Cafe Society

Tibet's Restaurant

There are some foods that become sacred through nothing more than fierce love and attachment. Your mother's meatloaf, Sunday-morning pancake breakfasts, the roasted chicken your wife made the first time she cooked for you, pressed with the indents of her thumbs and speckled with fresh thyme. And there are entire cuisines that, through commitment and bitter history, take on a kind of internal holiness — a private potency that can imbue a canon with incredible power and weight.

I have that relationship with French food, with pure (or anyway, purely American) Edo-mai sushi, with Vietnamese, to a certain extent. Sushi I came to slowly, haltingly — a penitent trying to make amends for my Rust Belt upbringing and the fact that the first sushi I knew and loved came from a grocery store, packed (along with a shred of fake grass and a pasty blob of green horseradish) in a plastic clamshell to-go and eaten in secret, on afternoons when I'd skip out of my high-school study hall to smoke cigarettes and eat tekka maki. Vietnamese food I fell for while a line cook, eating out the back door of a couple of Vietnamese restaurants with my crews — rolling up like beggars after we'd shut down our own kitchen and stepping into the warm, wet heat of another to eat fried softshell crabs and noodles with the staff, cooked by first-generation immigrants — guys who cared nothing for stars or Le Methode or one-upping the crew across the street, but were only concerned with getting back to Saigon or Hue, going home one bite at a time.

I was so moved by this (and by the strange intersections of Vietnamese and French cuisine in the boudin noir steeping on the steam table, and the way the cooks would spatchcock their chickens in preparation for roasting them) that when I found myself, some years later, in a kitchen that claimed a colonial French inspiration, I threw myself wholeheartedly into the construction of three pho broths for the menu, the acquisition of star anise and lemongrass, perfect vermicelli noodles and raw stock bones. This, while at the same time perfecting my own bâtonnet cut and julienne (because I was, and remain, terrified of the mandoline), babysitting mother sauces straight out of Larousse and gritting my teeth over the anachronistic inclusions of black-olive tapenade and skordalia and Italian arrabbiata sauce on my prep list. For me (or at least for the me that remembers the high joys and discontents of being a station chef), La Cuisine has always been like a religion: something to which you dedicate your life and commit every labor, complete with its own hierarchy of saints and demons, more satisfying and far less forgiving than anything the pope ever knew.

And yet my personal commitment to the Froggish arts is nothing when compared to the two-line backstory of Uttam Lama, chef at the five-month-old Tibet's Restaurant in Louisville.

Uttam spent fourteen years as the chef at a Tibetan monastery.

While there, he cooked for the Dalai Lama.

For culinary street cred, Uttam has it over just about anyone working today. Not only does he have the whole "I spent fourteen years at a Tibetan monastery" thing (an admission generally followed in American culture by something like "...and now have returned to kick your ass with my Leaping Buddha kung fu!" or "...just like Bill Murray in that movie The Razor's Edge"), but cooking for His Holiness the fourteenth Dalai Lama? To quote another Bill Murray character, groundskeeper Carl Spackler in Caddyshack, who once caddied for the twelfth Dalai Lama in Tibet: "So we finish the eighteenth and he's gonna stiff me. And I say, 'Hey, Lama, hey, how about a little something, you know, for the effort, you know?' And he says, 'Oh, uh, there won't be any money, but when you die, on your deathbed, you will receive total consciousness.' So I got that goin' for me, which is nice."

But total consciousness on your deathbed does not necessarily translate to cooking skills while alive. I imagined it could be rough finding experienced, talented chefs to run kitchens in Tibet, so there was always the possibility that this Uttam character was simply the only guy the monks could get — a local boy, familiar with the cuisine, comfortable with working thousands of feet above sea level. And in Tibet, the monasteries could be like B&Bs in New England, always boasting of their relationship with George Washington, with every damn one of them sporting a plaque or a scroll or something: The Dalai Lama Ate Here...

There was only one way to find out: I had to make the trek to Louisville.

Tibet's is owned by Kami Sherpa and Pasang Sherpa, and related through blood (though not money) to another great Tibetan restaurant: Sherpa's Adventurers Restaurant in Boulder. It's staffed by some of Sherpa's former waiters, and Pasang himself works the floor while Uttam cooks. But while the board might look similar to that of Sherpa's (Tibetan and Indian cuisine, mixed), it's only in the way that one Mexican restaurant might be called similar to another just because both serve tacos. Walking in the door of Tibet's, I was immediately struck by more differences than similarities.