Adventures of a Nepali coffee aficionado

Barista learns on the job in cafés in the Gulf, and helps bring the coffee culture to Nepal

This is the 27th instalment of Diaspora Diaries, a regular series in Nepali Times with stories of Nepalis living and working abroad. It has been 16 years since I left Nepal after finishing Grade 12. I was already in Dubai when I found out I had passed my exams.

Growing up in Chitwan with four sisters, I never had to do any household chores. My father, a teacher, made sure I was never deprived of anything.

So, when I had to suddenly work as a waiter in the UAE, it was not easy at first. My English was not good and I had no Arabic, which made my initial days abroad very difficult.

Soon, I was transferred to the dishwashing department of Gloria Jeans Café. The two months I spent behind the scenes as a dishwasher were life-changing because the barista's bar was close by and a Sri Lankan was kind enough to teach me the art of coffee-making. I transferred to his department, and that was when my coffee journey began. 

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DD 27

When the Sri Lankan won in a GJC barista competition, I too made it my goal to participate in the competition. Not only did I win it next time, I also got to participate in regional and global competitions in which I secured second place and even got to travel to Egypt.

You get 15 minutes each for preparation, presentation and clean-up and are evaluated by certified judges. The judges evaluate the presentation part by certified judges. This learning can be transformational because you are no longer mechanically preparing coffee to serve your customers, but you have to learn the mechanics behind it, experiment with different recipes and present your story in a compelling manner.

And all this happens under extreme pressure live on camera and with an audience. During my presentations I shared stories about why I had to leave Nepal, and switched from being a tea lover to coffee. What you learn in these few months during the competition easily outweighs working passively behind the bar for years because you push your boundaries and find out what you are capable of.

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DD 27

I have gotten to work in unique cafes like Majlis Café in the UAE that was a camel milk café and then at Boon Specialty Café where I learnt to care about the origin of coffee, right from farmers to roasters. Us baristas also have the ultimate responsibility to ensure it is brewed perfectly, working in specialty cafés expanded my horizon to think about the story behind the beans.

It was while I was working in the UAE that I came across investors in Qatar who were looking to start a specialty café in Doha. I have been working at Flat White for the last five years since its launch as manager and trainer. 

Given my love for socialising with people and for coffee, my friends and I started Coffee Samaj Nepal recently. It is still a relatively new organisation and one of our aims is to complete the paperwork necessary to conduct training by Nepali coffee enthusiasts for Nepali jobseekers in Qatar for promising baristas. 

Read also: Turning the desert green 

DD 27

My relationship with coffee has been evolving over the years. Initially, latte art was exciting as it gave new baristas an opportunity to experiment with different patterns and art forms. My favourite patterns are tulips and rosetta, but I also enjoy other patterns like seahorse, chameleon, and swans. Then I found it exciting to experiment with different roast levels and brewing temperatures to come up with that perfect mix of flavour and aroma. It is always motivating when my regular customers demand that I prepare their drink for them. I put in a lot of care while preparing each cup.

Now, my passion is to produce and promote baristas, and helping coordinate barista competitions can be an important platform to promote talent. I no longer participate in competitions myself but help younger baristas do so. Coffee Samaj Nepal recently organised a Latte Art Throwdown in Qatar in which there were 64 participants, and the winners were a Nepali and two Filipinos. In another Qatar national barista competition, we played the role of coordinator, which was won by a Filipino with Nepalis coming second and third. When capable baristas cannot afford participation fees, we help fundraise.

These competitions provide people an opportunity to showcase their talent and get recognised in the coffee sector. As a previous winner in competitions, it certainly helped elevate my profile in the region. With Nepalis winning in many barista related competitions that are judged by renowned SCA certified international judges, it sends a powerful message that Nepalis are as good as the best in the world and this could translate to better opportunities globally. 

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DD 27

When baristas come to Qatar from Nepal after getting trained and gaining some work experience in cafes, it is much easier for them to pick up on the job requirements. Nepal’s barista training is good but not enough. Given the differences in machines used, coffee grades and techniques, they still require training on the job for a while before they can handle the role on their own. But there is great demand for baristas overseas, and Nepalis are building a strong reputation in this category. 

There is potential not just to export Nepali coffee making services, but also high quality Nepali coffee. The high altitude and climate of Nepal makes it favourable for good quality coffee production. When my friends and I eventually return to Nepal, we want to help promote Nepali coffee globally.

As a coffee aficionado, I deal with coffee every day, but I still cannot forget the whiff of my first ever coffee the first time I tried it as a 21 year old in Dubai 16 years ago.

Read also: Speaking the language of overseas work

Translated from an interview with the author. Diaspora Diaries is a regular column in Nepali Times providing a platform for Nepalis to share their experiences of living, working, studying abroad. Authentic and original entries can be sent to [email protected] with Diaspora Diaries in the subject line.

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