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Sherpas launch second careers in Wine Country, as restaurateurs

To say a certain smattering of Wine Country restaurateurs have climbed mountains to get to where they are today is the understatement of the century.

In truth, a small group of immigrants quite literally have scaled some of the world’s highest heights before they relocated to Sonoma and Napa counties: In previous lives, they provided trekking and expedition support on Mount Everest.

Almost all of them were born and raised in Nepal. Interestingly, most have the surname Sherpa.

They own restaurants including Sonoma Grille in Sonoma, Laso in American Canyon, Yak & Yeti in Napa and others.

By some estimates, the Sherpa community — including wives, children and other relatives — in and around Sonoma has grown to include 80 people. It is a vibrant community that prioritizes family and hard work and celebrates service.

“Between guiding and cooking, we have spent much of our lives in hospitality,” said Nima Sherpa, who owns the Sonoma Grille and is one of the most prominent members of the local Sherpa community. “This (level of serving guests) is something we love, but it also is something we have come to know very well.”

Altitude check

If the family name Sherpa sounds familiar, that’s because native English speakers have co-opted it for generations.

Many of the men who assisted with treks and expeditions in the Himalayas over the years had this appellation, and foreigners used the name to refer to their guides on climbing trips. Here in the United States, Sherpa the proper noun became sherpa, a noun. The new usage stuck.

In Nepal, however, the name Sherpa is a source of pride; Sherpas see themselves as a cultural group. As Nima Sherpa explained it, Sherpas are renowned for their resourcefulness, their diligence, their hard work and their commitment to family. In short, the name Sherpa is synonymous with dependability, reliability and honor.

Many of the current Wine Country Sherpas also served as climbing guides. Nima Sherpa estimated he has been up on Mount Everest many times — two expedition-style trips each year and “dozens” of shorter treks up the mountain over a 15-year stretch that ended when he left in 1997.

Most of these treks were at 17,000 or 18,000 feet. Some topped out around 26,000 feet.

During this time, Nima Sherpa ran a commercial expedition company with an uncle in Kathmandu. When he wasn’t guiding, he was cooking for guests at basecamp, sometimes in the upper high camp at 22,000 feet.

It was during these expeditions, he said, that he sharpened his skills as a cook — skills he eventually leveraged to open Sonoma Grille. On his journey from Nepal (he was born in a village called Solu Khumbu Kerung) to Wine Country, Nima Sherpa stopped along the way to cook in Bozeman, Montana, and Vail, Colorado. He arrived here in 1998.

“It was a long journey to get to where I am today,” he said. “I am thankful for all of the opportunities I have had along the way.”

Life in the New World

Chhiring Sherpa was the first Sherpa to move to Wine Country, back in 1992. Shortly after he arrived, he opened a restaurant, paving the way for other Sherpas to follow in his footsteps. Today, Chhiring Sherpa owns Himalayan Sherpa Kitchen in St. Helena.

Many members of the Sherpa community think of Chhiring as the godfather, or the “O.G.,” but in a short meeting back in 2021, he dismissed this suggestion.

“We are all part of a community,” he said. “I’ve just been here longer than almost everybody else.”

Nima Sherpa arrived a few years after Chhiring Sherpa did. Gradually, other Sherpas from other parts of Nepal immigrated here, too. Gyalzen Sherpa came in 1998 after trekking in summers and stints cooking in the French Alps. Upon arriving in Sonoma County, he scored a job at the now-shuttered Sonoma Meritage martini and oyster bar. He worked there for 14 years and left to open Yak & Yeti in Napa and La Casa Mexican restaurant in Sonoma — both which he still owns and operates.

“I don’t think I could have opened my restaurants anywhere else,” said Gyalzen Sherpa. “In Nepal, Sherpas come from small villages and we love being part of a community. That’s what we’ve created here with each other.”

Sonam Sherpa, co-owner of Laso in American Canyon, agreed.

As far as personal histories go, Sonam Sherpa’s is an interesting one. He learned to cook as a teenager in a monastery in India while he was training to become a Buddhist Monk, and he later dropped out of school to pursue cooking full-time.

After he came to the United States in 2009, Sonam Sherpa scored gigs cooking at iconic Napa Valley eateries such as FARM and Bouchon. He now owns Laso with his brother, Ming.

“We look out for each other,” Sonam Sherpa said. “The bond among Sherpas is very strong.”

Generally speaking, the extended local Sherpa community comes together multiple times annually — once to celebrate Lunar New Year in late January/early February and again to commemorate the Nepali harvest festival every August. Many Sherpas also get together for annual summer treks in the Sierra and up Mount Whitney.

Cooperation on display

With so many different restaurants in a small geographic area, one might think Sherpa restaurateurs compete against each other.

In fact, the opposite is true — Sherpas often work together to fill catering orders and will direct customers to other Sherpa-owned restaurants when they are looking for recommendations or ideas for elsewhere to eat.

Sheana Davis has experienced this firsthand. As owner of The Epicurean Connection in the burgeoning Warehouse District east of the Sonoma Plaza, Davis coordinates food tours and food experiences from all over the region. Corporate clients and wedding planners often call on her to cater their events. Whenever she orders food from a Sherpa-owned restaurant, the experience is a family affair.

“I might order food from one spot, and I never know which Sherpa is going to deliver it,” she said. “The food is always excellent, and it’s amazing to me how much they all help each other succeed.”

Davis is somewhat of an honorary Sherpa; she has been friends with Chirring Sherpa for nearly 30 years as their children grew up together. What’s more, her father-in-law, Bob Sessions, was the winemaker at Hanzell Vineyards for years, and he used to let Sherpas hike there to maintain their trekking stamina in their new home.

In further spirit of collaboration, there are two main ways anyone can experience Sherpa culture here in Wine Country.

The first, of course, is to frequent their restaurants. Some, such as Sonoma Grille, strive to be more “American” with fresh seafood, steak and craft cocktails. Others, such as Laso, offer a menu highlighting Nepali-style food such as pakoras and curry.

The second strategy for supporting Sherpas is to look for momos, a Nepali delicacy. Think of momos like plump dumplings — just about every Sherpa restaurant offers them (though they may not be listed on the menu), and many have them in a variety of flavors such as pork, shrimp, chicken and vegetable.

Davis, a self-proclaimed “momo maven,” offers a weekly momo dish and has put together a momo tasting at her shop through which customers can sample five momos from five different Sherpa eateries in one sitting.

Proceeds from this experience will benefit a nonprofit chosen by the Sherpas and, of course, the Sherpa-owned restaurants that provide the food.

“It all goes back to the Sherpas,” Davis said. “They’re an important part of our community.”

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