Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Good-bye to the Lox Sherpa of Russ & Daughters

“It always felt like Sherpa really saw you.”

Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images

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Alina Sheffi, a slicer at Russ & Daughters, stands at her usual spot in the long, narrow space behind the glass display case full of cream cheese, sides of lox, pickled herring, white fish, schmaltz, and all other manner of appetizing. As anyone who has visited the store knows, each of the six or seven slicers on duty at any one time has his or her own station at the wooden counter. Closest to the door, near the toaster, is Sheffi, a vivacious spiky-haired 60-something from Israel; then there’s José Reyes, a quiet man with a monastic air from the Dominican Republic; Johanna Shipman, a Mainer who doubles as GM; and then Tony Gonzalez, Eduardo Aguilar, and Hernan Tlaxcalteca, all from Puebla, toward the back of the store. The space is narrow, like an alley, and the interplay of bodies can feel like a dance, like an Ailey. But there is now an empty space between Sheffi and Reyes, a body missing in that dance, just in front of the caviar cream cheese. For the past 16 years, this was the space where 44-year-old Chhapte Sherpa, the so-called Lox Sherpa, worked five days a week, ten hours a day. But Sherpa won’t be coming to Russ & Daughters anymore; he had died by suicide earlier in the week.

For the past 16 years, Sheffi and Sherpa had stood feet apart, whispering the words in Hebrew and Yiddish that she taught him for difficult customers, of which there are many. “Nisht makhn keyn tsimes!” Don’t make a fuss. “Vos makht a yid?” What’s doing, man? The two were close, separated only at the High Holy Days, when the store was so crowded they divided up the counter between them with a piece of tape, and Sherpa drew a neat line with his long knife on the wooden counter, telling her, “That side is yours. This is mine.” He did it, says Sheffi, with a mischievous smile, a smile every single person at the shop mentions as perhaps Sherpa’s signal trait.

Chhapte Sherpa

“I want to cry already!” Sheffi tells me. Eyes watery and red above her N95 mask, she runs through the familiar litany of questions that many of Sherpa’s co-workers have asked in the days since his death. Could she have known? Was there something she could have done? “He had so much pride. He was stubborn. To tell somebody ‘I’m upset’ or ‘I want to cry’ — he would never do that.”

For those who saw Sherpa in action, his was a total, all-encompassing attention that felt like sunlight. He was an expert slicer and a primo kibitzer. The counter is, says Russ & Daughter’s co-owner Niki Russ Federman, a barrier and protection: “You literally can’t see the whole person one side from the other,” she says, “but it always felt like Sherpa really saw you.”

On the slicing side, he was a mentor and a friend. Everyone had an inside joke with Sherpa. Tony Gonzalez, a slicer from Mexico, called him Chupa, and Sherpa called him Chupa back. Before leaving, Sherpa would say good-bye to Jesse Parnell, a young assistant manager, with an “Hasta la vista, baby,” a joke the two had developed after a difficult patron — nisht gut — railed against Sherpa, whom she mistook for Mexican, for his broken Spanish. Every morning, when Sherpa would arrive early, often sharpening the knives of his fellow slicers, he’d peek his head into the office and ask Kizzy Bridgett, a Russ & Daughters administrator, “How are you?” As the days got darker during COVID, he would add, “But how are you really doing?,” half joking, half serious. After his death, Bridgett lamented that she had never asked him that back.

Those who read the Corey Kilgannon article that brought Sherpa fame north of 14th Street know that he had a New York story rich in layers of New Yorkishness. Sherpa grew up poor in rural Nepal. He didn’t own a pair of shoes until he was 15 years old. He walked seven hours to the nearest village for food. When he was 12, fate arrived in the form of Dick Grace, the Napa Valley winemaker and avid trekker, on his first visit to Himalayan high country. After impressing him as the youngest, hardest-working member of their Sherpa group during a Himalayan expedition, Grace eventually paid for Sherpa to study English in Kathmandu, where he met his wife and had two children. In 1996, he came to the United States, leaving them behind, to work at the Grace Family Vineyards. Thus began an odyssey that included stops in Birmingham, Alabama, as a line cook, then in New York, at Sable’s, a rival smoked-fish concern, and finally on the Lower East Side in 2004.

