by Jigme Wangchuk
Kezang Tenzin, 56, is widely regarded as the master chef of Bhutan. Hailing from Lhuentse, his larger than life personality has an electrifying effect to the kitchen.
When met at his office in Thimpu, he appears to be slightly amused by the visit of this writer. "Ah, what do we talk about?" he asks.
"How you became the premier chef of this country," I suggest.
"Ah," he allows himself a small laugh. A ring of smoke escapes through his betel-stained teeth.
The making of this great chef began with a government scholarship to train as a chef in Hong Kong. In 1982, Kezang left for Golden Mile Holiday Inn, a five-star hotel in Hong Kong. He did not return to Bhutan until many years later.
Life was tough in a foreign land. There was another young man who went together with Kezang. He did not survive for more than three months there.
"The Chinese treated us very badly and talked to us like animals. That was how I picked up Cantonese curses," he said. "I survived because I had a strong willpower."
After working under the watchful eyes of his supervisors, Kezang was promoted to entremetier (vegetable chef). He remembers one Christmas when he had to roast 2,500 turkeys.
"That was one hell of a job. Normally I could just about do about 20 birds," says Kezang. "But cooking can be interesting when you understand why you're doing it."
He later graduated to becoming a saucier, a chef who prepares sauces and meat dishes.
In 1988, Kezang returned to the homeland and he has since been the master chef who cooks for all royal dignitaries. He is also credited with organising the first banquet in the country.
Even with his immense success now, Kezang could not forget how his mother was heartbroken by his decision to be a chef.
"There are thousands of jobs in the civil service. Why do you want to be a cook?" she asked him. He does not remember his reply to her.
"Being a chef is a low-profile job in Bhutan. In other countries, chefs are regarded highly and paid really well. Here, anyone who can prepare a meal is called a chef," says Kezang.
But Kezang loves doing what he does best. It is the low level of respect that Bhutanese have for chefs that really saddens him.
"This is only beginning to change now," says Kezang who has trained more than 3,000 chefs in Bhutan.
A chef who is never short of humour, Kezang likes to make fun of himself.
"Look at my size," he says, pointing at his massively protruding belly. "Most chefs are fat because chefs have to taste food every day. If you're not a fat chef, people won't believe you're one."
Nevertheless, Kezang is a proud chef. He believes that he can leave a legacy by elevating the image of chefs in Bhutan. "That will be my contribution," he says, beaming.
Besides cooking, Kezang is venturing into business by starting his own catering unit called Sampheling in Langjophakha.
"I want to upgrade the facilities in kitchen from my income. That's very important," says Kezang. "In Bhutan, a chef has to do everything. It's very challenging."
Kezang may be the master chef but his wife does not allow let him cook at home. That is because Kezang sends pots and pans flying out of frustration. Home kitchen is not systematic, he grumbles. He could not find the utensils he needs easily.
"Cooking in Bhutan is a challenge. If you don't get required ingredients and, when you make do with substitutes, the end product is something entirely different," says Kezang. "Which is also interesting in many ways, and the chilies. We absolutely need to have them in all our meals, our taste buds are spoilt by chilies."— Kuensel Online (Bhutan)