Lopen Namgay, principal of Phajoding Monastery in Bhutan, looks back on his visit to Singapore
Before his passing last year, former executive chef of Marina Bay Sands, Christopher Christie, was an exemplar to colleagues, a well-respected veteran who mentored more than 200 At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy students. To commemorate his life’s work, At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy set up the Christopher Christie Scholarship aimed at funding culinary education trips to Singapore. Lopen Namgay, principal of Phajoding Monastery, is the award’s first recipient.
“I came to know about chef Christie’s story only later on,” says Namgay. “When I was approached to take up the scholarship, my first thought was that there must be a karmic connection between chef Christie, Dr Kwan Lui (At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy’s founder and director) and me, making us work together to help the young monks at my monastery.”
That ‘karmic connection’ was sparked off by serendipity in October last year, when Dr Kwan Lui did a trekking trip in Bhutan. One of her pit stops was Phajoding Monastery, a refuge for underprivileged boys and a sacred meditation site. Meeting Namgay there and learning that he had an interest in cooking, she thought he would make an ideal first candidate for At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy’s scholarship programme.
“Teaching is at the core of the Chef Christopher Christie Scholarship, and mentoring was important to chef Christie,” says Dr Kwan Lui. “We felt that a visit to At-Sunrice would help Lopen Namgay pursue his passion for cooking and empower him to be a teacher that could further impact the culinary landscape of Bhutan.”
Indeed, during his three-week visit to Singapore in January/February 2018, Namgay underwent a series of classes and hands-on training sessions with At-Sunrice chefs, picking up how to make basic pizza dough and prepare Asian and Western vegetarian cuisines. Coming from a country that believes gross national happiness is more important than gross domestic product, Namgay’s takeaways are simple—to apply his improved culinary skills to better the lives of the underprivileged boys he looks after.
What made you leave home at the age of seven to join the monastery?
It’s bit of a sad story for me and many monks in Bhutan. It was my parents’ decision to put me in the monastery when I was seven. It was very difficult for me to be away from my family at that age. I was not happy being a monk for many years and I was upset with my parents at that time. But now I really appreciate that I would have missed many things if I didn’t join the monastery. Almost all the monks here are underprivileged boys. Thirty per cent of them could disrobe in future because of various reasons.
Bhutan is largely associated with the Gross National Happiness Index, which measures happiness holistically through a basket of factors. Metrics aside, what does happiness mean to you?
Happiness is rejoicing about others’ success, like a mother who finds happiness in her child’s happiness. It is also about being content with what you have and who you are. I believe people would be much happier if they appreciated the things they have and who they are, rather than desiring material things or what others have. When we do the latter, we are giving in to greed and thus moving away from happiness. Happiness lies within ourselves.
What’s a daily routine like for you?
I get up at four in the morning. As monks, we start the day by generating compassion for all sentient beings. We think of them as our mothers from our previous lifetimes who are now suffering constantly everywhere. We pray to be able to liberate them from suffering by teaching them how to get rid of the source of all suffering—negativity. After that, I meditate, conduct lessons through the day, say my evening prayer, have dinner, then supervise the monks while they study. The satisfaction I get from spending my time and energy on others inspires me to follow my routine. I feel it is meaningful, so I am always content. I am happy that I am contributing to the future of my kids.
Describe Bhutanese cuisine and more specifically, monastic cuisine.
Bhutanese cuisine is very simple and authentic. The Bhutanese specialty is red rice served with curries such as chilli with cheese (ema datshi) and potatoes with cheese (kewa datshi). But the food in monasteries is very simple and served twice a day. As monks, we believe in taking food in small amounts and not caring too much about the taste. We think that we should consider food as medicine and not abuse it to satisfy our greed. The taste of food is temporary and not something we should be attached to.
Which part of your training in Singapore left the deepest impression on you?
I enjoyed every part of it, but learning to prepare various cuisines like pasta, pizza and other kinds of bread was the most exciting experience. I especially enjoyed learning how to make apple tarts, because many monks at my monastery like apple tarts but they are not available in most shops in Bhutan and we can’t afford to buy them. I was also happy to learn how to prepare simple meals with fruits. Back home, most of our meals include only vegetables.
How are you applying your cooking skills back at the monastery?
The monks are not too fond of meat since they have a huge compassion for animals. However, our vegetable dishes are usually quite limited (mostly potato and chilli cheese). Now we are able to prepare a variety of dishes and even bake our own bread. In fact our monastery is one of the first to make our own bread and cookies. The monks are all very keen to learn from me as they know that cooking our own meals helps us have healthy food at a lower cost.