New Restaurant Will Link Himalayan Food, Culture, Art, Religion
By ELIZABETH COOPER
It has been more than a year since Alex’s World Bistro on Main Street closed its doors, but the spring sunshine has awoken more than the flowers this year.
The long empty storefront is suddenly a hive of activity. Contractors, an attorney and even a small child could be seen there on a recent Wednesday.
It’s all part of the next segment in the life journey of a Nepalese man who started out as a shepherd boy in a remote village without electricity or cars.
Nawang Gurung will be opening his restaurant, Norbu, in May. It will feature Nepalese and Indian food and he hopes it will also be a place where people can learn about Himalayan culture, art and religion.
He and his partner, Diki Bista, have two young daughters and they want them to grow up in a beautiful, natural surrounding like this one.
“I feel like it’s a home away from home,” he said of Cooperstown and his Himalayan homeland. “It’s like moving back to the mountains, compared to New York City.”
Norbu means jewel in Tibetan.
“For us, Cooperstown is a jewel and precious,” he said.
To Gurung, food, culture and art are linked and he wants to share it all. Norbu will be decorated with photographs of his homeland, and he is particularly excited to serve momo, a form of Nepalese dumpling.
“It is kind of like a Japanese gyoza,” he said. “In Tibet it has become a very popular food in the mountain areas.”
Cooperstown Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Tara Burke said residents and business owners were eagerly awaiting the restaurant’s opening.
“Alex’s was a beloved spot for locals,” she said. “I think there is a lot of excitement and questions about who is going into that space and what they will offer. It’s going to be a great, diverse option.”
As for Alex Webster, former owner of Alex’s, he said he “could not be happier” to see Gurung taking over the space.
“They seem like wonderful people and I am thrilled with the plans for the restaurant,” he said. “I am excited that in many ways they will continue in my effort to bring exciting, fun, quality food to the area.”
Alex’s old bar, made from sections of a bowling alley, remains in place and Gurung is in the process of getting a liquor license.
Here Because of Chocolate
Gurung’s unlikely trajectory from the mountains of Nepal has taken him through Dallas, Boston, New Haven, and New York, with time logged in some of America’s greatest universities, and the dining rooms of a number of Indian restaurants. He has worked for scholars and non-profits, but also waited tables to support himself and his family members back home.
It all began with the hope for a piece of chocolate.
“Chocolate was the only English word I knew,” said Gurung, now 37. “I am here because of that chocolate today.”
His village in the Mustang region of Nepal had been closed to tourists because of its holy connection to Buddhism, but that changed in the early 1990s when he was still quite young. Gurung and the other local children loved the chocolate that some of the outside visitors gave them and would ask for it whenever they could.
One day when 8-year-old Gurung was tending his flock of about 200 goats and sheep, he spotted a European man who seemed a likely prospect. The man didn’t have any chocolate, but he offered something that turned out to be far better. Charles Ramble was a professor of Tibetan culture at Oxford University. He spoke Nepalese and took a shine to little Gurung. He soon met Gurung’s parents and offered to take the boy to Kathmandu to get an education. They declined, but when Ramble returned a year later they accepted.
Gurung did well at the school and became interested in the study of culture and religion. After graduating he worked as an assistant for an American Fulbright scholar in Kathmandu. He then worked for an organization helping people with tuberculosis while searching for the next opportunity.
Because of his interest in religion, Gurung applied to a Baptist university in Dallas, Texas, but when they required him to be baptized in order to continue his scholarship he declined and had to leave.
Next, he went to Boston, because he had heard of Harvard University there. He couldn’t afford it and instead went to a community college nearby while working at an Indian restaurant frequented by Harvard students. They liked him and soon they were helping him sneak into classes so he could learn there.
Later he did the same in New Haven at Yale. Along the way, Ramble introduced Gurung to a Dartmouth professor, whom he briefly worked for doing research. He finally applied and was admitted to Columbia University, where he planned to major in cultural anthropology, but soon realized his small scholarship would not be enough to live on if he was to continue sending money home.
Instead of attending, he started his own project, Voices of the Himalayas, which seeks to document cultural change in Nepal, Tibet and other parts of the region. That work was funded by Dartmouth and other foundations. Later, he started working with young people from the Himalayas who live in New York, teaching them about their heritage. He is also working to document the experience of Himalayan people during the pandemic.
Gurung learned of Cooperstown from Daniel Kaufman, a linguist at Queens College whose family owns property near Fly Creek.
The two were good friends and Kaufman had mentioned Cooperstown to Gurung several times.
Gurung said it wasn’t until fall of 2022 that he considered coming up to see the place for himself after a dinner with Kaufman in Brooklyn. Starting fresh seemed more appealing to Gurung, because he had invested much of his savings in a childcare center Bista was hoping to operate, but COVID-19 had struck and the business was having difficulties.
So he and Bista hired an Uber and came up to have a look. He then spotted the empty Alex’s space and in short order put in a bid.
“It was one of the most impulsive acts I have ever seen in my life,” Kaufman said. “He wasn’t looking to move here, but he visited Alex’s and he bid on it. It was extremely spontaneous.”
Gurung, however, says there were many hints that Fate was at work.
“Always things [about Cooperstown] kept coming up,” Gurung said of the time after the Brooklyn dinner. “It was a karmic connection.”
It didn’t hurt that baseball is full of numbers that have significance in Buddhism. Nine innings, three strikes, four balls, 108 stitches on the ball.
“One hundred and eight is a very precious, holy number,” he said.
Kaufman said he had even suggested Gurung make a momo in the form of a baseball.
“I regularly come up with absurd ideas like that and usually people brush them off,” Kaufman said. “He decided he would give it a try!”
Gurung said it might be harder than he thought.
“It might be challenging,” he said. “I tried to do research on that.”
Whatever their form, Gurung will make sure they are delicious, he said.