Lachhu Thapa says his restaurant the Hungry Buddha has completely changed his life - and not in the way that you'd expect.
The popular Nepalese restaurant is expanding to Belconnen, opening on Friday on Luxton Street to serve momos and goat curries. But this isn't a tale of MasterChef style, foodie empire building. Instead, the Hungry Buddha has led Thapa to a newfound life of charity and is calling him back to his homeland, Nepal.
Thapa moved to Canberra for work about five years ago, searching for a different lifestyle. With a mate, Ben Richardson, he also opened a cosy Nepalese restaurant in a hidden basement dining room in Curtin. "And it really balanced out my life immensely when we opened first up," he says.
The restaurant gave him creative fulfilment, serving Nepali beers behind the bar, talking to customers on the floor about the food. It did well enough for Thapa and Richardson to open a second venue, a cafe in Phillip called Wheat and Oats.
Then came the devastating earthquakes that wrecked the tiny Himalayan nation.
Thapa and Richardson (who is now based in Singapore) wanted to help out, so they held fundraising dinners and events. "After the earthquakes last year we started raising money for Nepal. Unofficially we raised about $6000," he says. "And that's when some of my clients came to me and said, Lachhu they give you money but there's no accountability, do you want to start a foundation?"
That's when he helped create Reach for Nepal, an organisation that's helping rebuild class rooms and school buildings in the aftermath of the quake.
"Since its inception last year we've raised about $35,000 and carried out about six projects in Nepal. We've rebuilt two classrooms, a water tank, we're building a library as we speak," he says.
Thapa was just a teenager when he came to Australia. "Back in the '90s and the 2000s going to the West was a big thing, partly because Nepal was a third world country," he says. "You grow up with that 'Oh you've got to go to the west and earn lots of money and it brings you freedom.'"
He got a scholarship, graduated from university in 2006 and started working full time in accountancy. By all measures he had achieved success - a comfortable, middle class life in a developed country. But something was still missing and the work he did with the foundation proved to be the spark.
"I could easily live my life here, drive a BMW or buy a fancy house. Not think about anything," he says.
"[But] now with the foundation, I really want to go back and base myself in Nepal and carry out these projects because I find peace when I'm helping people, the kids in Nepal. It's just that opportunity and hope."
The Belconnen venue will serve the same menu as the original restaurant in Curtin, which will close temporarily in 2017 as the owners of the Curtin shops redevelop the building.
Thapa says it's been a great journey. "It's just changed the focus of my life altogether."
The Hungry Buddha in Belconnen is at 8/8 Luxton Street, thehungrybuddha.com.au