With a bright, innocent, and heartwarming smile, Chhabi Lal Gurung is the face of Chhabi Bakes - one of Nepal's finest pastry shops. As a prominent pastry chef and expert with almost four decades of experience, Gurung is also the co-founder and operations director of Chhabi Bakes. Priyanka Mandal of New Business Age recently sat down with him to learn more about his journey and the story behind Chhabi Bakes. Excerpts:
You have worked in many countries as a pastry chef. Please tell us about your journey?
My journey has been a long one since I first started my pastry training back in 1981 at HMTTC. Following a chronological order, I did my internship at Soaltee Hotel and continued working there after its completion. In 1985, I moved to Bahrain and worked at the Bahrain Holiday Inn, before moving on to the Gulf Hotel Intercontinental in Abu Dhabi, UAE. In 1989, I returned to the Gulf Hotel Bahrain, and then moved back to Intercontinental as a pastry chef. In 1995, I became the first Nepali to work at a Gulf hotel as a pastry chef. While working there, I received a scholarship to study bakery and pastry in Germany, where I received further training. Upon my return, I went back to work at Intercontinental, before returning to Nepal in 1997 and joining the Himalaya Hotel, followed by the Radisson Hotel Kathmandu as a member of the opening team in 1998.
After that, I moved to the UK where I spent nearly 18 years working as a pastry chef and running my own business. In 2018, I returned to Nepal to be a part of the opening team for Aloft. After the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the industry, I, along with Khando Gurung, who worked as the marketing manager, and Niraj Shrestha, who worked as the sales manager at Aloft, decided to open our own bakery. After much debate, we named it Chhabi Bakes, and we have been operating since April 25, 2021.
What led you to choose baking over other culinary practices, especially if you had no prior preferences?
I was drawn to the cooler working environment in a bakery as compared to other kitchens. Working with chocolate, sugar, pastries, and other baked goods typically takes place in a cool room, where we got to work under the air conditioner. Besides, I personally prefer working in cooler environments over hot ones. Taking my health into consideration, I ultimately chose baking due to the working environment it provides.
When you decided to pursue baking as a career, Nepal wasn't yet fully accepting of it as a profession. What inspired you to choose baking and stick with it?
Although Nepal's bakery sector wasn't developed enough at the time, there was a high demand for pastry in Gulf countries. So, after working for only two years in Nepal, I moved to Bahrain to explore this demand. It was then that I truly caught on to the essence of baking from my perspective. Upon reaching a foreign country, I became fascinated by this profession due to the diverse range of opportunities it offered. It felt more like chemistry to me than just making food. After closely observing the field, processes, and ingredients, I knew that I wanted to associate myself with the bakery profession, and I have been doing it ever since.
Today, looking at the current scenario, Nepal has also made significant progress in the bakery industry. There is now a high demand for baked goods in Nepal as well, expanding the scope of bakeries.
After spending so much time abroad, it certainly must not have been easy for you to establish your own business in Nepal. What challenges did you face along the journey of Chhabi Bakes?
Upon my return to Nepal, I found that there were significant differences in the bakery environments of the UK and Nepal. In particular, the availability of high-quality materials in Nepal's market was lower than that of Europe. Despite this challenge, I make every effort to ensure that our products contain only the finest ingredients. Having worked in 5-star hotels, I have established relationships with many suppliers, which makes it easier for me to select the best ingredients. However, there are still obstacles. Obtaining high-quality ingredients like cream cheese and mascarpone can be challenging, and seasonal fruit availability is a limitation. In order to maintain the quality and taste of our products, we import many ingredients from the UK, as I refuse to compromise on quality.
As you may know, there are many bakeries in Kathmandu. What makes Chhabi Bakes unique and stand out from the rest?
While our products may not appear markedly distinct from those of other bakeries, we at Chhabi Bakes pride ourselves on offering an international standard of quality and taste. Our recipes are a unique fusion of European and Gulf flavours, thoughtfully adapted to suit the Nepali palate. We offer quality and handpick each ingredient that goes into our products.
Do you have any plans to expand or franchise Chhabi Bakes in the near or far future?
We are currently in the planning stages and are in talks to open branches in Pokhara and Bhairahawa. While there are no confirmations at this time, we hope to expand in the future.
