A lover of life with a refi ned palate, Indra Rajbhandari reminisces about his salad days spent in high-end restaurants, in the fast lane and around world celebrities.
Four times on the cheek,très gentil, très français.A gracious kiss with that exceptional politesse that onewould expect of a man who had spentso much time in France. Entirely unexpected on the streets of Kathmandu– especially since he is Nepali and I am Indian. Thus began the interviewwith Indra Rajbhandari, as the tall, lanky gentleman striding towards me, punctual for our appointment, surprised me with his opening words: “I couldn’t quite place you when we spoke onthe phone but of course, I remembermeeting you and our conversation.” I warmed immediately to my lunchpartner and the gentleman I wouldspend the next few hours with as we unravelled his life and spoke of the things both of us enjoy – food, wine andunusual eating and watering holes in France and the United States.
Indra Rajbhandari is a relic of a period – whichis not to say he is a historic character.But his life simply reminds one of acertain time when people ate, drank,loved, travelled – and in between all ofthat did some fascinating work.It was not the ordinary interview with a slate of questions that progresses in alinear fashion. It was an exchange of thoughts and recollections from which
emerged a sketch of someone’s life. He is unfailingly polite and gracious – and funny. And he is honest and entirelyunassuming. “What would you like to drink,” I asked, wondering if his Gallic-infl uenced palate would veertowards wine. “Just some beer wouldbe fine,” he remarked.
“By the way this is the fi rst time I ambeing interviewed for myself,” he says. I asked what he meant and he saidhe had, by default, been interviewed when Dev Anand came years ago to Kathmandu to make the hippy-era ‘Dum Maaro Dum’– he and friendswere enjoined to star as extras and herecalls Zeenat Aman and the cast. And another occasion was in France when he was working in a restaurant next to a car rally site – his boss was to face the cameras but chance would have it that the boss asked him to step in. “So you see, I am not used to this,” he winds up.I reassure him that I am not there to fire questions or to trip him up or dig out details of his life. I saw myself as holding up a mirror to a man who very early on, when few Nepalis went abroad to study, had ended up in Strasbourg and then fell into the hotel and restaurant business. Serendipity is what his trajectory was about. He ordered a steak and I watched with trepidation as he asked the waiter whether the steak could be made medium rare. The blank stare in response necessitated a call to the chef who was instructed to make it with plenty of pink but no blood oozing. I was nervous that this typical of French and North American culinary favourites would disappoint. And there would go the chance to impress the gentleman with decades of fine wines and dining behind him.
“I’ve been all over except the area that borders Spain, places like Narbonne and Perpignan,” as he cast his mind back over his 16 years in France. Here marked how different the South of France is to Paris, a city that never goes to sleep. Although he was based mostly in Paris, he revelled in those heady days racing up the famous winding roads or the Corniches of the Riviera from Monte Carlo to Nice. “My life went at 100 miles an hour, almost as fast as a car,” mused Rajbhandari. As he spoke,
his voice was tinged with nostalgia and I could picture him in a red convertible with a companion fl ying around bends, the wind whipping past as the exquisite cerulean blue of the editerranean shimmered hundreds of feet below the craggy hillsides of the Côte d’Azur.
Studying in Strasbourg, he was handed an opportunity on a platteras work permits were being doled out like candy in those days, so he ended up interning at a restaurant at the Champs Elysées. It was an incredibleexperience as the clientele were quite particular and had their specialfavourites – the Le Monde editor came regularly and had a penchant for iced vodka and smoked salmon on toast.
His second internship was at London House where he worked at an elegant restaurant as a waiter. He would assist the manager with accounts so he gained exposure to the administrative and business side of running a restaurant.
