Tibetan refugee Lobsang Dorjee Tsering has tested out his plump momos — Tibetan dumplings — on monks and friendly neighbors over the years. Now, D.C. diners can get a taste.
“I still get nervous every time someone eats my food,” Tsering says. “I always want to make sure they like what I am making because I know it might be their first time trying [Tibetan food].”
Tsering is introducing his restaurant concept, Dorjee Momo, to D.C.-area diners through a series of pop-up dinners this summer and fall. Those who were quick enough to secure a ticket to his first event at Sally’s Middle Name earlier this month enjoyed Tibetan dishes including yellow laphing (Nepalese rolled noodle crepes), juicy lamb momos and a troma (sweet yam) dessert.
Born into a nomad family, Tsering moved into a Tibetan Buddhist monastery at 6 and began studying to become a monk. Per tradition, he also learned how to cook, spending hours each day kneading dough to bake for the monks. After 16 years, Tsering sought new opportunities, so he trekked across the Himalayas and registered with the United Nations as a refugee in Dharamsala, India.
“When I left the monastery, I thought to myself, ‘What can I do? I don’t have many skills or an education,’ ” Tsering says. “But I remembered how happy I felt while singing and cooking with the other monks at the monastery and realized that I wanted to be a chef.”
Tsering began working at a cafe in Dharamsala, eventually meeting his now-wife Amberjade, an American who was working in the region. The couple moved to D.C. in 2014 when Amberjade began graduate school at George Washington University, and Tsering began working in kitchens at Bullfrog Bagels, Maketto and Sospeso.
Between shifts, he made momos for his neighbors.
“Some mornings, I’d wake up to the sound of Dorjee pounding dough, getting ready to make momos,” says Peter Aquino, a former neighbor of Tsering’s. “Good food doesn’t go unnoticed in D.C., and I think people will be able to taste that his food is made with love.”
Eventually, with money raised from Kiva, an online lending platform that helps traditionally underserved minorities receive microloans, Tsering was able to join the food incubator Union Kitchen, where he develops recipes and plans his business.
Tsering’s goal is to eventually open a brick-and-mortar restaurant in D.C. that will train and hire other refugees, but in the meantime he gets inspired by watching his diners from the comforting confines of the kitchen.
“When I see people eating my food and happily talking to each other, I feel like, ‘Wow, I did it. I’ve given them something special with my food,’ ” Tsering says. “It gives me confidence, and keeps me going.”
Where you can try Dorjee Momo:
— Thip Khao, 3462 14th St. NW; Aug. 22.
— Private home dinners upon request at dorjeemomo.com