Govinda Narsingh KC talks about what it takes to make it big in the culinary world

10 min read
19 Jul 2017
10 min read
1554 words
From the Archive (Sept, 2016): The first Nepali to earn the title of Executive Chef in the country, KC not only excelled at his job but also became a luminary in the culinary field

Tell us about your childhood.

I was a regular kid from Nuwakot. Growing up my life was fairly comfortable and my friends and I spent most of our days playing, plucking fruits and hunting partridges in the forest. My father worked as a headmaster at the local school in my town after retiring from the army, and my mother looked after the fields and herded our yak and sheep. I fondly remember family trips to our ancestral place near Gosaikunda. My life took an interesting turn when my father sent me to study in Kathmandu. The capital was a different, somewhat hostile world for a jovial kid who had never even made a single cup of tea before.

How did you decide to become a chef then?

After finishing school, I joined Saraswati College to study journalism. It was an attractive subject, and I liked telling people, “I want to be a journalist,” mostly because it had a nice ring to it. But destiny had other plans for me. I met a friend who told me about a lucrative career that involved cooking delicious meals, sampling mouth-watering fare and travelling the world. This caught my fancy so I decided to try it out, and eventually switched my career path.

What was your family’s initial reaction to this decision?

My father was not too happy with my plan. He wanted to see me join the armed forces or hold a distinguished government job. For the most part, he was bewildered by my decision—it was the 70s, and cooking as a career option, especially for a man, was unheard of. But having survived in Kathmandu for so long had toughened my resolve, and nothing was going to deter me. My father eventually gave in, though.

How did you fit into Kathmandu when you first arrived?

Kathmandu was completely different back then: It was less densely populated and the gallis were exceedingly dirty. It also seemed colder and mistier than it is now, and the Valley—because of this kind of weather—seemed to me to have a very dark and mysterious feel. However, the rivers were clean, and we used to swim in the Bagmati and Bishnumati. The locals were not friendly to outsiders like me, especially if you were renting a place. They could turn very hostile, almost confrontational, around the time when rent was due. My father did his best to provide for me, but I faced a lot of hardships. In retrospect though, I think my time in Kathmandu prepared me to deal with even more difficult times.

What was the general perception regarding cooks at that time?

It was tough explaining to people what I did for a living, or why I found cooking so fulfilling. Most people considered it a very menial job, reserved only for women. I had to face bias and discrimination because of my work. Indeed, I remember my family having a tough time finding me a wife—nobody wanted to marry off their daughter to a bhanchey.

According to you, what is a chef’s role in the hospitality sector?

Good food is the backbone of the hospitality industry, so chefs play a major role in the sector. Years ago, kitchens were not given as much importance as a hotel’s lobby or dining halls—the cooking department would be crammed inside the smallest and dingiest room in the building. Today, kitchens have not only evolved, but also increasingly occupy larger spaces at the centre of most establishments.

Was it tough cracking into a world dominated by international chefs?

When I started out as an apprentice at Soaltee Oberoi in 1978, I was confined to the peeling, cutting and chopping department. I was occasionally allowed to brew tea. Most of the head chefs I initially worked with were from West Bengal, and they were not friendly, to put it mildly. Every time they mixed spices or made sauces, they would kick us out of the kitchen. I don’t blame them entirely since they had spent years in workplaces where information had to be guarded to protect one’s job. I was able to win the confidence of a chef who specialised in seafood, and slowly under his mentorship, I was able to enter the secret circle of spice masters.

That raises an interesting point—what makes a good mentor?

The hallmark of a good mentor is that he or she needs to be experienced and patient. A good mentor should also be nurturing and have the willingness to share knowledge and information.

And then you became the first Nepali to get the title of Executive Chef.

When you say it like that, it sounds like a walk in the park. It took me years and years of hard work to get to where I am now. Cooking is a craft that takes many years to master, and I had to work in various capacities before finally getting the title of Executive Chef in January of 2004. I have worked as the Food Production Director in LSG Skychefs, and as a member of the flight-catering unit of Soaltee Crowne Plaza too. And every job has come with its own set of challenges.

Did you ever regret becoming a chef?

Yes, there were times when I experienced bouts of extreme uncertainty and anxiety. I would be working tirelessly from 8 am to 11 pm, catering to the whims and fancies of others, with no time for my own family. Working like this can make you numb sometimes. There were nights after work when I would stand on the Bishnumati Bridge and cry. Having said that, I have learned tremendously, gained so much experience and am happy with where I am now.

Do share with us some of your culinary trysts with the rich and famous.

I would be summoned to the palace to prepare lavish banquets every time there was a state visit. Benazir Bhutto, for example, was quite an adventurous eater, and she adored Nepali-style mutton curry; Rajiv Gandhi’s weakness was fish; and Ranasinghe Premadasa used to ask for the paste of dalle khursani to spread on his morning toast. I also cooked for many of the royal weddings and events.

For your dedicated work, you were felicitated with the Gorkha Dakshin Bahu in 2005. What went through your mind when you received the honour?

It was definitely a proud moment for me, my family and the whole chef fraternity of Nepal. There had been times when I felt like taking off my apron for good, but I somehow managed to push myself one spoon, and one spatula a day. As in life, there is no easy recipe in hospitality industry—you have to be disciplined, punctual and put in the work. And being honoured for your dedication and work is something to cherish.

What keeps you busy these days?

After so many years of cooking, I have finally come to a point where I can say it’s time to pause and take a break. But that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped learning: Chefs never retire. I believe that those who have learned much from years of experience in a certain sector should share their knowledge with others, and this is why I believe a knowledge-sharing culture begins with the individual. Like I said, I spent many years working in a sector where, in the initial years, a knowledge-sharing culture hadn’t taken root; so I’m trying to rectify that by sharing my experiences through a lot of consultancy work. That’s why I conduct classes at the Nepal Academy of Tourism and Hotel Management.

What’s been your main life lessons?

After going through so much personal upheavals that led to professional setbacks as well—I lost both my sons—I have come to realise that life’s journey isn’t linear. You have to accept the fact that things will never go as planned, and that things never go back to how they used to be. But you have to learn to move on. I have not done anything wrong, so nothing scares me. The main advice I can give to others would be this: Try and be your best self.