Born in Hong Kong, raised in Nepal and educated in Japan, Khem Kumer Gurung has experiences and dreams that span different places and cultures.
It was in Japan, while working part-time at a restaurant in Tokyo, where he learned the skills of making authentic Japanese cuisine.
Today, at the age of 47, Kumer has decided to pass on his knowledge and skills to the next generation of chefs at a culinary school in Hong Kong.
Kumer’s father used to serve in the Gurkha regiment of the British garrison in Hong Kong back in the 1960s. Kumer came back to the city to look for a job.
“After all Hong Kong is a cosmopolitan city, and there are a lot more job opportunities here than my home country,” says Kumer. “Honestly, in Nepal, only few can receive tertiary education, and even if you have a university degree, it is still hard to find a decent job there.”
As a foreigner, Kumer had to overcome the language barrier.
“Even until now I can only speak a little Cantonese, but I still can’t read or write Chinese. However, I don’t think it has caused me too much inconvenience because most Hong Kong people can speak English. For example, I don’t have much difficulty ordering my food even at a Chinese restaurant.”
Asked whether he feels Hong Kong people are generally indifferent to others, and are always on their guard against strangers, Kumer says yes.
“I came back from Nepal to Hong Kong in 1995. One day while on the MTR, I overheard a local guy talking on his mobile phone and using discriminatory terms when referring to ethnic minorities. I was a bit upset at the time,” says Kumer.
Talking about his years in Japan, he says when he first arrived in the country, he ate at McDonald’s almost every day because he just couldn’t get used to the local food.
“Japan was a very expensive place to live in, and I had to pay for my tuition and accommodation. I had to work part-time in a restaurant when I didn’t have lectures. It was at that restaurant where I was introduced to sushi and sashimi for the first time, and I just fell in love with them instantly.”
Kumer continued to stay in Japan for another five years and became a certified sushi and sashimi chef.
“I never thought of becoming a chef when I arrived in Japan. And I definitely wouldn’t have become a sushi and sashimi chef if I hadn’t found a job in that restaurant. It was all fate.”
After graduation, Kumer returned to Hong Kong and worked with several Japanese restaurants and hotels as an executive chef.
He stood out from the rest of his colleagues not only because of his signature dishes, but also because his English has an amusing Japanese accent.
Shortly after his career in the food industry got off the ground, Kumer had to make another tough decision.
“My two daughters were born in Hong Kong. However, I would like them to learn more about their roots and the traditional Nepalese culture. So I decided to send them back to Nepal to stay there for three or four years. It was a tough choice to make because they were so small at the time.
“Although I did feel lonely from time to time after they were gone, I didn’t regret sending them back home.”
Kumer stayed in touch with his daughters through Skype, and he returned to Nepal once a year to see them.
Kumer and his daughters finally got reunited in Hong Kong shortly before this interview.
“There is nothing to compare with a family reunion after four years of separation. I am really thrilled!”
Recently, Kumer joined the International Culinary Institute in Hong Kong and became an instructor at its Japanese cuisine section.
“I switched to teaching because I would like to pass on my skills and knowledge to young people who aspire to become Japanese food chefs.
“On the other hand, I want to set an example to other South Asians in Hong Kong and inspire them to strive harder.
“I came from an impoverished country and through hard work, I first became an executive chef, and now an instructor. I am sure if I can do that, other South Asian people can do it too!”
In recent years Hong Kong has faced political turmoil, and some people have chosen to emigrate.
Asked if he would leave Hong Kong, Kumer says he might move to the UK after he retires, since he has a British passport.
“I have often thought of moving to London because my sister has been living there for a long time, and we can take care of each other. But it is not going to happen at least in the next 10 or 15 years.”
This article first appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 24.
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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