the past 10 years, but we met in hospitality. The last few years had been getting a little bit tough for me, so she joined me. She’s been helping us for the past two years.”

A match made in hospitality

If Davy is the leading light of Shwe Sa Bwe, Phyu is the motherly figure to its staff and trainees. Like many prestigious restaurants, Shwe Sa Bwe benefits from a woman’s touch. When not immersed in daily management tasks, Phyu devotes herself to helping trainees while also caring for her two lovely daughters.

Regarding her role at the establishment, Phyu comments: “We receive around 200 admissions for our training nationwide but only pick 20 for each course which lasts 11 months. It’s an arduous process since we want to make positive impacts on those who really could use our mentoring.”

Anyone between the ages of 18 and 24 can apply for the programme, with no specific educational prerequisites other than basic literacy in reading and writing. The students receive two meals a day, accommodation and essential amenities throughout their training. The curriculum encompasses both theoretical and practical instruction in culinary and hospitality skills, offered completely free of charge.

“It’s challenging to educate the youth,” admits Phyu. She observed that many students were hesitant to ask questions, making it difficult for instructors to gauge their understanding of the craft. 

“They may think they understand the recipe by studying it on paper or their phones. But, cooking is learning by doing. They won’t get it right without practising or asking questions. So, I constantly encourage them to communicate more,” Phyu emphasises.

But their hard work and patience pay off. The programme is a success and many graduates found relevant positions in the hospitality industry at home and abroad. “About 85 per cent of our students last season found jobs,” says Davy proudly. 

The road ahead

The past few years had been a challenge but Shwe Sa Bwe had withered the storm. Regarding the future, Davy contemplates: “Our plan is to keep moving forward. We hope to be able to continue the training as well with the current situation. We are looking at many, many different things, but one thing is for sure, we definitely want to continue providing a future for the youth.”

To complement the hospitality course, they also offer life skill training and English classes every Monday. The restaurant is completely closed on that day. 

Phyu is on the same page with Davy, adding: “We survived the last two years without any outside help – just us and the Shwe Sa Bwe team. On some days we had but a few customers. But we have no plan to give up. We still want to nurture future generations.”

Despite many challenges inherent in the restaurant business, Davy and Phyu remain optimistic about the future of Shwe Sa Bwe. With their unwavering commitment to serving customers unforgettable moments and providing opportunities for the youth, they are poised to continue making a positive impact on the community for years to come.

From  mentees to mentors: 

MYANMORE had a chance to talk with two of their longest-serving staff members who were also graduates of the very first training programme. This is about their stories with Shwe Sa Bwe.

Win Mu, Executive Chef

Hailing from Pekon, southern Shan State, Win Mu embraced Yangon as a student at a monastic education institute in 2011. Upon learning Shwe Sa Bwe’s programme, she found a future in hospitality and joined it. 

“I faced many challenges, especially the food itself. I wasn’t familiar with European cuisines. Even the cooking methods were different, like cooking beef to varying degrees of doneness and adding wines to dishes. It was a lot to learn. It still is,” she recounts.

Language also posed a hurdle since the trainers were foreigners and the interpreter wasn’t always present. 

After months of training, she secured a position as a member of the kitchen crew and trainer to the next batch of students. “After graduating, I evolved beyond being just a staff member. There were young trainees who looked up to me as their trainer. So, I have to continue developing myself while teaching new students.”

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the kitchen crew and Davy brainstormed many different ideas to stay afloat, such as offering rotisserie chicken and takeaway lunch boxes. It was another phase of learning for Win Mu, extending beyond the curriculum.

“Emotional support is equally important for the youth,” she says thoughtfully. “Many of them are far away from home, so it’s natural for them to often feel homesick and down. I’ve experienced this myself. It’s our duty to provide them comfort and help them grow confident in themselves.”

Saw Eh Khae Law, Pastry Chef

Eh Khae was in the same batch as Win Mu, but he found a different growth path within the same establishment. Taking the helm of the sweet corner of Shwe Sa Bwe, Eh Khae has been wowing many patrons with his delightful desserts since graduating.

A native of Hpa-an, Kayin State, Eh Khae was working as a volunteer at many non-government organisations, including World Vision and Save the Children, after completing his academics. He learnt about Shwe Sa Bwe’s programme from his friend and ventured into the world of gastronomy. 

“I never imagined myself as a chef, let alone a pastry chef, in my childhood,” Eh Khae recalls fondly. “All I loved doing was eating cakes!”

Myanmar traditional sweets have a stark contrast from European desserts, so adaptation is key to bridge between the differing tastes. One of his inventions is “Revisiting Hpa-an” which draws inspiration from his hometown’s major produce: peanuts. 

“It’s a combination of peanut butter mousse and praline. Peanuts are roasted and made into paste. It’s served with peanut butter ice cream.”

The dessert met with a warm reception from patrons except for those who have peanut allergies.

Regarding his experience teaching the young, he shares: “Many students have no prior experience. So, they’re not used to standing all day, stressful times in the kitchen, and many other challenges. I just advise them that what they learnt here will open many doors and to be patient with the process.”

Eh Khae is a firm believer in continuous learning. He stays updated on trends by diligently watching YouTube videos, reading extensively and taking online courses.

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