Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Sonny Aung Khin: a pioneer of Myanmar cuisine

Diners seeking an authentic taste of Myanmar can’t do much better than Yangon’s Padonmar, a Myanmar and Thai fine-dining establishment that Sonny Aung Khin has owned and operated since 2004.

Arguably one of the greatest advocates of the national cuisine, he’s been developing a healthier hybrid style of classic dishes since 1990, when he and his former partner opened Mandalay Restaurant, the first of its kind in Bangkok, where he lived for 16 years before returning home and taking a job at La Padoma, as the restaurant’s first owners from Belgium had called it.

“I’m not a chef or a cook, but I know how to correct the cooks if the taste is off,” said Aung Khin, who now presides over the Myanmar Restaurant Association, which recently fulfilled a major contract with the 2013 SEA Games.

About 600 association workers relocated to build a central kitchen that catered to roughly 500 athletes. As if that hasn’t kept him busy enough, Aung Khin also recently revived a Myanmar chapter of Skal International, a club for travel professionals, now in 60 countries and in its 61st year. Yangon had a chapter between 1965 and 1985. Aung Khin is president of the new iteration of 19 local members with more joining.

The Myanmar Times caught up with the veteran restaurateur at the stately grounds of Padonmar in Dagon township.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Perfect business is perfect happiness. Actually, it’s a perfect family and perfect business. But my family is already on their own and grown up in the US so I only have to worry about my business. But I have 135 children: I have 135 staff. They are my children now. I have to worry for them, teach them, upgrade them.

What is your idea of misery?

You are miserable when your good intentions are misunderstood.

What is your current state of mind?

That’s a secret.

What books are you reading, currently?

I haven’t read any books for a long time. I’m so busy everyday, readying the newspapers, journals, food and travel magazines to keep up with the news and business of tourism in the country and the world.

Who are your heroes or heroines in real life?

Now you’re getting political. Any leader of the country who will make the people happy will be my hero. They have to get off their high horse and get down to the root level and care for the people. That will be my hero. Not just words, but actions.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

In Yangon there are many restaurants – Japanese, Thai, Chinese, Korean, all the international food. But there is no Myanmar restaurant that can be called fine dining on the same level as those. So my aim and object is to upgrade the food, the restaurants, and I’m happy that I’m recognised for an equal standard at my restaurant. That’s what I work hard to maintain and I want fellow restaurateurs to be the same. Not many people have come up to my level, only two or three, and they are also trying very hard. This is my life now: to upgrade Myanmar food. If you look on Trip Advisor, my efforts have been recognized and I’m very happy with that.

What natural talent do you wish you possessed?

In our business the natural talent we need is to understand what the customer wants. To understand what workers want and understand why they can’t do what you want them to do. The talent is to understand people of all levels.

What are your favourite foods?

My favorite food is mohingar. I am very fond of Bagan. I love the city and the sites and the people. Besides my 16 years in Bangkok that’s where I spent most of my time. And I love the Thai people also and it’s like my second home. I love Thai food. My favourite is tom yum koong and pad thai.

What do you do for relaxation or leisure?

Nothing. Before I was fully involved in the restaurant I would play golf. But now that I’m involved here, I’m almost a prisoner in my own restaurant. Golf is very time-consuming. So just to talk to the customers and see them happy and not having problems, complaints – that is my biggest sport.

What is the most surprising thing you have observed?

The most surprising thing is in 2011 the new government opened up the country. Before in Europe and America, the UK, Scandinavia, they said, “Don’t go to Myanmar.” But now we are flooded with tourists and businessmen and we are not prepared for that. I have capacity for 300 at lunch and 400 at dinner and we’re full. We don’t have to promote any more.

Where and when were you happiest?


What is your most treasured possession?

This is it. My restaurant. I put all my time and love and resources into it, to make it the best of my ability.

What is your favourite motto?

I have so many mottos. Believe in yourself.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

source: The Myanmar Times
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