How often do you experiment with flavours in the kitchen?
We are always experimenting with new flavours and ideas in the kitchen to bring innovation to our baking. My team and I share the same mindset and constantly work to invent something new. I find inspiration in books and also explore local markets and food trends to discover new ingredients and flavours to incorporate into our products. However, we don't simply copy trends. We carefully study consumer demand and offer creative and unique flavours that are not only trendy but also delicious.
Do you still receive offers from high-profile kitchens? If so, why do you choose not to accept them?
Yes, I do receive offers from time to time from people I have worked with in the past, inviting me to work at their establishments or to send staff from my own kitchen to assist them. However, after a long journey as a pastry chef and gaining valuable experience, I have invested my full potential into Chhabi Bakes. While the offers can be tempting, there is always something unsatisfactory about them.
They often expect me to take over the entire kitchen, guide their staff, handpick ingredients, and consistently give my all. While I am capable of doing this, the offered pay is typically too low given my level of experience and the amount of work required. It becomes exhausting to even consider such offers. Therefore, I choose to dedicate my time and work with satisfaction at Chhabi Bakes.
What is your vision for Chhabi Bakes? Are you aiming to establish it as just another bakery, a hangout spot, or a place that offers innovative flavours?
If you look at the current status of Nepal, many people have been or are still out of the country for employment, studies or other reasons. These people have tasted some of the finest bakery items abroad, and when they return to Nepal, they don't expect to find such flavours here. My goal is to elevate the taste of bakery items in Nepal to an international level. This way, people can enjoy food of international standard without having to go abroad, as confirmed by those who have returned from abroad. Many people, including foreigners, visit Chhabi Bakes repeatedly and order some of the items they claim to be the best they have ever tasted in Nepal, such as our cheese cake and Mississippi mud pie.
Please tell us about the vocational training program you provide here at Chhabi Bakes, which is also affiliated with CTEVT. What makes it different from others?"
We do offer a vocational training program here. Unlike other programs, we do not have strict timings for the enthusiasts who want to learn. Aspiring young chefs can receive training as per their convenience and schedule, allowing them to balance their studies and other activities without hindering their skill development. So far, we have trained and certified around 20 students who have successfully moved on to pursue their careers.
Have you ever regretted your decision to open your own bakery?
Yes, there have been instances where I have regretted my decision. Baking itself has never been the problem, but the procedural hurdles and government policies in Nepal can be exhausting. Despite fulfilling all the necessary procedures, the government always finds something lacking. This happened during the registration process and also when we went to CTEVT. It was a real struggle, and it made us wonder if we should have gone ahead with it at all. Procedures abroad are clear, precise, and do not involve this much hassle, no matter the circumstances. But in Nepal, it can be really exhausting.
As an inspiring individual with remarkable professional success, what advice would you give to those who aspire to pursue their passions?
I would like to encourage aspiring individuals to pursue their passions fearlessly and work towards their goals in Nepal itself after acquiring the necessary skills. As a non-resident Nepali with a British passport, I chose to come to Nepal with the aim of contributing to the country's growth and development through my skills and experience. My belief is that everyone should have the opportunity to pursue their dreams without any hindrance in their path to learning. While I may have had better prospects outside of the country, I chose to stay here so that I could invest my expertise in Nepal and inspire others to do the same.
Is there anything you would like to add as a newly established business owner?
I am dissatisfied with the lack of quality regulations in this sector. There are no provisions for inspecting food quality, hygiene, and standards in Nepal. In contrast, in Europe, the government inspects food quality and displays a star rating on the door of the establishment so that consumers know the quality of the food they are purchasing, and establishments know what they need to improve. In Nepal, many establishments use low-quality ingredients like rotten fruits, and consumers are unaware of the quality of the food they are consuming. Our primary goal is to offer quality, but there is no certification from the government to differentiate us from others who do not prioritise quality. If the government implemented such regulations, it would be easier to justify pricing to consumers. Additionally, there are no proper laws for establishing businesses, and multiple bakeries can be opened next to each other. It would be beneficial if the government introduced laws stating that similar businesses should maintain a certain distance, such as a kilometre,so that all the businesses thrive and flourish instead of competing with each other for survival.