Japanese Fare with Flair at Gekko in Rangoon

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 26 May 2015

RANGOON — The kitchen was bustling at this Japanese-inspired bar and restaurant in a beautifully refurbished building in downtown Rangoon. Growling stomachs streamed into to the dining area of Gekko around lunch time as Aung Myo Oo laid a few bright cherry tomatoes beside a chunk of lightly fried fish, a slightly modified version of a traditional Japanese recipe.

“This is one of our signature dishes,” said the 45-year-old sous chef, showing off a plate of Hichibachi salmon, a well-sauced pan-fried fish with a small serving of wasabi risotto prepared with rice sourced from the land of the rising sun.

Behind him, another chef fried two chunks of salmon imported from Norway, getting ready for the next order. Another manned a charcoal yakitori (a Japanese skewer grill), as helpers shuttled between the main and back kitchen. Dishes were queuing up, waiting for the final touches from Aung Myo Oo.

“Gekko is my second home. You can find me here six days a week, from 1pm to 11pm, apart from Sundays,” he said after the last customer left and his hectic hours cooled down for a while. His professional devotion seems to have paid off. The 14-month-old restaurant was recently ranked the third best of Rangoon’s 312 eateries by Trip Advisor, which granted it a certificate of excellence just last week.

“I feel really happy about it,” said the accomplished cook, who has 18 years of Japanese culinary experience in both local and international hotels. His resume includes such establishments as the Shangri-La in Dubai. He now oversees all 15 members of Gekko’s kitchen staff.

The most thrilling thing for him is the fact that, according to manager Zay Yar Aung—unlike many other new restaurants in town—Gekko is managed by Burmese. As Zay Yar Aung put it: “We are Burmese with international experience, who are now running an establishment founded by a foreigner. I told the founder, ‘Just give us the support we need, and we’ll take care of the rest.’”

With a proud smile, Aung Myo Oo added, “Now we have proven we could make it.”

A Rangoon native with a lifelong interest in cooking, Aung Myo Oo joined the kitchen crew of a Japanese-run restaurant in his mid-20s after graduating from Rangoon University as a history major.

“On my first day in the kitchen,” he recalled, “I was asked by the Japanese chef to wash the dishes.”

But his enthusiasm earned the chef’s trust, and he eventually took Aung Myo Oo under his wing, teaching him to prepare Japanese food and master basic kitchen skills that later enabled him to join international hotel chains at home and abroad. After an eight-year stint in Dubai hotel restaurants, Aung Myo Oo joined Gekko as a sous chef.

“Even though we have a Japanese-inspired menu here, we don’t just stick to the Japanese food because we have very diverse customer base, and we want to satisfy them,” he explained, showing off a menu that ranges from Japanese ramen to Korean fried chicken and fresh Vietnamese starters. With the Japanese items, he doesn’t stray too far from the original recipes, but tries to add a bit of flair to the combinations, as with the Hichibachi salmon.

“Originally, all you have to do is grill the fish and enjoy it with a few splashes of lime and sauce,” he said, “but here I add the risotto as a touch of western flavor, but with Japanese rice.”

His advice for aspiring chefs? “Learn your trade and master the basics.”

Myint Zin, one Gekko’s line cooks, said he still remembers his first day at work with Aung Myo Oo, about 14 years ago when they both worked in the kitchen at Rangoon’s Traders Hotel, now known as the Sule Shangri-La.

“He was both a chef de partie and my trainer,” Myint Zin recalled. “The first task he gave me was to clean a rice cooker. I have to admit, while he is a good-natured man, he has no tolerance for doing a job wrong.”

His brand of perfectionism and diligence is clear in every dish he makes, according to manager Zay Yar Aung, who said his star chef “has confidence in every dish he works on.”

Asked about Gekko’s recent honor from Trip Advisor, Zay Yar Aung said the team wasn’t fishing for compliments.

“We just fulfill our customers’ needs by paying attention to every detail. The rank is just the result of the work we all have done,” he said.