When Sharky's founder Ye Htut Win couldn’t find the ingredients he wanted, he decided to become a farmer, a baker, a cheesemaker, and a butcher.
Two decades ago, when Myanmar languished in isolation under a military junta and international dining options were all but nonexistent, one forward-thinking maverick was already curing his own prosciutto, making his own cheese, and baking his own artisan bread. Unlike the few other pseudo-Western restaurants peddling pale facsimiles of such dishes to what was then Rangoon's small expat community, Sharky's creations were the real deal. No shortcuts, no substitutions. When founder Ye Htut Win couldn't find an ingredient, he would make it or grow it himself instead.
Today, Ye presides over three restaurants and roughly 350 employees that create 400-plus products ranging from gelato to fresh mozzarella to handmade tortillas smothered in salsa verde. Even in the Yangon's drastically altered culinary landscape, Sharky's stands apart from trendier newcomers. The New York Times proclaimed Ye a "one-man empire" and credited him with almost single-handedly introducing the concept of locavorism. Taking the "farm-to-table" concept the to the next level, he controls the supply chain for practically everything he does and has often spent years, or even decades, tinkering with an aged cheese or crusty bread before he's satisfied.
I sat down for coffee with Ye in his original restaurant for a conversation about cleaning the floors at Wendy's, smoking cigars and drinking Champagne with Swiss bankers, and seeking inspiration from Mexico to the souks of Jordan.
MUNCHIES: I know you've got a long story, but let's start from the very beginning.
Ye Htut Win: Here we go. From the age of two, my dad was a diplomat. From 1963 until 1972, I was traveling around the world. I grew up in different countries—Israel, England, Sri Lanka, Italy. In 1979, my dad was reposted to Geneva at the UN and he took the whole family with. It was a very, very bad period in our history and he knew that if we stayed [in Myanmar], our futures were limited. We started a new life. One of the best things my dad did is that the first day we touched down, he made us integrate into Switzerland. He made us learn French and take jobs. While I was studying for my exams, I worked at Wendy's. I worked my way up from "cleaning guy" to become one of the directors. During that time, I caught the eye of the president of Wendy's International, who took me under his wing.
That's quite a step up.
When he left the company, he started the first Tex-Mex chain of restaurants in Geneva called Mañana, where I was the Director of Operations. Then there was an offshoot, which was a cocktail bar called Cactus Club. That was the 80s and the 90s, when the bankers were making tons of money and they'd come and drink Champagne. So it was a watering hole for all these "in" people, the BCBG, the bon chic bon genre ["good style, good attitude"].
Then what happened?
I left with one of the shareholders and opened a company called Sharky's. We opened a hole-in-the-wall in the old town in Geneva called Underground. It was the kind of place where people would go after eating to get themselves hyped up before clubbing. It became very, very popular. I made myself a fortune, then sold it off.
Why sell it off?
After five or six years, I thought, No, I don't see myself partying every night. I was lost. So I started coming back to Myanmar to see what I could do. I had lofty ideas. I wanted to bring in caviar from Caviar House, cigars from Davidoff, and espresso from Nespresso, so I hand-carried these items in. I was working on consignment, because nobody wanted to take the risk. So when the caviar was expired, we ate it. When the cigars were a little bit dry, we smoked them.
Who could afford these items at the time?
My first client was The Strand Hotel. They told me, "OK, you're bringing all these expensive items, but what we need are the most basic products like lettuce, carrots, herbs." The local products weren't good enough, so they had to import everything from Singapore. So I decided to venture into farming. It was ten years of being lost in the wilderness and making mistakes. It was a steep learning curve. During these ten years, I became a farmer, a baker, a cheese master, a salt master, and butcher.
Most people spend their whole career on one of those. How did you go about learning that broad of a range of crafts?
The only thing I was tutored in, if you believe me, was cheesemaking. I spent some time in Staad, Switzerland learning how to make hard mountain cheeses. After I came back, I started doing all the other cheeses. Soft cheese, hard cheese, washed cheese—you name it.
What allowed you to do all this?
First of all, I was passionate. Second, I was lucky. I was married to a wife who let me do whatever I wanted. She works for the UN and she would tell me, "You do what you have to do and I'll do what I have to do." The rest is through trial and error, curiosity, books, and, lately, the internet. Because of my failure rates, which were very high, I think now after 20 years, I have a better sense of what can and cannot be done.
