By Corey Kilgannon, The New York Times.
When Hurricane Sandy threatened to cut power to Russ & Daughters, the popular lox purveyor on Houston Street, Chhapte Sherpa, an assistant manager there, was a first responder in saving the salmon. Each day he found ways to make it to work from his apartment in Jackson Heights, Queens. When the power went down, he helped pack caviar to be stored in backup refrigerators in Brooklyn. He helped move the lox with ice into crates, and helped set up a generator to keep the refrigerators running.
And as the days wore on, he remained unfazed by the power failure.
“I never even know what electricity was, never saw it, until I was in my 20s,” said Mr. Sherpa, 39, who grew up in a tiny village in the eastern Himalayas. “I never saw a car or a television growing up.”
Mr. Sherpa, who has worked the past decade at the store and has become known as Sherpa Lox and as something of an attraction at the shop, is not your stereotypical Lower East Side lox-slicer.
“He’s the Sherpa who speaks Yiddish,” said Niki Russ Federman, who along with Joshua Russ Tupper is one of the store’s fourth-generation proprietors. “If he’s serving a young man, he might say, ‘Boychik what do you want?’ ”
Mr. Sherpa, as his last name implies, belongs to the renowned tribe of mountain people known for helping adventurers up Mount Everest, and this is exactly what Mr. Sherpa did in his youth.
“The two jobs are not really different,” he said of climbing versus fish-slicing. “Both involve helping people.”
Working at the store, which reopened on Thursday, is “not as dangerous as climbing in the Himalayas, of course, but it still requires endurance,” he said.
This was evident that afternoon, when the store had two large bags of food and water – a care package – to be delivered to an ill staff member laid-up in his blacked-out apartment where the elevators were not working.
Of course, Mr. Sherpa was tapped to haul the bags up the 24 floors.
“We asked him if we made the bags too heavy,” said Ms. Russ Federman. “He said, ‘Niki, I’ve carried 90 pounds up Mount Everest.’ ”
Mr. Sherpa, whose full name is Chhapte Sherpa Pinasha, said he grew up the youngest of four children in a wooden shack that was a seven-hour walk from the nearest food market.
Through his teens he went barefoot, even in freezing temperatures, he said, but at age 15 he got a pair of flip-flops to take foreigners on treks, and to join his father in carrying sacks of salt over his shoulder on long walks to base-camps for Everest climbers.
A couple from California who were trekking clients financed his study of English in Katmandu. Mr. Sherpa got married there and then in 1996 immigrated to California to work on the couple’s vineyard in the Napa Valley, crushing grapes with his bare feet. He became known as the man who always went barefoot.
He worked as a line chef in Alabama and returned at times to Katmandu, where he and his wife had two children. She is currently raising them there, and Mr. Sherpa hopes to reunite with them one day.
A dozen years ago, he moved to New York. A Chinatown employment agency found him a job at Sable’s smoked fish shop on the Upper East Side. After 18 months he was hired by Russ & Daughters, where he learned how to work quickly during the High Holy Days rush, and picked up some Yiddish from Jose and Herman, two Dominican immigrants who have each worked in the shop for more than 30 years.
They taught him, for example, that a “bissel” of cream cheese was just a light “schmear,” and that all the staff members are “mishpukah” – part of the Russ family.
Most important, they taught him how to cut lox “thin enough to read a newspaper through it,” Mr. Sherpa said. Now, he has his own following of customers, including the film producer Robert Evans, he said. Mr. Evans likes his Nova lox so thin that, as the employees at the shop say, it only has one side.
After growing up on a diet of flour paste, cheese soup and butter tea, Mr. Sherpa now subsists on caviar and pickled herring and wild Baltic salmon. Instead of trekking in flip-flops, he hops the F train to work (when it’s running), and he prefers coffee to butter tea.
“Forget about it,” he said. “You have to start your day with coffee in this city.”