One Woman’s Dream: A Nepalese Restaurant in Manhattan

Kamala Gauchan, chef-owner of Dhaulagiri Kitchen, recently opened on Lexington Ave. (Photo by Dipika Shrestha for Voices of NY)

Kamala Gauchan, chef-owner of Dhaulagiri Kitchen, recently opened on Lexington Avenue (Photo by Dipika Shrestha for Voices of NY)

“Anybody can run a Nepalese restaurant in Jackson Heights, Queens, these days,” said Kamala Gauchan, a.k.a Kamala Didi (“elder sister” in Nepali). Now she has taken on a bigger challenge: opening a Nepalese restaurant in Manhattan.

In 2012, Gauchan opened Dhaulagiri Kitchen in Jackson Heights. After making a name for herself and her restaurant, she took what she calls a “bold step” by moving to 124 Lexington Ave. in Manhattan.

Ethnic Eats-04“Manhattan is very expensive, and it will be a challenge for me to bring my loyal customers here,” said Gauchan. “I have always lived to accept challenges.”

She rented the space on Lexington on March 4, and it took her nearly two months to renovate it completely.

“I am paying $10,000 a month on my rent and insurance here,” she said. “I used to pay only $6,000 in Jackson Heights. In addition to this, I have to do all the grocery shopping in Queens, since it’s comparatively cheaper there.”

The idea to open the restaurant in Manhattan came to her from Nepalese drivers. “Lots of Nepalese drive for Uber these days,” she said, “and they told me that if they could eat Nepali food in Manhattan, they would be very happy.” She added, “After lots of interaction with Nepalese customers, I could sense the prospect of good business in Manhattan.”

One of the main factors that gave her courage to move to Manhattan is the authenticity of her cuisine.

“The food in her restaurant tastes like homemade food,” said Buddha Paudel, 39, a regular customer. “This is one of the reasons her restaurant is very popular among Nepalese.” Paudel, an Uber driver, was eating his favorite food, the dumpling Nepalese called momo. “I have been eating in her restaurant in Jackson Heights, and I am very happy that she has opened her restaurant in Manhattan. Moreover the prices are reasonable too.”

Gauchan’s first restaurant was in a congested part of Jackson Heights. She used to share the space with an Indian restaurant, Tawa Food Corp., that barely seated 10.

“Most of my customers used to take out food,” she said. “I usually would take lots of orders for parties, which I am continuing to do. This has helped me popularize my food.”

Buddha Paudel eating at dhaulagira Kitchen (Photo by Dipika Shrestha for Voices of NY)

Buddha Paudel eating at Dhaulagira Kitchen (Photo by Dipika Shrestha for Voices of NY)

Word of mouth helped her gain media attention. The New York Times published an article about her restaurant in 2014 under the headline “Neatness Doesn’t Count,”  which Gauchan says really boosted business. Other media outlets also featured her, including the Travel Channel and Condé Nast Traveler.

Susan Hangen, professor of anthropology and international studies at Ramapo College in New Jersey, was ordering sukuti (dried meat) after seeing a review by Ligaya Mishan in The New York Times. “I think some of the best foods in New York are in these smaller places where people are preparing food from their home countries, often for their communities,” she said. “So, I came as soon as I read that.”

Hangen, 47, who has lived in Washington Heights for 14 years, speaks Nepalese and writes about Nepal and the Nepalese diaspora. “I had been to Dhaulagiri Kitchen of Jackson Heights more than five or six times,” she said. “Their sel roti is amazing,” she added, referring to a kind of deep-fried, misshapen doughnut made from pulverized rice, butter and sugar.

The achars, or pickles, are also good, she said.“I love the fact that she has different kinds of achars. Momos are good.” And she pronounced “exceptional” the dal bhat (also known as chicken thali, a traditional meal which is popular in Nepal, consisting of steamed rice, a cooked lentil soup called dal, chicken and other items arrayed around a dish).

Gauchan modestly says her honesty in her work has made her business grow. “I always give fresh food to my customers,” she said. “I throw out the food if it’s not sold.”

“If I were to sell stale food, I would have been out of business long ago,” she added. “I have their trust,” she added, pointing her finger at the list of people who placed take-out orders for the past month.

Sanjiv Khadka, 30, of Ridgewood, Queens, a chef at an Indian restaurant in Manhattan who was having lunch with friends, nodded in agreement. “I have always found her food fresh and have zero complaints,” he said. “I am very happy that we can enjoy Nepalese food in Manhattan.”

