YANGON, Myanmar — Tired of running a nightclub in Geneva, the businessman known as Sharky was looking for a second act. So he returned to his native Myanmar and hatched an unlikely idea: growing and making fine food in an impoverished military dictatorship.
Sharky, whose real name is U Ye Htut Win, has spent a decade hurdling the obstacles of producing European food in the tropics. He experimented with varieties of tomatoes, spinach and arugula that could tolerate steamy heat and found a remote spot along the Indian Ocean where he could make fleur de sel, the fine salt flakes harvested from the sea. He improvised, using local buffalo milk to make striking facsimiles of French and Swiss cheeses. He attracted a loyal following among diplomats and expatriates, and he served one particularly prestigious customer, Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate, who ordered Sharky’s goat cheese while she was under house arrest.
In a country where rice is the universal staple, Sharky produced brown breads, baguettes and croissants, earning the respect of those with considerable bread-making pedigrees. And in the process, he single-handedly created the beginnings of a food culture here that mixes local resources and Western traditions.
“What is remarkable about his products is how he applies know-how, learned from farmers, producers and books, to local ingredients,” said Apollonia Poilâne, the scion of the family that makes the sourdough breads known as pain Poilâne in Paris and London. “Adjusting baking methods takes skill and thought,” she wrote in an email. “The result is amazing in the most delicious way.”
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Poilâne, who met Sharky during a vacation in Myanmar late last year, called him “the best of today’s globalized world: thinking global but acting local.”
By the standards of today’s agro-industries, Sharky, 56, is a minnow. But over the last three years, as Myanmar has opened to the world and begun to shed the legacy of five decades of cloistered military dictatorship, Sharky’s business has taken off. He owns a restaurant and food shop here that bears his name. These days he cannot bake enough bread or make enough ice cream, yogurt and cheese to satisfy the demand from the hotels that host the influx of foreign tourists and from a wealthy Burmese elite that is increasingly exposed to the outside world and Western tastes. To ramp up production, he is spending $2 million to build a factory on the outskirts of Yangon.
Military rule, which began with a coup in 1962, cut off Myanmar from the dynamism of its neighbors and kept the country in a poverty-stricken, dictatorial time warp. But for Sharky, it provided a cocoon of experimentation. He was shielded from the forces of global competition, in a country with no local rivals. And the generals didn’t see his business as a threat.
“The thing about military rule was that if you didn’t go into politics, they left you alone,” Sharky said. “They didn’t care about someone making cheese.”
Talking with Sharky requires concentration. Food facts spill from his mouth in a sort of stream of consciousness. He tells a visitor that tomatoes do not pollinate above 32 degrees Celsius (89.6 degrees Fahrenheit); that his buffaloes give 7 liters of milk a day; that his pigs swim in lakes to make their legs stronger. He describes the “salt bunker” he constructed to age his meats.
“He is incredibly passionate to the point of obsessive,” said Richard Horsey, an early customer of Sharky’s who worked for the United Nations in Myanmar while the country was under military rule.
The son of a Burmese diplomat, Sharky had a nomadic upbringing in Britain, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Sri Lanka, Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates.
“I’m rootless, and that has given me a big advantage,” he said over lunch at his restaurant that included his whole-milk mozzarella sprinkled with olive oil, crunchy Indian Ocean fleur de sel, Burmese pepper and Myanmar lemons. “I’m willing to break the rules. I’m willing to embrace anything.”
Sharky’s first taste of the food business began, incongruously, at a Geneva branch of Wendy’s, the American fast-food chain, when he was 21. He mopped the floors and took out the trash and worked his way up to manager, all the while learning French. After a stint running a cocktail bar, he opened a nightclub, the Underground, in the city’s old town. His sharp-edged ambition earned him his nickname and enough money to build his parents a teak house, in the style of a Swiss chalet, in Rangoon, as Myanmar’s largest city was formerly known.
In 1996, he traded the flash and glamour of his nightclub for a career with dirt under his fingernails. “I came back here to recycle myself,” he said. “I wanted to go back to the earth. I wanted to be a farmer.”
He recruited rice farmers from three poor villages in the delta of the Irrawaddy River and introduced them to exotic foods.
“We hired people who had no idea what a Camembert was,” Sharky said. “They’ve never eaten cheese in their life or even thought about it. They come to me as raw stones that I polish into rubies.”
He experimented with milk from Indian buffaloes brought to the country during its days as a British colony. The dairy farmers were descendants of Indian Muslims who had come to Burma with their buffaloes. Sharky now makes most of his cheeses, including one he calls Pavé de Mandalay, with buffalo milk.
Horsey, the former U.N. official, calls Sharky’s cheeses “fantastic.”
“At its peak of ripeness, his Camembert is an unctuous, earthy pleasure,” he said. “His buffalo mozzarella is rich and creamy and soft.”
He added, “And what is remarkable is that he has achieved this level of quality and consistency in Myanmar, with its hot, humid climate and lack of a proper dairy industry.”
In the West, Sharky’s business would be described as locavore; he estimates that 80 percent of the ingredients at his restaurant come from Myanmar. But that achievement was born of necessity. Severe import restrictions and a dearth of direct flights to other countries made foreign delicacies unobtainable or prohibitively expensive under the dictatorship.
Sharky smuggled in his equipment and ingredients from Thailand: dough-kneading machines, flour, the ferments for his cheese. He returned from trips to Europe with hundreds of pounds of excess baggage.
In 1996, he began selling salads and vegetables from the veranda of the teak house. He experimented with seeds from across Europe, the Middle East and Asia. He used Genovese basil but found that other Italian seeds fared poorly. Parsley and arugula from the eastern Mediterranean took well, as did red spinach from India.
It took him a decade to turn a profit. “When I started this business, we made $3,500 a month,” he said. “Now we do that in half a day.”
Sharky is happy to see his country become a budding democracy, but he speaks wistfully of the days of experimentation. “Military rule shut the country down, but it gave me time,” he said. “I was on my own.”