Inspiring people |

“If we want a just society, we have to embrace human diversity.”

José Manuel Torres Morán

Steve Anderson (London, 1964) is a physics teacher and chef. He arrived in Valencia in the early 1990s and immediately fell in love with the place. He has lived there ever since and now runs two renowned restaurants: Ma Khin and Baalbec. His maternal great-grandmother was Burmese, and together with his sister Bridget, he tells their inspiring family story in a recently published book entitled Burma: Food, Family & Conflict.

What part of London are you from?

I’m from Hackney, in East London, which makes me Cockney, because, as they say, I was born within earshot of the bells of St. Mary-le-Bow Church. My parents both studied medicine, and they got first jobs at London hospitals. Our family lived in a council house in Victoria Park: my father Gerald, a pulmonologist, and my mother Rosemary, a radiologist; my sister Bridget, who went on to be a professor at the University of Bristol, and my brothers Michael, who currently works in banking, and Anthony, a marketing expert, and me, Steve, a physicist by training and a chef, because I fell in love with it.

Let’s talk about your parents. How did they meet?

This is a story we love to tell in our family. They met, and fell in love, during an anatomy class at university while working on a shared cadaver. Very romantic! [Laughter]

The way you tell it, it sounds like such an idyllic love story. 

Well, honestly, it wasn’t. The relationships in my family have always been complicated. My father is from a very Catholic family that was originally from Ireland, and my mother is the daughter of a Buddhist and an Anglican. It’s all very complicated.

Was it a religious question or did race play a role too?

Well… let’s just say that my mother, who is of Burmese descent, was inconveniently dark-skinned for 1950s England, something that my father’s family, which was very traditional, wasn’t happy about. But they eventually got married, and they’re still together, 60 years later.

This, and other stories, are included in the book you wrote with your sister Bridget, Burma: Food, Family & Conflict. Who came up with the idea?

The genesis of the book goes back several years, but it didn’t take concrete form until now. It all started when my sister Bridget finished university and decided to record conversations with Grandy, our grandmother, who was an amazing storyteller and knew a lot about our family.

The cover features a photograph of your great-grandmother Ma Khin, who is the central figure in the book.

That’s right. Ma Khin’s life story and her experiences deserved to be told. Our exotic family tree began with her and our great-grandfather William Carr. Imagine Burma, what it now Myanmar, in the late 19th century, a time when British colonialism was at its peak, and now picture a young British magistrate posted to what must have struck him as an exotic and unfamiliar place. One day, while he was strolling through a market, he noticed a young Burmese girl called Ma Khin who was sitting on the ground, selling cigars. He was captivated by her. They fell in love and moved in together. My great-grandfather made her his concubine, of course, because that is what all wealthy Britons did at the time, and they had two children. But later on they got married, despite the misgivings of a society marked by intolerance, xenophobia, and classism. Not even my great-grandfather’s own brother ever accepted or understood this.

The book talks about your great-grandparents’ luxurious life in Rangoon, but also about the nightmare they were plunged into.

They lived a dream life in Burma, full of luxury, with servants, parties, and carriages. It all ended suddenly when the Japanese invaded the country during World War II, forcing them to flee into exile in India.

Grandy, your grandmother, without whom this book wouldn’t exist, also makes for a great character.

Yes, because in addition to everything else, she was very intelligent and had a great sense of humor. When she and her family eventually moved to Great Britain, she was well aware of the racism, but at the same time she was rather philosophical about it. There’s a story that says a lot about her character, how fun and ingenious she was: when people stared at her on the street and asked where she was from, she’d always respond in a perfect, slightly posh English accent that she was… Eskimo!

Burma: Food, Family & Conflict is a really interesting read.

Thank you! I’m so glad you enjoyed it. It was the culmination of all these conversations with Grandy, and a tribute to the women in our family. I think what makes it such a satisfying read is the in-depth historical research, how it combines family memories and pertinent historical events of the 20th century. It also includes Southeast Asian recipes, which are explained simply so that western readers can easily understand them. The book has come out in Spain and in the UK. We’re really happy with the reviews and the response it has gotten so far!

What is your personal opinion on intolerance and racism?

I believe if there is one thing that all of us human beings share, it is precisely our humanity. If we want a just society, we have to embrace human diversity, starting with the idea that we all have the same basic rights. It is essential that we recognize our responsibility toward the other (because historically, those in power have treated the immense majority of the world unjustly) and fight to make up for those injustices.

Has cooking always been a constant in your life? 

Not really, although I have to confess that I’ve always liked cooking. When I was little, I’d hang around in the kitchen while my mother cooked incredible things. She had this amazing Indo-Burmese culinary culture that she’d inherited from Grandy, my grandmother.

You said that you fell in love with cooking. What captivated you so much that you decided to give up teaching and embark on a culinary career?

When I first arrived in Valencia, I taught English, mainly because I didn’t speak any Spanish at the time, but a year or so later, I finally started teaching physics at a school. One summer, I got the chance to work as an assistant at a cooking school in Italy. There I coincided with a chef, Alastair Little, who is very well known in Britain, and I learned a lot from him. That inspired me to make a career change.

Your restaurant Ma Khin Café, which opened on the ground floor of the Colón Market in Valencia in 2014, is named after your great-grandmother. How would you describe the cuisine here?

We serve Asian food that has strong historical ties. We call it “decolonial Asian food.” Our cuisine takes history and food seriously, respecting culinary traditions, celebrating cultural encounters and exchange, and looking forward to a world where people are welcomed as much as their food.

A few months ago, you opened a new restaurant in the center of Valencia called Baalbec. What is the culinary concept there?

We make food from the other side of the Mediterranean Sea. Gastronomy from eastern countries like Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, Palestine, Syria, Israel… I’m drawn to these culinary traditions, because even though they’re different, they all use seasonal products that are easy to find in Valencia. This diversity is precisely what I want to express. Our menu includes traditional, house-made dishes that are staples in homes across the countries on that side of the Mediterranean.

And finally… What advice do you have for young entrepreneurs who are interested in opening their own restaurant business?

So much could be said about that! Stand apart from the competition, manage your expenses wisely, put quality first, listen to your customers and the people you work with… But above all, I suggest they take these wonderful words by Maya Angelou, the American writer, poet, and civil rights activist, to heart: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” So my advice would be this: put yourself in your customers’ place and make them feel happy!

A Brief Taste

The best moment to enjoy a glass of wine?

A good wine is like a good friend. You can lean on them when life gets tough, but other than being there, they really can’t do anything to help. It’s much better to seek them out when times are good and share life’s joyful moments with them.

A song to accompany a glass of wine.

Senza Fine by Gino Paoli. A small reminder to live the moment.

A place to get lost in?

The Isle of Skye (Scotland).

What do you do in your free time?

I love traveling without a destination in mind, getting lost on trails, in markets, in entire countries.

A flaw and a virtue.

I believe (almost) everyone is good. Flaw: I still don’t know if that’s a virtue.

What did you want to be as a kid? And when you’re older?

When I was eight, I bought myself a book: Teach Yourself Hotel and Restaurant Management. How precocious! Now that I’m older, I want to stay young, at least in spirit.