Tue, 21 Aug 2018
Serving in the Gurkhas first brought him to England more than 30 years ago and now Kamal Gurung runs a thriving restaurant that brings the tastes of his childhood to Newbury.
The 56-year-old was brought up in a very remote area of Nepal, on the Indian border.
“It was a very flat area, with lots of tigers and elephants,” he remembers. “I used to take eight or nine buffalo into the jungle at a time.
“When I joined the army I moved into the high hills but my childhood memories are of areas that were like an African safari.”
Kamal’s father had been in the British army, fighting the Japanese during the Second World War, where he was a prisoner of war for six months.
He decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and joined the Gurkhas in 1979.
The main base was in Hong Kong, with regiments moving around every two years.
He spent four of his years in Hong Kong, with other stints in Australia, Brunei, Singapore and Malaysia, which he describes as just like his childhood home.
“I did a lot of border duty in Hong Kong,” he explains. “That was what we did mostly. Some of my most memorable times are from then.
“We did six months training in Australia and there was a time when we had to go 12 days and 12 nights without sleep.
“It was exhausting. You only slept when you fell on to the person marching in front of you.
“But if I wasn’t in the army, I wouldn’t have had all these experiences.
“It didn’t feel like we were working, it just felt like we should be there.
“I made some very good friends in the army and still keep in touch with a lot of them.”
In 1982, Kamal recalls all the preparation his regiment, 2nd Gurkha Rifles, began going through to prepare to go to the Falklands War. Luckily, he says, they were never needed.
By 1985, his regiment had been posted to Aldershot and he moved to the UK for the first time. He would never leave.
When his two years were up his regiment was due to move on again, but personal reasons kept Kamal back.
The private life he wanted was not compatible with the strict rules of the Gurkhas and so he left.
After initially working in security – a job he says many former Gurkhas end up doing – he moved to Reading and began working in a busy Nepalese restaurant.
“The owner was a friend of mine and he was having trouble finding Nepalese people to work for him, so he offered me a job,” Kamal explains.
“I worked there for six years and that is how I first got involved in restaurants.
“I remember how in the army we would cook Nepalese food for other soldiers and they would love it, particularly all the spice.”
In 1999 Kamal opened his first restaurant in Farnborough, close to the garrison that had been his first home in the UK.
After five years he headed back to Reading, opening in London Street. But his search for the perfect location continued and just two years later he found it – in Newbury.
“This is a great location,” he says, as we sit in the Gurkha Chef, which is located in The Broadway.
“All of our customers are really lovely and I can really see people enjoying their food, which is great.
“People who came in from day one are still coming in and eating the same dishes; they definitely have their favourites.
“I can really tell the difference from my other restaurants. Newbury is a very good place to be; I love it here.”
The restaurant moved just next door from its original home nearly two years ago, when it needed to expand. It celebrated its 10th anniversary last year.
Kamal, who now lives with his family in Basingstoke, says that seeing his friends extend their restaurant businesses has given him the conviction that he will not follow their lead.
“I think some of them lost their concentration,” he explains. “I want to always have my focus completely on this restaurant.
“I have no plans to extend, I just want to give 100 per cent to here.”
The Gurkha Chef now has 10 members of staff and a chef who has been with Kamal from his early days in the town.
It is not just the restaurant that commands his time now though. Kamal has become very involved in community work in the UK.
“There are 40,000 Gurung [one of Nepal’s ethnic groups] in the UK and I was president of the charity for two years,” he adds. “It is a very big charity and we organise a lot of events and charity work.
“There are a lot of ex- and serving soldiers and their families involved.”
While we are talking, I have the pleasure of sampling some of the restaurant’s dishes, including momo, which was recommended by Poonam.
The delicious spicy lamb-filled dumpling is a popular choice in Nepal and it is these authentic dishes that the restaurant strives to replicate for the West Berkshire diner.
Poonam, who also grew up in Nepal and is a director of the restaurant with Kamal, adds: “We really try to make it very authentic and serve the most popular food from Nepal.
“A lot of our regular customers have been coming in every week since the restaurant opened and I feel like they are all part of my family now.”
And proving the world is still a very small place, she tells me a story about a doctor she met while working in a hotel in Nepal many years ago.
He had opened a number of schools in rural areas in Nepal, which Poonam – who now does social work in the local area – thought was a fantastic thing to be doing.
Many decades and many miles later, that doctor walked into the Gurkha Chef for dinner. He’s one of the regulars now.