Almost 40 years ago, Himal Chuli owner Krishna Pradhan left Nepal to work as a half-time lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His family stayed behind as he pursued his Ph.D. and saved a nest egg with the intention of returning to Nepal to "live happily ever after," says Pradhan.
He never did make it back to Nepal to live, but he and his family are making good on the happily-ever-after part.
Earlier this month, the Wisconsin Restaurant Association chose Pradhan as the state finalist for the 2012 Faces of Diversity Award in the "American Dream" category. The winner of the National Restaurant Association award will have a $5,000 scholarship in their name given to a culinary student. The award goes to restaurateurs who "have gone above and beyond in giving back to their communities," according to the National Restaurant Association.
Kate Reiser, member coordinator at the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, remembered Pradhan's application from 2009, when he applied for the same award but was not selected as the finalist. "He stuck in my mind - I was hoping that different judges would be as charmed by his application as I was," says Reiser.
During their early years in Madison, Pradhan and his wife, Bishnu, were financially strapped. Bishnu's cooking garnered a lot of attention, and her guests urged them to start a restaurant. Rent was prohibitive, so they decided to open a food cart, back when there were only a handful on Library Mall. In 1980, Pradhan took a sampling of foods - samosas, pakoras and the like - to the Library Mall coordinator's office.
"When I unwrapped the packages, she withdrew her hand swiftly," he remembers.
The next year, a new mall coordinator took the post, and the Pradhans got the green light. A friend gave them a clunker Plymouth station wagon as a "good luck gift," and the Pradhans' children used it to haul the cart to campus.
In 1985, a friend alerted them to an open space at 318 State St. Some of the equipment was falling apart and the building needed loving. But the space was a bargain, and in March 1986, Himal Chuli opened its doors. It was the first Nepali restaurant in the country.
"We were quite apprehensive about presenting an unfamiliar group of foods to the city of Madison. At the time, when we were invited into American households, we hardly ate anything spicy," Pradhan writes in his award essay. But he soon experienced "open acceptance of our foods by the community."
To Pradhan, these achievements mean being able to share the success. The family supports schools and businesses in Nepal, as well as community organizations in Madison. A few of their cooks have even opened their own restaurants, including Mirch Masala; and Pradhan's son, Rajan, today heads sister restaurants Dobhan and Chautara.
Chautara now sells one of Krishna Pradhan's childhood favorites: mumari, a fried mung bean patty. Bishnu's delectable vegetarian version of momocha, a Tibetan dumpling traditionally made with meat, found its place on a list of America's 75 Best Food Buys in Food & Wine magazine in 2003.
The winner of the Faces of Diversity Award will be announced in a few weeks.