In the winter he would race off to Chamonix to work at a winter resort and round out his work experience. His move across the Atlantic brought him in contact with an entirely different world of ritzy customers when he landed in Miami and worked at The Forge, a highly acclaimed restaurant in the United States. At the Fontainebleau, he rubbed shoulders with the likes ofAnthony Quinn, Kirk Douglas, the Bee Gees and Mick Jagger, tempting with the fi nest of wines from thewine cave. He spoke wistfully of an 1822 Chateau Lafi te Rothschild or Chateau Mouton Rothschild (it’s notclear which) that was available for $35,000 a pop. (Apparently Mouton Rothschild and Lafi te-Rothschild, its renowned Bordeaux neighbour, were acquired by the Rothschilds in the 19th century when taking over wine chateaus and vineyards were sport for patrician families.) The cellar was opened up for $5 and along with rows of musty but exquisite (andpriceless) bottles were wine books from all over the world. Rajbhandari smiled when I asked him about cooking for the White House – he confessed that a restaurant where he worked in Washington D.C. did cater to events at the request of the Oval Office but he could not take credit for being the chef. He did say that his training taught him what it was to have an education in handling food, in knowing about good food and wine and in understanding tastes of regular patrons. One mistake with an order, you would lose your job, he said gravely of these upscale restaurants.Equally, a stint at the upmarket Steak and Ale as a trainee manager taught that there were big bucks to be madein gratuities alone – when he racked up $800 in tips in one night alone.
As he cut into his steak, I winced, but after looking around for a steak knife, he went on and pronounced himself satisfied with the texture and taste. So I pressed him: “Do
you enjoy cooking? What do you like?” Things like stew, chicken breast, pork dishes, soup, he said. “I fault savoir comment couper lesoignons sans pleurer,” he remarkedin French having discovered that Iwas a Francophile, especially when it comes to food. And your favourite wines, I quizzed. “Drinking wine is a science and I can’t do it too often,” said Rajbhandari. But a Sauterne with pâté, in the Burgundy range, a Romanée-Conti, and Merlots; as for the whites, he expressed a preference for Chablis, Gewürtzraminer (harking back to his days in Alsace) and Pinot Blanc. Back in Nepal, he had to fi nd things to keep himself busy so he was asked to take over as the General Manager of Hotel Kathmandu and went onto increase the turnover by 6 % per annum. He then took on the task of lecturing at the Silver Mountain School of Hotel Management where he shepherded courses on food and beverage, hotel facilities, bar management and hospitality. These are all disciplines that need careful instruction and training. Rajbhandari enjoyed the fi rst batch who were happy with the exposure they gained based on his real-life experience inthe mecca of the hospitality world.
Lessons like breakfast can be served in the bathroom, it’s all about hygiene and safe handling, brought squeals as his students reacted in horror.So where do you go in Kathmandu?
He said he likes the Shangri-La Hotel, Delices de France, Chez Caroline, Tamarind. His favourite cooking shows are Paul Bocuse. And his favourite movies are James Bond and ndianaJones, along with a smattering of Sherlock Holmes and Westerns. His favourite place to hang out is the library and the sofa in his living room. He loves to walk and window-shop and get some fresh air. “You know President Chirac’sfavourite dish is bouillabaisse,” says Rajbhandari – I was reminiscing about a cooking course where I was taught all the staples of Provencale cuisine which involved a trip to get fresh fish from Fulton Fish Market in New York.
“And how about your children?”,I ask. His eyes light up when hementions his daughter who is studying human rights law now in England after graduating with a degree as a journalist. His son lives in Paris and after going through the most prestigious business schools in Europe,has ended up consulting with big firms
on sustainable development. The pride is evident but low-key. His best birthday present was when they cameto visit a few years ago. Are you happy about how you have lived your checkered life, I ask hesitantly. “Irately have regrets, except when I wake up with a hangover.” “But that couldbe bad champagne,” I parry. “Mine is alife without regrets, it has been rich and varied and fi lled with excitement and discovery,” he chuckles philosophically.
“Life is not just about staying alive.” As I left Indra Rajbhandari, the strains of Edith Piaf’s words Je ne regrette rienran through my mind, crowded as it was with images of a colorful past filled with vigor and Joy