Interview with U Ye, Founder Sharky’s, Food Innovator and Entrepreneur

On a sweltering summer day in Yangon I had the privilege of ducking into Sharky’s to talk with an old friend and take shelter in his cool oasis on Dhamazeddi Road.  Having long been an addict of U Ye’s micro-green salads (the first grower of rocket in the country), goat cheese and gelato, I was thrilled to find out that he is now producing a gluten-free bread made with rice flour and Chia seeds.  This sparked a conversation with Ye about food innovation and entrepreneurship that I found inspiring and definitely worth sharing with you.

Sharky photo

“You can’t copy others to be sustainable” – U Ye pictured with gluten free bread with Chia seeds

Almost everybody knows Sharky (U Ye Htut Win) and he has been interviewed by CNN, The New York Times and just about every international gourmet foodie whose been over here – but few people know how passionate he is about innovation, how he continues to inspire local farmers to experiment with different crops and how he hopes to influence a budding young ‘food entrepreneur’ culture by positioning Myanmar as a “foodie destination”.

Having been referred to by the New York Times as “single-handedly created the beginnings of a food culture” in Yangon, Ye has always been inspired by the natural goodness of the foods he saw here.   Too many of the supermarkets were importing “better looking” produce from Australia, America and China that was full of chemicals and pesticides.  So he first started working with farmers in 1995 to supply local hotels and restaurants with a consistent supply of organic produce, experimenting with Genovese basil, parsley and arugula from the Levant and red spinach from India.  From there he innovated the extensive cheese selection he now sells (over 18 different types made with local buffalo milk), local meats (dry-aged tenderloin – yum) and crunchy Indian Ocean fleur de sel (from Ngapoli in Rakhine State) amongst numerous artisan sauces, dips, butters and of course…… bread!  Oh the bread!

Ye’s innovation philosophy come from the heart:  “if you aren’t innovative you can’t get the ‘X’ factor you need to create the “WOW” that underpins a thriving food enterprise” he said.  “You can’t copy others to be sustainable.”  As such, he continues to innovate with the local farmers – broadening his sources across the country.  This has led him to explore options of working with grains such as Teff and Quinao that appeal to the health conscious consumers, and happen to be grains that he believes will grow well in Shan State.

“Teff, an important food grain in Ethiopia, is naturally gluten free with an amazing nutrition profile that includes iron, protein and calcium – and I believe we can start working with it here”, he said.     Ye continues to work with local farmers but takes the risk out of the experimental crops by initially growing in the off-season.   Although not always a success with growers Ye says with a smile, “Well, you just learn to fail better”.

Sharky is committed to creating a ‘food destination’ in Myanmar – something that “international foodies” and Yongonites alike will seek out.  “I want to lead young food entrepreneurs in thinking about ‘gate to plate’ and ‘nose to tail’ alike”, says Ye, “as we have seen the evolution in other ASEAN cities toward farmers markets and fresh food access we need to be ready to serve the evolving consumer tastes”.  “We are changing our philosophies about food”, he explained, “how we think about nutrition is no longer 3 meals per day but more like what I put into my body becomes the pillar of my health”.  I think this is something we should all think about.

Ye plans to open a multi-dimensional facility in Shwe Pyi Tha next year – a “Sharky World” – where people can go ‘back to the future’.  Artisan food production in a high-tech ‘green’ facility:   managing water and climate controls through state of the art engineering and architecture.  Solar power and ‘living roofs’.  A place that is living and breathing and featuring the finest of Myanmar’s products.  They anticipate people being able to tour the factory and surrounding space, and accommodate visits by schools and food enthusiasts alike.   Or, for those of us in Yangon – just a great place to hang out away from the bustle of the city and eat amazing food!

I had to grab a loaf of gluten free bread and go.  Sharky has numerous outlets in Yangon now, where you can buy his artisanal products and check out the latest food innovations.

Sharky interior

Sharky in his element at Dhamazedi Rd restaurant deli

Contact details:

Sharky’s, 17, Dhamazedi Road, Kamayut Township, Yangon; +95 1 524 677; 9 a.m.-10 p.m., seven days a week.

Sharky’s new shop at 81, Pansodan, Kyauktada Township opens next week.  A restaurant will follow soon afterwards.

Sharky’s has a small outlet in Citymart Marketplace, Dhamazedi Road in Golden Valley. This mainly sells ice cream.

There is also a shop at 18/3, Inya Road, Kamaryut Township (Tel 0931463557) selling the wide range of Sharky’s products.

The new website is close to completion but not entirely done yet. It includes an online reservations system. We will let you know when this goes live.