RANGOON — Before anyone else asks, Yangon’s tranquil lakeside French restaurant L’Alchimiste is not named after the Paulo Coelho novel “The Alchemist.” CEO François Kenedi says that it’s derived from the name of his other venture in Yangon, the well-known lunchtime downtown meeting point Zawgyi House.
“People were getting confused, despite the very different locations, as I called this place Zawgyi as well at first,” he says. “That’s why I opted for the translation.”
Since the popular Myanmar character Zawgyi was an alchemist of sorts, he explains, the new name serves to give the new restaurant a clear identity, while preserving the connection with Zawgyi House.
That older red-bricked eatery, a football’s kick down the street from the Bogyoke Aung San Market, is where diners can watch the ever busier downtown denizens buzz by in the afternoon. But as Yangon changes, Zawgyi House could soon be no more, if it is swallowed up by a hotel set to be built near the old railway building, another red-bricked downtown icon visible behind Zawgyi House.
“We don’t know for sure yet what is happening,” says Mr. Kenedi, who has lived in Myanmar for 13 years. The makeover coming to downtown Yangon is part of what he sees, in some ways, as the “too fast” changes taking place in Myanmar.
“If it goes on like this, only the rich will get rich and everyone else will be the same,” he warns.
L’Alchimiste is housed in a 1930s-built colonial mansion, with the back garden opening onto Inya Lake. With the high season in full swing, the six-month-old restaurant has room for 200 diners in the garden, a prime evening eating spot as the sun goes down and the lake waters glow.
Inside, there’s room for 60, with new paintings by a variety of Myanmar artists for visuals, nicely complementing the museum-piece big house feel inside.
The paintings, by the way, are for sale. “We don’t keep any of the money, it goes to the artist,” says Mr. Kenedi, who is happy with L’Alchimiste’s gallery ambience.
As for the food, it’s all French—and, yes, there’s a French chef.
“I advertised the position on a chef website in France, and got lots of applications,” says Mr. Kenedi, opening the menu to show the chef’s credentials tagged in French and English at the foot of the menu.
But Mr. Kenedi and the chef are the only foreigners working at L’Alchimiste—the rest of the staff, zipping back and forth between the kitchen and the dining room on a busy Friday evening—are from Myanmar.
And save for the lamb rack, salmon and scallops, your meal at L’Alchimiste will consist entirely of Myanmar produce. The only downside of this, says Mr. Kenedi, is that the beef sometimes needs a bit of aging.
“Here they kill the animal and sell the meat the same day, so sometimes it’s bit like this at first,” he says, knocking on a nearby table.
With a steak going for the equivalent of US$12, it seems cut-price, given the hefty costs for the new restaurant. “We keep the prices down, so we need an average of 60 diners a day to keep going,” says Mr. Kenedi, who’s in it for the long haul.
“Zawgyi House took three years to make money,” he adds. “In those days, you only had around 60,000 tourists a year, but we eventually made it work. Now, with more visitors, I can only be optimistic.”
L’Alchimiste French Restaurant
No. 5, Tun Nyein St.,
Mayangone Township, Yangon
The story first appeared in the February 2014 issue of The Irrawaddy print magazine.