What was one of the trickiest things to get right?
Prosciutto was an almost-ten-year odyssey. I think I've thrown out around 80 legs of ham, because they rotted, or there was blood left in them, or they were not salted right. We now do coppa, lardo, and all sorts of other cured meats. I like to say this is "Burma ham," not "Parma ham."
You're certainly the only one in the country doing something like this.
We're one of the only companies that's doing everything. We grow our own wheat in the Shan State. We mill it. We bake it. We raise our own pigs. We slaughter them. We cure the meat into everything from prosciutto to pâté. We grow our corn and feed it to our chickens, or mill it into polenta or masa harina for tortillas. When I look at a piece of corn, I don't see corn. I envision the final product.
You definitely wouldn't expect authentic tortillas all the way out here.
Because I have a history working with Mexican restaurants, I know what a salsa or a salsa verde is. You're always bringing your baggage from traveling all over the world. Right now, my wife is posted in the Middle East, in Amman, Jordan. I'll go into the souks and the bazaars and get inspired. So right now I'm growing za'atar. Some people might ask, "Why on Earth is a guy in Southeast Asia growing za'atar?"
Where do you feel this is all going?
This vision—it's an accidental vision, really—is just what I believe Myanmar needs. Imagine at breakfast you have Myanmar cheese, Myanmar honey, Myanmar breads. It reinforces that what's locally produced and locally consumed is a win-win for everyone, from the farmers to the land to the people. Plus, if you want to make it sexy, it has a better carbon footprint.
Speaking of that, you market quite a few of your products as eco-friendly.
I'm not going to tell you that we're organic, but we do the best we can. We don't water our plants very often, so the roots go deep. We use drip systems and liquid bio fertilizers, as well as moringa powder and oil as a natural way to deter insects. You have to lead by example. If you're successful, people will copy. If you're not successful, they won't. It's that simple.
What are you most excited about working on at the moment?
I'm always a curious person, so there's never a down moment. Instead of Napa Valley, we have a farm that I like to call my Bagan Valley. It's 25 acres. I'm doing a lot of perennial herbs like sage, thyme, rosemary—all the herbs. We're also growing Styrian pumpkin, which is famous for its oil. In Austria, they call it the "green gold." We have 5,000 plants. Here, we're growing teff from Ethiopia to use in our gluten-free bread. We grow black corn and blue corn that originate from Peru. It really is farm-to-table, nose-to-tail. This year, I want to spend more and more time on my farms.
Out of all of these various crafts, what's one that you keep coming back to?
For me, one of the joys of my profession is baking. To take four simple ingredients and make magic out of them is one of the greatest things you can do. Just having a piece of bread and a glass of wine and a good olive oil makes a meal. If you want to put that with pâté or some jam, you can, but it needs nothing. To me, bread is holy.
And so much more complicated than it seems.
The deeper you go into bread-making, the less you know. I'll look up breads and techniques from all around the world—the folding, the fermentation, the hydration levels. We use slow fermentation, so it takes about three days to do all of our breads. If you use stone-milled flours, the dough takes a lot of water, about 70 percent. All of our breads have very high hydration, a long autolyse, and a long fermentation. And then, of course, we bake them at very high heat, so you have a crust. We have chilled rooms, because to do a long fermentation, which gives you all these complex flavors, you need temperatures that aren't more than 10 to 12 degrees Celsius.
I've done a bit of baking and I'm always amazed by how much there is to it.
The simplest things, like cooking spaghetti or making the perfect sourdough, are the hardest to do, because we take them for granted. To have something that makes consumers say, "Wow," you must dare to fail. Even if you think you know something, you must be willing to redo the whole thing and say, "Let's go a different path."
Has anyone ever asked you over the course of the last 20 years if you're crazy to try all this?
To me, when someone tells me I'm totally mad, I think I'm doing something right. Of course, with that comes failure. You're going to face a lot of obstacles, because that's why it's called madness or stupidity or naivety. When you're going into uncharted land, you're probably going to fail. You fail and you try to figure out your mistakes and you learn. Fail, fail again, fail better.
Thank you for speaking with me.