Gauchan is excited to be working in Manhattan. She says she hardly gets two hours of sleep a night because she has to manage everything herself.

Nowadays she works at the restaurant every day, from 9 a.m. to 5 a.m.

At her first location in Jackson Heights, Gauchan received many home delivery orders, which helped make the business profitable. Now, though, she anticipates having to work harder. “It will take almost six months from now to reach a break-even in my restaurant business,” she said.

Her story

Gauchan came to the United States in July 2000 on a business visa with one of the ministers of Nepal, whom she would not identify, but she was grateful that he helped her to get in. Then she applied for permanent residency.

For nearly seven years she worked as a housekeeper for an Indian family, and during that time she was able to bring her husband, son and daughter to the States.

She left her housekeeping job to work as a cook in Lali Guras Restaurant, a Nepalese restaurant in Jackson Heights. “My father used to own a restaurant in Nepal, and I knew how to cook food,” she said. Dhaulagiri, named for the restaurant her father owned in Nepal’s Kailali district, is about 280 miles from the capital, Kathmandu.

After working there for 18 months, she worked at two other restaurants before learning that the owner of Tawa Food Corp. was willing to share his space. She contacted him, and after some negotiations she started Dhaulagiri Kitchen, as chef and owner, on Dec. 1, 2012.

Her husband couldn’t adjust to the fast pace of New York and returned to Nepal. Her daughter married and is also in Nepal.

Chicken thali, also known as dal bhat (Photo by Dipika Shrestha for Voices of NY)

Chicken thali, also known as dal bhat (Photo by Dipika Shrestha for Voices of NY)

“It was really hard to set up and run my own business in New York, but I was determined to do it,” she said.

In those days her 27-year-old son used to help her run the business. “Now, he is no longer interested in the restaurant business because it’s too much hard work,” she said. “So he has started as an Uber driver.”

Getting non-Nepalese customers

She is working hard to boost business, and recently paid for promotions on Yelp. “I needed Yelp,” said Gauchan, who regularly mispronounced Yelp as “help.” These days, however, Dhaulagiri is garnering numerous reviews on Yelp.

On a recent summer day, Ellen Goldberg, the program director at Integrity Education Network, was enjoying Nepalese food with her sister. Goldberg, 59, who recently returned from Nepal, found out about Dhaulagiri Kitchen online. “Thanks to the internet and my sister who looked it up,” she said, ” I enjoyed every piece of beautiful dish that was in front of me.”

Gauchan hopes that the Manhattan location will attract more non-Nepalese customers to her restaurant. “I want non-Nepalese to taste Nepali food, even in Manhattan, and I am happy that I am able to do that,” said Gauchan. “I think I am the first Nepali to run a Nepalese restaurant in Manhattan.”

There is no concrete evidence to support or deny her claim. Cafe Himalaya at 78 E 1st St. has been serving both Nepali and Tibetan food since 2001. The owner, Karma Dolma, of Elmhurst, Queens, is from Darjeeling, India.

Gauchan also shared the story of her chief assistant leaving her restaurant when starting out in Manhattan. “He was a good boy and I treated him like my son. He was like my right hand in the restaurant. I was shocked to find out that he decided to work in Tawa Roti (another name for Tawa Food) for just a few bucks more,” said Gauchan with tearful eyes.

She paused for a moment, drank a glass of water, wiped her tears and continued the conversation.

“I have no complaints towards anybody. As long as I am physically capable of it, I can manage the restaurant myself, “said Gauchan.

4 Comments

  1. Hi paudal,
    Just for clarification, dumpling( momo) is not a Nepalese food for sure. So don’t give wrong information.

    • We never say it’s our dish but we modify its ingredients according to our taste so there is harm to say Nepali dish. Thank you .

    • Namaste Dolkar,
      First you sound like a mean person. Second yes, Momos was invented in Nepal. It’s far superior in regards to the authenticity of taste. Visit Nepal and you’ll know it’s everywhere in the country. I have been there more than I can remember and surely enjoyed Momos countless times. Nepalese often call it dumplings because they honor and respect it’s origin. Third, get a life!

  2. Tshering Gurung says:

    Hi Dolkar, Mr. Paudel is not saying dumpling is a Nepali food. Dumpling is made in every culture but made with different recipe. Tibetans and Nepalese both call dumpling – momos.

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