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Thrive Global: Pemba Sherpa of Sherpa Chai: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a Restauranteur
As part of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers,’ I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Pemba Sherpa, Founder of Sherpa Chai.
After growing up in one of the poorest regions of Nepal, Pemba began leading expeditions to climb the hightest mountains in the world.
After opening a Nepalese restaurant in Boulder, where he served hundreds of gallons of his family’s traditional chai recipe, the overwhelming demand for his tea lead to the realization that he needed to bottle and market this product to the world.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restauranteur or chef?
I grew up in Sengma, Nepal, with my elder generational family members teaching and passing down traditional Nepalese recipes. In 1991, I emigrated to Boulder, CO, with a plan to expand my guiding and climbing business. I successfully ran that business for more than 20 years. In 2002, I opened Sherpa’s Adventure Restaurant & Bar to explore my passion for Nepalese cooking while introducing Nepal’s native food to the people of Colorado. At this time in my life, there was no authentic food of Nepal available, and I wanted to share my “art” and passion for creating this authentic food with the local Boulder community.
Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?
I focus on crafting and creating Nepalese food. My family heritage, being from Nepal, obviously drew me to preparing my native cuisine. In Nepal, cooking is a family tradition and considered an “art.” It’s a deep family tradition that has been passed down from my elders. While cooking wasn’t my main job (because I was guiding people on mountain and climbing expeditions), it was taught to me from a very young age and was instilled in me as a person from Segma. As an adult living in Colorado, cooking my Nepalese traditional family recipes is now an “artistic” passion I pursue and love to share with locals in my community.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef or restauranteur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
Chai is Nepal’s national drink, and I decided to bring the Sherpa family recipe from Sengma to my Boulder Colorado restaurant. When I opened the Sherpa’s Adventure Restaurant & Bar, I served hundreds of gallons of my family’s chai recipe at the restaurant. In running my Nepalese restaurant, I was always bringing awareness of chai to my customers. My restaurant patrons truly loved my family chai recipe. They were regularly encouraging me to start bottling it and selling it outside of my restaurant because it was both authentic and delicious.
I conducted detailed research on the chai beverages being sold in grocery stores. I decided that my family recipe was unique, authentic, and better than other chai teas being sold in the US. In 2004, I started bottling my chai and opened the Sherpa Chai business, one of the best-selling concentrated chai brands in the United States.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?
The biggest obstacle in opening the Sherpa Adventure Restaurant & Bar was taking-on several HUGE risks in starting a business (i.e., the time required to successfully run a business, securing cash to open the company, and personal uncertainty of beginning a completely new venture). I had to find people I could trust and lean on supporting me in establishing and running my new restaurant business. Initially, I was doing all the cooking. As the company grew, I brought in people from Nepal (who had moved to Colorado to join the local climbing community) to help cook and run my business on a day-to-day basis. The trust we instilled in each other helped overcome all of the challenges I faced as I trained them to prepare my family recipes and run the business to support my staff and the local clients dining at my restaurant.
In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?
As I prepare and share my family recipes at the restaurant, I always secure the freshest and most natural ingredients. This ensures I’m providing my patrons a deliciously consistent traditional family recipe. I don’t try to change my recipes to become “fancy” or trendy. Instead, I stick with the authentic way of preparing my Nepalese dishes.
Moreover, many of my competitors offer buffets. I have never offered a buffet at the restaurant. It is personally meaningful for me to prepare and serve only the freshest dishes made-to-order for every customer. There is true love and passion put into every single dish I serve to every single patron.
Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?
As a professional mountain guide and climber, I’m naturally a very active person in my day-to-day personal life. In living this lifestyle, I’d say the “perfect” meal is tofu curry. When I prepare for a long climb, my morning meal was vital to making my day on the mountain successful. Ingredients in a tofu curry dish include tofu, cauliflower, peas, green pepper, carrots, chicken, and lamb, which is served over rice. It’s a great meal to power me through a long day of climbing. It’s a fully balanced meal with the perfect balance of protein, fat, and carbohydrates that ensures optimal performance.
Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?
My inspiration comes from my family, my passion for cooking. It’s a perfect combination of family, art, community, and sharing it with others.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?
Yes! In creating the Sherpa Chai, my goal is to make the best chai beverage, share it with the world, and use proceeds earned from the business to help benefit my communities back in Nepal.
What advice would you give to other chefs or restauranteurs to thrive and avoid burnout?
The advice I’d like to share with other chefs and restauranteurs would be to stay active, maintain a positive outlook on life, and understand that the restaurant business has its ups and downs. I have 19+ years committed to my passion for cooking and the love of sharing my “art” of authentic Nepalese cuisine. Be true to yourself in sharing your recipes, which should always be consistent and authentic. Above all, be patient with yourself and your business. You will succeed if you work hard, stay true to yourself, and believe in how you present your food/art to your clientele.
Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restauranteur or Chef” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.
1) Be patient.
2) Have a good accountant to support the successful business and financial management of your business.
3) Expect the unexpected & expect constant tumult — always have a “rainy day fund.”
4) Surround yourself with smart people that can help achieve your dreams.
5) All of the above make the first rule the most important — always be positive and patient.
What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?
<p">I always recommend Sherpa Stew, especially in the winter months in Colorado. This is my most authentic recipe we offer to our Colorado community at Sherpa’s Restaurant & Bar.</p">
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
As a person of influence, I would love to see people do a better job of helping and supporting others. This was ingrained in me through my Nepalese culture, the importance of always “giving back” financially and personally, investing my money and time through volunteerism. My culture and roots drive this passion in every venture I take on and how I live my life — supporting the underprivileged in my local community, in my home village of Sengma, and Nepal. Trying to make a difference in individuals’ lives here in Boulder and those in Nepal is a core belief in how I live every day.
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