Boston restaurant Comfort Kitchen serves a menu of brightly flavored and nourishing global comfort food. Its managing partner, Biplaw Rai, is on a mission to uplift the people around him — customers and coworkers alike.
On a recent visit, prawns sizzle in a pan for a dish with mango chow and sherry peppers. Rai moves between his customers and staff to make sure everyone feels at home. “I create spaces," he says. “I bring people together, especially through food.”
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Restaurants have played a big part in Rai’s life. “I'm an immigrant from Nepal,” he shares. “I came here when I was 18 for college. And the restaurant industry has been like a safe space for me because that was the first industry that really opened the doors for myself to get employment.”
"I create spaces. I bring people together, especially through food."Biplaw Rai
His first jobs were in places like Taco Bell, KFC, and in the summers he worked in Ocean City, Maryland with other Nepali college students. He saw how much the restaurant industry relies on immigrants, and how often employers fail them.
“For a long time, while we were working in the restaurant industry, our voices or our stories were never heard,” Rai says. “Or if it was heard, it was never the center of it. And I've always said that the restaurant industry is like the underbelly of the United States.”
Rai tries to do better for his team. Before every shift, he and the staff share a meal together. “We want to be a space, a catalyst, a place where we uplift our friends, family, community members on whatever vision they have,” he says. “And we want to start with our team first and then move outside.”
Rai and his two partners — Nyacko Pearl Perry and Kwasi Kwaa — run Comfort Kitchen, and have operated it as a pop-up around Greater Boston since 2020. Right now, they offer dinner several nights a week at Little Dipper in Jamaica Plain, while their permanent home in Dorchester is under renovation. Rai says the goal is to “give something to Boston that's very different than what you are getting right now in terms of food, in terms of service. Let's tell our stories. Let's not have somebody tell our story through their lens.”
Rai grew up in Kathmandu. He sports a bold mustache that, when it’s not covered by a mask, curls at the corners of his mouth. His hearty laugh punctuates his sentences as he talks to the people around him. One of Rai’s partners, Kwaa, is from Ghana, and the restaurant features food from the African diaspora.
“We bring a very global perspective to our dishes,” Rai says. “There's a lot of back and forth about how it should be presented, what should be there, what ingredients are there. And what we find out is there's more commonality than differences in food.”
The dishes they serve are often tied to personal memories.
“Right now, we're doing potato cakes on the menu. And it's one of those things that I grew up eating,” he says. “It's pretty much a mashed potato with panko and then they deep fry it. We used to eat that for lunch when we had our swimming lessons. As a kid, when you're growing up, you're just waiting for that...it's the best thing ever.”
Comfort Kitchen operates with three guiding principles: collaboration, cross-cultural understanding and community.
“We want to be a space, a catalyst, a place where we uplift our friends, family, community members on whatever vision they have."Biplaw Rai
“We want to be a destination point where people are actually traveling across neighborhood lines,” Rai says. “And also in doing so, we want to bring attention to how segregated the city is.”
And this is another reason Rai wants to take good care of his staff. If they feel looked after, they’ll take good care of the customers.
“There are places that people don't feel comfortable walking in,” he says. “It's mostly got to do with class and the money. We want to be just the opposite of that. We want people from all walks of life to come in.”
More than a restaurant, Rai is making a communal multicultural space that lets people learn from one another with comfort food at the center.
This segment aired on September 22, 2021.