Two years ago, Dan Anton spent a month zipping off the beaten track in Burma on a scooter and sampling amazing regional cuisine.
Now he runs Lahpet - a stylish restaurant in Shoreditch and a street food kitchen at Old Spitalfields Market. Together with his Burmese business partner and chef Zaw Mahesh, they’re introducing exciting flavours to the East London foodie scene and making Burmese food more accessible. And the two-year-old business already employs 30 people.
Dan, who previously worked in the city as a head-hunter for the construction and manufacturing industries, took some time to tell us his story:
His father is half Burmese and left the city of Yangon in 1958 for the UK just before the military took control.
Dan said: “Growing up I ate a lot of Burmese food – cooked by my aunties and my Grandma. My dad and I were frequent visitors of the Mandolay, a Burmese restaurant in Edgware Road. The food was good, but I saw in gap in the market for finer Burmese food in a nicer setting. It took me five years to even start to make it happen.”
Lahpet is the latest restaurant to join the Local Buyers Club, offering 25% off to members at Old Spitafields any time and 25% off lunch Monday to Friday at the Shoreditch restaurant. (Click here for info)
Burma shares borders with Thailand, India and China and its regional dishes are heavily influenced by flavours prevalent in each country. Burmese food is generally more earthy and fragrant than spicy and popular dishes include pork curry and coconut noodles.
When Dan finally ran his business plan past investors, they urged him to open a pop-up restaurant or market stall to gain traction and get an idea of demand. Dan added: “I managed to get a pitch at Maltby Street Market in February 2016 and started spending every Saturday cooking and every Sunday serving.
“I was cooking Burmese food for myself every night at home, but the challenge was to scale it so, instead of cooking two or three portions, I would prepare 50 or 60.”
In the meantime Dan put his head-hunting skills to good use and started trying to track down a Burmese chef. He stumbled across a former takeaway in Hern Hill that had served some Burmese dishes and got in touch with Head Chef Zaw Mahesh.
Pressured by his brother to make a life for himself, Zaw had left Burma as a young man and come to the UK in search of new opportunities. He went on to gain a degree in cookery and, when Dan found him, he’d left the takeaway and was working at an upmarket Greek restaurant in St James.
Dan, 33, added: “I couldn’t have hoped to meet anyone better. We became good friends, but he was earning pretty-well in his job and there was no point in him quitting to work on a market stall.”
The trip to Burma in October 2016 was a fact-finding mission and an exploration of Dan’s family heritage. The experience convinced him it was time to follow his heart, quit the day job and open his first restaurant. He called up Zaw, 35, and the pair launched their first venture together. Lahpet opened its doors as a pop-up within The Tuck Shop flexible working space in London Fields and quickly became the talk of the street.
Dan said: “I felt incredibly liberated and both daunted and excited. That was the time it started getting serious.”
When the Tuck Shop closed, Dan and Zaw took on the whole lease. A visit by food critic Grace Dent helped promote the business and Lahpet invested in the services of a PR agency to increase awareness.
This Spring the business moved to Bethnal Green Road (to what used to be Tapas Revolution) and opened a 76-cover restaurant that’s getting rave reviews.
They serve around 1,000 covers a week – many customers are tasting Burmese food for the first time. Dan said: “We hear comments about how familiar and yet unique it tastes – it’s very much the new Asian cuisine in London.”
‘Lahpet’ means tea in Burmese and is typically pickled and eaten in salads or with rice.
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