By the time he walked through the narrow doorway, Sherpa knew from lox. According to Russ Federman, Sherpa’s technique was impeccable. “Slicing lox is like using a violin or cello bow,” she tells me, miming the smooth action in a conference room in the company’s Brooklyn factory. “It’s side to side and back and forth. You need to have great sensitivity to make the necessary microadjustments.” For Johanna Shipman, Sherpa’s virtuosity came from his ability to see angles others could not. “Lox is an irregular shape,” she says, “but Sherpa was extremely good at being able to see at what angle to cut it to get the biggest slice possible.”

Sherpa, right, with his Russ & Daughters family. Photo: Courtesy Russ & Daughters

Another side of Sherpa’s skill resonates differently now: his ability to carry his own weight without transferring it to the fish or, for that matter, anything else. Hernan Tlaxcalteca, one of the many slicers whom Sherpa taught, stands in front of a side of smoked salmon. Like most of the other employees, Tlaxcalteca is struggling with Sherpa’s loss. In his right hand, he holds the long, thin slicing knife; his left rests gently on the salmon. “You can’t put any weight on the knife,” he explains, “or on the salmon.” His body was suspended, almost like a ballet dancer’s, and relaxed through the shoulders. His port de bras — back and forth — reminded me of reeds in the wind. Tlaxcalteca held his weight just as Sherpa taught him. The more weight there is on the fish, he says, the less communicative the blade can be, and the less able the slicer is to be responsive to the subtle variations of the lox. Slices become thick, jagged, and irregular, not, as they should be, paper thin with an elegant outline. “You need to be able to see the knife,” Tlaxcalteca tells me, “through the lox.”

Sherpa was, by blood and culture, adept at carrying his own weight and others. It is, undoubtedly, what endeared Sherpa to Grace and later what made him a great slicer and a steady presence. And yet the weight was there. After his death, the story of Sherpa’s separation from his family, the tenuous connection remittances constitute, unrelenting loneliness, and a sense of split personality began to emerge, leaving his friends and family wondering at what cost came Sherpa’s light touch.

There was friction with his son, Pemba, who had come to live in the United States a few years ago. In June, Sherpa’s daughter arrived, in a move meant to be permanent. But she moved back to Nepal a few months later. He hadn’t spoken to his wife in years, and even his relationship to the Sherpa community in New York, those who knew him say, had grown distant in the past few years. This is the common suffering for many immigrants here and elsewhere, though no less shattering. But it would be a disservice to Sherpa, I think, to write off his weight as purely an expression of systemic circumstance. Like all of us, he had his own foibles, crinkles, and crevasses. Those who knew him say he might have gotten in over his head in day trading, too. Sherpa had long expressed an interest in the stock market, and he talked so often about it at work that Sheffi had to tell him, “Hak nisht keyn tshaynik!” (Stop banging on a teakettle or, in other words, Enough already.) According to Grace, who loaned him a substantial sum a month and a half ago, “My guess is that he was probably leveraged, lost it, and ended up with a negative balance.” Of course, casting about for some kind of cause is a fool’s errand. Sherpa left no note nor clue that anything was wrong. He simply left work on a Monday, claiming a stomachache, and never returned.

On the last Sunday in October, just over a week after Sherpa’s passing, 11 monks gathered at the United Sherpa Association, a building in a former Catholic church in Elmhurst, Queens. Pemba was there, prostrating before a colorful altar. So was Russ Federman and her husband, Christopher Meehan. The monks chanted, convincing Sherpa’s soul that he had indeed left this world. They blew long horns called dungchen, a lionlike roar that filled the chapel. On their way out, mourners were given brown paper bags full of fruit and cookies. At the same time, thousands of miles away, in Kathmandu, a larger ghewa, or funeral ceremony, was taking place, with some 300 people in attendance, including Sherpa’s wife and daughter. And at Russ & Daughters, lox was still being sliced, but perhaps just not in slices quite as large or quite as thin. With Chhapte Sherpa gone, everyone was carrying a bit more weight.

For those who are experiencing a crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

This post has been updated to correct the amount of time Sherpa’s daughter spent in the U.S.

Good-bye to the Lox Sherpa of New York City