The return of a master baker

The struggle and success of a migrant worker who has returned to Nepal to start a thriving bakery

This is the 28th instalment of Diaspora Diaries, a regular series in Nepali Times with stories of Nepalis living and working abroad.

I am the youngest of four brothers who have all helped to give my career a head start. One worked as a trekking guide and the other two as chefs in Nepal and the UAE.

Trekking was not really for me, although it was a natural choice given that my father and brother were guides. Our house in Makwanpur was often filled with foreigners, an unlikely sight in the 1980s in that part of the country. 

I was a simple village boy juggling school and farming, and was shy of foreigners. I started joining my brother on treks as a kitchen boy, including three 22-day trips across Thorung La, which was difficult but exciting. 

I was promoted to guide for groups of 20 trekkers with 60 support staff. At the end of a trek we bonded like families, and there were even tears in the last evening before goodbyes around the campfire. I made friends with local people and looked forward to the adventures.  

Read also: Adventures of a Nepali coffee aficionado, Laxmi Prasad Timilsina

DD 28

Trekking was fun, but the income was seasonal. I also missed the stability of staying put in one place. Once in 1985, I had a chance meeting with a German tourist in Ghorepani who was blowing bubbles to entertain excited children.

He ran a German bakery in Jawalakhel and before I knew it, I had a job there that earned me Rs500 a month. Waking up at 3AM I learnt how to make different types of bread – sourdough, multigrain, you name it – first in Jawalakhel and then in the Pokhara branch.

Then I joined my brother who was an Executive Chef at Summit Hotel. In 1996 I joined my other brother who was a chef at Le Meridian in the UAE. My starting salary was much higher than in Nepal, but more importantly I gained a lot of knowledge and experience about food hygiene, customer service and standardisation of food quality. 

I worked among colleagues from over 120 countries, and learnt that hospitality was more than just serving food. I had it much easier than fellow Nepalis in the Gulf, but faced challenges. Even though I had English language skills, it was inadequate in the hospitality business. 

I ended up spending over 19 years in the UAE, working at the same bakery for ten years where I was trusted enough by my employer to make key decisions and hone my baking skills. My carrot cake was a hit. Every time I handed in a resignation letter, I got hefty salary increases. With political instability back home and a good employer, there was always a reason to postpone my homecoming.

Read also: A mother's sons, Bishnumaya Bhusal

DD 28

Many Nepalis I know have it really hard in the Gulf. Even then, I find it discomforting when politicians refer derogatorily to us as camel grazers under the desert sun (खाडीको घाममा उँट चराउने), when truth is that there are many Nepalis engaged in high-paying jobs as well. 

By the time I left the UAE in 2015, I was making 14,000 Dirhams a month ($3,800). If I had stayed on, I would probably be earning even more. I do not want to undermine the struggle of Nepalis in the Gulf, but there are many of us who have left handsome salaries to come home and contribute meaningfully to Nepal, including as job-creators ourselves. 

The Nepal government needs to prepare its youth to compete in the overseas market so they can take up better jobs which are available, and get good promotions. There is plenty of money floating around in the Gulf, perhaps more than anywhere else in the world. With the right skills, training and approach, there is a potential for Nepalis to flourish.

I decided to return after the 2015 earthquake. I had seen the UAE transform itself as a country in a short period and I wanted the same for Nepal. Except, that was easier said than done.

Soon after I opened my restaurant in Nepal, the Indian Blockade of 2015 wrecked my business. I had to pay Rs7,000 for a cylinder of gas, and spent weeks cooking for my customers in firewood. My restaurant did not do well, so I started The Lemon Tree bakery in Bhaisepati and Jhamsikhel.

Read also: Baking as a metaphor for life, Aliza Basnet

DD 28

This was my area of expertise, and I felt more in control. I still work 15-16 hours a day and rely on my loyal customer base of both foreigners and Nepalis. I employ 14-15 workers, primarily female, who are getting well trained on the job. Both my employees and customers are like family, just like in my trekking days. 

It is not easy to work in Nepal. There are opportunities but it has to be an area in which you have experience, and requires patience. Our natural desire for overnight success and profits needs a reality check. The plan to have a bakery in Nepal was brewing in my mind for a long time, and I used to collect recipes in the UAE which I still use.

Costs are high and continue to increase. Flour used to cost Rs2,700 a sack two months back and now it is Rs5,200. Even simple things like chocolate are hard to find, so we have to change brands. Loans are inaccessible, suppliers can be unreliable. Another drawback is the lack of importance given to hygiene, and some restaurants actually need to be immediately shut down. There is always a new competitor – a café or a bakery. 

But everything I have done from my trekking days, waking up at 3AM to make bread in Jawalakhel, to the years in the UAE has brought me to this time and place at The Lemon Tree.  

Read also: Prisoners of the Green Passport, Mahendra Thulung Rai

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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