To understand why Tenzing Ghama can’t wait to get up at four in the morning to start cooking, you have to believe in dreams.
She’s always wanted to open a restaurant, but she’s never had the money or the opportunity to do so.
But time is something she does have a little bit of. So six months ago, she joined the Shef app to see what would happen.
Since then, she’s been preparing Tibetan, Indian and Nepalese-influenced meals three days a week, sometimes making 30 to 40 dishes at a time during five- and six-hour stints before going off to her full-time day job.
“I grew up helping my father and grandmother cook, but I never knew people liked my food until I did this,” she says, her eyes on fire with excitement. “I was about 12 when I started helping them. Nobody taught me. I learned by watching them cook traditional Tibetan food.”
Tenzing, a Tibetan who was born and raised in Darjeeling, India, comes from a family who turned ideas into reality.
Her father set his sights on America and gave up everything to come here in the 1990s.
“It was his dream to have a better life,” she says.
Tenzing, her housewife mother and her older sister stayed behind, living frugally on the monthly money he sent them.
Tenzing, who came to New York City in 2013 when she was 33, was the last to immigrate.
“I always knew I was coming here,” she says, adding she and her family all live together in the Long Island City apartment her father has rented for years.
Despite her passion for preparing food, Tenzing never entertained the idea of making her living cooking.
When she went to college in India, she sensibly studied commerce and planned a career in banking.
But before she even graduated, she realized that finance wasn’t her field.
Instead, she made use of her degree by working as a data-entry operator in an accounting firm, and then she held a computer-related job.
She was making good money, but like her father, she gave it all up to come to America.
The first five years after she came to New York City to live permanently, she worked the night shift as a cashier and various other positions at a restaurant.
“My mom used to come to pick me up there at 3 a.m., and we almost got attacked coming back home one time,” she says. “I was so afraid that I decided to do something else.”
At her sister’s suggestion, she trained as a home-health aide. Now, she works in the field six days a week.
“I do my job with my patients with all my heart,” she says. “But cooking is my passion. Since I started cooking, I’m always happy.”
The cooking, she says, adds not only hours to her schedule but also balance to her life.
She presents some of the specialties on her multi-cultural menu: momo, the dumplings that are native to Tibet and Nepal; aloo dum, a spicy potato dish that’s popular in Darjeeling; the Tibetan/Indian beef dish bone-in langsha labu curry; phaksha rai saag curry, a pork/mustard green meal she grew up eating in Darjeeling; and the Tibetan noodle and vegetable soup thukpa thenthuk.
Commercial cooking isn’t the only recent change that Tenzing has made in her life.
Last year, she married a man who began courting her in 2016.
Like Tenzing, he’s a Tibetan from India.
She’s quick to note that this was not an arranged or hasty marriage.
She knows him very well. She visited him numerous times after they were introduced by a friend, and they have conversed constantly through the years despite their geographical distance.
The wedding ceremony was aboard, and he’s still in India, but Tenzing’s hoping he will be able to join her here soon.
Although she has given up on the idea of owning a restaurant — it’s a far too expensive proposition – Tenzing is seriously thinking about applying for a loan to buy a food truck.
“I know how much it would cost — $50,000,” she says. “I Googled it.”
She smiles as if it’s a done deal.
Still, she’s trying not to get her hopes up. At 41, she thinks she may have waited a little too long to do this.
And all her hard work for Shef, she knows, won’t necessarily make her dream come true.
“I don’t make much money doing the cooking,” she says, “but it makes me feel so satisfied.”