If you’ve seen Netflix’s popular show Chef’s Table, chances are that you already know Asma Khan. Raised in Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta), 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. We caught up with Khan on the eve of the restaurant’s move to its new Covent Garden location, to discuss the food she grew up eating, sexism in the industry, and the pandemic’s ongoing impact on restaurants.
What experiences back home inspired you to become a chef?
Although I have lived across Hyderabad and Chennai, I spent most of my life in Kolkata. I never learned to cook but I was always in the kitchen talking to my mother, who had a catering business back in the day. I think what really helped me was the fact that I always tasted her dishes at their most critical stages of preparation. I love the Kolkata biryani, chaap, and rezala, and I grew up eating street food like phuchka, jhalmuri, and churmur. When I go back to Kolkata, I have chop suey because it is so unique to the city. I used to host supper clubs in my house and make chop suey, tangra prawns, and momos.
The menu at Darjeeling Express has the Kolkata biryani, kosha mangsho [mutton curry], chicken chaap, luchi-aloor dum [fried Indian bread with a spicy potato curry]—all of the prominent dishes that represent the city. When I left India, we had no mobile phones and ads were on billboards. I feel like I am better off than today’s generation because our center of attention was food. When we went out, everyone ate and talked rather than hanging out on Instagram.
You run an all-women kitchen. How do you respond to sexism within the restaurant industry?
There have been unfortunate comments from prominent men in hospitality, dismissing women, specifically pregnant women, as “weak.” I see men and women as equally skilled. I personally haven’t faced sexism but have heard terrible stories of sexual harassment, sexism, and racism. The underlying problem is a dynamic that finds women lacking power, which leads them to being bullied and dismissed. I wanted to give these women a platform where we could celebrate our identity. Women in our culture have always cooked for the family but are rarely applauded for it.
How have hiring practices across the industry changed? Do you think more work needs to be done?
In [U.K.] kitchens, there is a total absence of senior BAME [Black, Asian, and minority ethnic] members. Often the only person from the BAME community is the kitchen porter. Leaving aside family-run ethnic cuisine restaurants, there is definitely a lack of representation in the senior ranks of hospitality. When white people are in power there is a lot of self-selection as they feel affinity toward people who look like them. Diversity is extremely important because it brings to the table a different voice, a different perspective on everything. It’s not like ticking a box and saying “I hired a brown person or a Black person so I am diverse.” It is about giving them a voice in decision making. We need more people of our community who are decision makers and recruiters for diversity to truly exist.
The majority of your staff have not been professionally trained, in the traditional sense. How does it make your kitchen different from other restaurants?
I don’t think there is much of a difference—being in the restaurant business is difficult on its own. I know people in their 60s who have been cooking since they were teenagers. That is life experience. I would say that a home cook, however, has a secret ingredient: love. In our case, we cook in an old fashioned, traditional style which is much slower; we don’t use too many utensils or technology. I personally meet all of my customers because I believe in ibadat [the Urdu word for sense of service]. If we are serving luchi-aloor dum it will be served exactly the way it is supposed to; there’s no fancy plating or micro greens to elevate the dish. I am not trying to be someone else. I am very proud of my Bengali heritage.
The kind of food that I do needs to be cooked with people who have the same instincts as me. Honestly, it’s not about having an “all-women” kitchen, it is about having no hierarchy at all. The women in my kitchen cook like my aunts in the family did. In a normal kitchen, men are made to feel like there are tiers to the job and it is a divided kitchen, even the pay scales are different. At Darjeeling Express, everyone gets paid the same, which eliminates the chances of division and negativity.
You traveled to a refugee camp in Iraq to mark your 50th birthday. Tell us about that experience.
I financed and opened an all women café in the Essyan refugee camp in northern Iraq for young girls and women who were captured by ISIS. The excitement and happiness that this café gave everyone was incredible and only strengthened my belief that food is a powerful bridge that brings people together. In the refugee camp, everyone had a small cooker where they would make their version of biryani. In our kind of cooking, a lot of preparation is involved so these women came together and cooked the dishes they could not cook once they left their home. Food is the way home for me—when I cook, I am back in Kolkata. These refugees won’t be able to go home so I gave them a space that felt like home. Now, they are successfully running it, cooking and baking as they would if they were back home.
With restaurants cautiously reopening after lockdown, what do you think the future of dining looks like?
I would like to think that after this long pause, restaurateurs will come back more humble and in support of their teams. However, my fear is that they will use the economic hardship to further exploit and squeeze the wages of their staff. The government support system [in the U.K.] has been fantastic and we are very grateful, however, not everyone has been lucky. The power structure has changed; restaurants will now have higher debts. The owners might use it as an excuse to squeeze out more from the workers. I’m afraid that because we can only operate at a much lower capacity than before, much less staff and, particularly women and people of color, might not be re-hired. I want to increase the number of people who work with me, so that the business acts like an incubator for the next generation of women in food.