Daw Htay Htay Win remembers chef Michel Louis Méca, and a very special cake he baked.
I learnt recently with great sadness the passing of Michel Louis Méca in France last week. Michel was known first and foremost as a talented chef, a renowned long-time resident liked by many in the francophone community of Yangon. He was remembered by his co-workers as a very talented chef, a kind master and a helpful man. Not only did he train and season young talents to master the culinary world, but also actively sought employment opportunities for them through their vocational training.
Michel arrived in Yangon circa 2004 to work as a chef at the Pansea Hotel, now the high-end boutique hotel renamed the Governor’s Residence. At a time to time when there were not so many French restaurants in Yangon, it was a special privilege to have dined there in those days. From there, Michel then moved to the Summit Parkview Hotel and throughout his stay there he was frequently asked by the French Embassy to serve authentic French dishes for embassy functions and special occasions. Later on, he was picked up by U Tayza from the Htoo Group to work at the Kandawgyi Hotel.
My most memorable encounter with Michel occurred in the most unlikely of circumstances, on the morning of June 19th, 2009, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s 64th birthday.
Daw Suu was serving her last detention period in Insein Prison, held captive by the military as they tried to endorse the military-led constitution. My late-husband – who was nephew to Daw Suu and lived for many years in the University Avenue compound as caretaker to her mother Daw Khin Kyi – came up with the often-repeated traditional idea of donating lunch to monks in commemoration.
But I thought differently, telling my husband that such cliché religious offerings would already be performed by NLD party members elsewhere in the country, and most certainly at the party headquarters in Shwegonedaing. I decided rather to send something tangible right into her hands as a birthday gift, cheer up her spirits and lift up the morale, and of course to send her our love. We called the few intermediaries who had the coveted pass to visit inside Insein prison and informed them of our intention to send a birthday cake. Much to our own surprise, just on the eve of her birthday, we received a message that the birthday lady wished to offer food inside Insein, to a total of 42 persons including all prison staff.
I knew of no place where one could simply place an order for a cake big enough. At that time, the only known made-to-order bakeries around town was AT&T, or Yangon-Paris bakery which would certainly take several days if not weeks to be booked ahead of time.
It was then that I turned to Michel Meca, who was then working at the Summit Parkview Hotel to order a chocolate opera cake for 42 persons. At 8AM on the 19th, I was able to get Chef Michel on the phone, just two hours left before the deadline for delivery to Insein. Michel hurried straight from his room down to the kitchen, as I waited for the 2 hours it took him to come up with a large, chocolate opera cake, certainly worth the wait and a testament to his skills in a fairly short time.
I am not sure if Michel associated the date and got a clue who the recipient of this birthday cake was, and for fear of word being spread around I never mentioned that it would be sent beyond the Insein Prison walls. On the top of this cake were the garnishing words: “Happy Birthday Ma Ma Suu” along with well wishes from my family.
I quietly thanked Michel and rushed to have the birthday cake delivered just in time before the window closed, under the watchful eyes and camera flashlights of the local informers but safely taken by the intermediary who shall not be named for their discretion. Later that day, I was told that members of the Military Intelligence and Special Branch officers scrutinized this cake, clearly unprepared, but miraculously allowed it in. Mission Accomplished.
It was only then that I explained to Michel where his cake was sent to, predictably to his awe and surprise. Not many talented chefs can count having had their cake delivered inside Yangon’s most notorious jail as a personal accomplishment.
Merci Michel for your wonderful work. May your soul rest in peace.
From 1984 until her early retirement in 2013, Htay Htay Win spent 30 years of her career in the diplomatic world based in Yangon, as Press Officer at the Singaporean Embassy, Liaison Officer at the French Embassy, and as the first pioneer staff in setting up the Canadian Embassy. Her exceptional service to French diplomacy helped establish and strengthen ties between France and Myanmar throughout the military junta years. Htay Htay Win’s mother, Daw Hla Than was also the first female pilot of the Burmese Air Force, and her grandfather U Thein Pe was a celebrated 7-cup winning jockey during the British colonial era.