This chef has an all-women kitchen and wants you to 'embrace the immigrant'
Netflix’s Chef’s Table star Asma Khan wants to tackle racism and sexism with food.
If you’ve seen Netflix’s popular show Chef’s Table, chances are that you already know Asma Khan. Raised in Kolkata, India, as a second daughter (an often overlooked member of the family), the chef and restaurateur behind London’s Darjeeling Express is known for serving the Indian dishes of her childhood, filled with Bengali, Mughlai, and Bihari influences. But she has also worked tirelessly to create a safe space for many more “second daughters” like herself, by hiring an all-women staff, most of whom are South Asian immigrants.
In June, however, Khan decided not to reopen her restaurant when the lockdown was lifted. “It was getting too difficult, doing 200 covers in a 55-seat restaurant. When I designed the restaurant, I never visualised we’d do these numbers. We found a way to do it through sheer grit and working so hard,” Khan said. “It was a ridiculous situation — there’s only so much you can do with enthusiasm and passion and as much as I loved it, I had to leave.”
Now Asma has confirmed that her celebrated Indian restaurant Darjeeling Express will reopen at a much bigger premises in Covent Garden in October. Her goal is to have a bigger kitchen and dining room in order to be able to train more women in all aspects of running a restaurant. “I am happy I can finally cook on 16 flames in the kitchen as opposed to four — the walk-in fridge in Covent Garden is the size of our entire Kingly Court kitchen,” she revealed.
Hoping to give more women the opportunity to take on senior roles, Khan said: “I want to absorb a lot of people — women in hospitality — who have lost their jobs,” adding that “we will use the next site as an incubator to rebuild the confidence of women, many who are walking into further insecurity.”
There's something about Asma Khan
Asma Khan grew up in Calcutta, a descendant of the Rajput tribe that her father called "impoverished aristocrats" and Bengali royal families (on her mother’s side). It’s why her food today is a mix of Mughal cuisine of the royals of Bengal and Rajputana food from the Nizams. “The food that was served on my parent’s table was pre-Partition food… something people no longer eat,” she says. “In the pain of what we lost, food took a battering. We never recovered from ’47.”
Khan moved to the United Kingdom in 1991 after her marriage, first Cambridge and then London. In London, she decided to study “so people could think I was smart”. She did a PhD in Constitutional Law, with a thesis on the relationship between church and state.
To deal with homesickness, she turned to food. She started a supper club in her home. “I created the shahi dawat that I imagined my family would have done. An average menu had kebabs, biryani, rezala, chicken chaap, sheermal and different halwas,” she says. She did this for three years taking the help of other Indian immigrants she met. One example is Kalpana Sunder, a nanny who would come to her house to have chai and watch Zee TV and soon became the first member of Khan’s team. Khan did the supper clubs when her husband was away. He only found out because her children complained to her father that the ‘mama is always feeding strangers and she tells us to stay in our room’. She moved the concept to a Soho pub, where a review by noted critic Faye Mashler got her a buzz of popularity. “That day the world changed for me. I knew I was going to make it.”
Khan opened Darjeeling Express in 2017, employing a team of women immigrants with no professional training. Her restaurant is making waves for the food, for her all-women team, and for opening up the kitchen (every Sunday) to aspiring chefs who want to train, and host supper clubs. It also champions sustainability – there’s no single-use plastic, food wastage is minimal and they undersell food. Part of the proceeds from Darjeeling Express goes to Khan’s Second Daughters charity. In 2018, she published a cookbook, Asma’s Indian Kitchen.
How to tackle racism and sexism with food
When Asma Khan first arrived in Britain from India to join her husband in 1991, the racism was so bad she had to learn to cycle fast to avoid being hit by the bottles lobbed at her.
Now, the award-winning chef is using her success in London - where her restaurant has a celebrity clientele and a months-long waiting list - to help other immigrant women overcome the twin barriers of racism and sexism.
Most Sundays, she closes her busy Darjeeling Express restaurant and offers her kitchen for free to novice female immigrant chefs to host their own supper clubs.
The female chefs she works with gain experience of cooking in a professional environment for paying customers as well as financial literacy and publicity, she said. Khan herself started small, hosting supper clubs in her London home with other immigrant women, nannies and cleaners.
"Immigrant food has been embraced, I want this country to embrace the immigrant too," she said. "You cannot have my food and not have me."
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