What is a Hawaiian-born Harvard graduate doing cooking Korean Cubano sandwiches out of a food truck in Myanmar?
The Burmese government seems to be grappling with this same question. Even after Yangon officials declined to extend his pop-up Port Autonomy’s lease last month, chef Kevin Ching is on a mission to stake his claim in the Yangon food scene in spite of the obstacles.
Port Autonomy was a huge success to some, but not everyone was won over by the TS1 operation. A Wall Street Journal article about his partner Ivan Pun and the “new rich in Myanmar” hits you in the feels with its description of guests pulling up in Rolls Royces to shop while Burmese children dig through trash nearby.
Ching, 31, didn’t set out to be a maverick chef in one of the most underdeveloped countries on the planet. While he didn’t dream of cooking professionally until his adult life, he had a unique upbringing that planted the seed for his appreciation for food.
Growing up in Hawaii, he learned to enjoy more than the standard American diet thanks to his father’s Chinese cooking. “My favorite food as a child was cold-cut white chicken with ginger scallion sauce and oxtail. That and, like, chicken feet—these are the comfort foods I grew up on,” Ching tells me. “I think it was those early food opening-up moments that gave me a passion for eating my whole life.”
After Harvard and some time living in New York, Ching moved to Beijing, where he worked for the Financial Times and threw dinner parties for friends in his spare time. Eventually, he realized that he liked cooking more than his day job, so he quit and became a private chef. A year later, Ching left China for Bangkok to get formal training at Le Cordon Bleu, which he completed before joining the opening team of a Roman trattoria,Appia. It was there that Ching was taught how to make pasta by chef and owner Paolo Vitaletti’s own mother.
“She couldn’t speak English, I couldn’t speak Italian, so I spent two, three weeks with her learning how to make fresh pasta,” Ching said. “It was a cliché, but what a fucking amazing experience.”
Ching had been in Bangkok for a few years when his friend Ivan Pun approached him with an enticing career opportunity. Pun, the son of one of Myanmar’s wealthiest business tycoons, was opening a pop-up called TS1 in Yangon. The concept was made up of an art gallery and high-end retail space, and Pun wanted Ching to helm the final component: a restaurant. Ching accepted the offer, and the two friends conceived Port Autonomy, a food truck that would be popular whether it was in Burma or Brooklyn.
Ching pulled from his eclectic eating history to write the Port Autonomy menu. The result was a lineup of colorful dishes envisioned through the lens of a globally-influenced American in Burma. Guests were introduced to regional takes on Ching’s favorite comfort foods, such as Soft-Shell Crab Melts with green-chile aioli, and Hot Fried Chicken with Burmese buffalo sauce, ranch, and pickles.
“Port Autonomy was an experiment. We didn’t know if the location would work. We didn’t know if people would buy into this type of food at this time of Burmese development, but they did,” Ching said.
Despite constant power outages and a lack of running water, Port Autonomy managed to keep things lively with 80s nights, Sunday brunches, and a soundtrack of early 2000s jams. The pop-up restaurant catered to an audience of wealthy Burmese locals and foreigners starved for a taste of something new, and was constantly bustling with people eager to indulge in dishes like Burmese fried rice with guacamole while knocking back tequila shots.
It’s a complicated time to start something like TS1 in Burma. The country only recently opened up its borders to the outside world, and for 60 years people were living in abject poverty under harsh military rule. Things may be on a relative upswing for the Burmese, but conflict still rages around Myanmar and most citizens are still extremely impoverished.
It’s hard not to demonize a place selling Phillip Lim in Yangon’s poorest neighborhood.
But Ching is quick to stand behind Pun’s vision.“These first ventures weren’t designed to make money,” he said. “They were to introduce art and culture and cuisine into Burma.” According to its website, TS1 intended “to spearhead urban renewal and cultural exchange in a city on the verge of unprecedented change.”
Yangon ultimately didn’t support the seemingly well-intentioned hyper-gentrification. Just four months after opening, TS1 collectively came to an end in January when the government refused to renew the lease on the space. Ching mourned the restaurant’s closing, but was emboldened by the experience.
“We’re faced with people not really getting us quite yet, but that’s ok,” Ching said, “It doesn’t mean you stop doing what you set out to do.” Plans quickly went into action to take over a historic estate uptown where Ching and the Pun + Projects team will roll out three concepts on the same property. In addition to the revival of Port Autonomy in the estate’s lush garden, the team will open La Caravana, an Italian restaurant, and The New Boris, a bar named after the estate’s former proprietor Boris Granges.
“We want to show our versatility, and that we can do more than just fried chicken,” Ching said. “I’m going to jump from Cubano sandwiches to really, really exquisite food. I’m excited to see if that works.” La Caravana will feature a set menu of Sicilian food with North African influences. Ching has teased out potential dishes on his Instagram, such as fennel with orange and boquerones, but the restaurant’s doors won’t be opening until after Myanmar’s water festival .
Ching and Pun are aiming to launch four to six other food and beverage concepts over the next two years. Ching knows this sounds insane, but they’re willing to try, as the opportunity is fleeting. “It’s happening really fast.” Ching said.
“That’s why I’m here. What I’m doing with Ivan right now has to be done right now. In one year, Ivan and I will no longer be the frontrunners in this hipster restaurant empire or whatever you want to call it. In one year from now, two years, these opportunities won’t be here.”