RANGOON — When he took over sole responsibility of cooking for Burma’s most famous resident in 2004, Myint Soe’s first job was to find a secret location where no one could see what he was doing.
The next job was to buy a small gas stove, some pots and pans and get to work. Every morning, around 9:30, the chubby man with the speckled-gray pony tail emerged from the unmarked room, holding two large plastic bags full of food and headed across town to University Avenue.
“It was my ‘secret kitchen’. I can’t let you know where it is. Nobody knew,” 61-year old Myint Soe told The Irrawaddy. “It was for her safety.”
The reason for all the secrecy was that Myint Soe was preparing and delivering food for Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi during her house arrest. If anyone knew where his kitchen was located, he was afraid someone might poison the meals.
Myint Soe, also known as Pho Lay, originally became the personal cook for Suu Kyi in July 1995, taking over from her long-serving family chef.
Up to her house arrest in 2003, he prepared food at the Nobel laureate’s lakeside villa kitchen, but when her detention began, Suu Kyi was held incommunicado with two female companions. On her request in 2004, Myint Soe and one of his friends were ordered to prepare food outside and deliver it in.
“During those years, I missed my duty only one day when Cyclone Nargis hit Rangoon on May 3 in 2008 because all the way to her house was totally blocked with debris,” he said.
In preparation for his job, Myint Soe had to do his homework on the “dos and don’ts” of Suu Kyi’s menu from his predecessor.
“She doesn’t eat red meat. She shuns MSG and oily food. She wants less salt in her food. Fish, prawns and vegetables are her meals of choice. Plus, chicken and duck,” he recalled.
For her breakfast, he brought in some Burmese traditional food at around eight or nine every morning. He prepared a small portion of rice, soup, vegetable salad and a meat curry for her. She usually had her lunch at around noon and dinner at 7 pm.
“She is very health-conscious. She told me to use sugar as a substitute for MSG. She doesn’t want to be fat, either,” he said.
Despite feeding the most famous person in the country, Myint Soe actually had no formal training when he took on the job. But he was a keen helper in his mother’s kitchen as a young man, and his cooking skills became well-known among his friends and fellow party workers.
“When she said she wanted a new chef, my friends simply nominated me, and I became her cook. She never made a comment on the food I prepared for her, nor told me what she wanted to eat,” he said.
The cook recalled the tedious security arrangements he passed through every time he made his deliveries to Suu Kyi while she was under house arrest at 54 University Avenue. His deliveries were always hampered by a group of plainclothes military intelligence personnel who camped inside a building in front of the house.
“They always inspected the meal to make sure I brought only food, not something else, and took pictures. They did it every day!” he recalled.
After the check, he handed over the plastic food containers at the front gate of the villa to one of the women who stayed with Suu Kyi under the watchful eyes of the police standing next to him, and he jotted down the list of items that Suu Kyi wanted during the next visit.
“I made the daily delivery on purpose because it was the only way to know whether Ama [“big sister”] was OK or not.”
Suu Kyi’s father, Gen Aung San, was a childhood hero for Myint Soe, and he remains a staunch supporter of the National League for Democracy. He was the 15th person to join the party when it was formed in 1988.
“They are ‘like father, like daughter’. I just admire those who sacrifice their lives for their people and nation,” he said.
“Given his decade-long daily service to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and hardship he endured at that time, everyone can easily gauge how loyal Myint Soe is to her,” said Win Tin, one of the co-founders of the NLD.
Since Suu Kyi was released in November 2010, Myint Soe is no longer the only cook for the NLD leader. Now in his early sixties, the chef is trying his hand at writing. His recent memoir about Suu Kyi and her close friends, “Aung San’s Daughter,” became a bestseller.
“I have surrendered my duty to someone I trust. I believe they can do a good job for her,” he said.
“Now I have time to document Ama’s life. As one of the persons who had lived very close to her, I have so many things to write about her.”
Old habit dies hard, though.
“I still cook once or twice a month for her when she is not attending the Parliament in Naypyidaw.”