Asma Khan’s journey has the kind of story arc most novels or Hollywood blockbusters would aspire to be. Khan has been an advertising executive, journalist, law student and now, wildly successful chef. Her kitchen consists of entirely women, and she’s taken traditional family recipes and brought them to an international audience.
She’s gone from a hosting a supper club to opening her own restaurant. It’s a small wonder, that she was chosen by Netflix to be on volume six of Chef’s Table, spotlighting her London restaurant, Darjeeling Express. Known for dishes that reflect her heritage, Khan will be in the city this weekend for her first Mumbai-based pop-up as a part of Culinary Culture, a new initiative by Vir Sanghvi and Everstone Capital’s Sameer Sain.
Memories of home
On camera Khan is forcefully sure of her opinions and with a strong grounding in her convictions. This translates when interviewing her as well, when she takes ownership of her journey, and shines a light on her path to success. Khan, who was born and raised in Kolkata, credits her family and the city for its indelible culinary memories, “Kolkata or Calcutta as I prefer to call it had a deep impact on my culinary journey. In the 80s and 90s my mother ran a very successful catering business. I was with her a lot and watched food being prepared all the time, even though I did not cook then. I was exposed to a wide range of food in Calcutta from Bengali, Armenian (my mother’s business partner was Armenian) to Bengali Mughlai food. I learnt to appreciate the delicacy of spicing, what made something Bengali as opposed to Mughlai.”
If it’s Calcutta that has left an indelible mark, it was Khan’s status as a daughter, and the younger one at that, which defined her outlook. Throughout her Chef’s Table episode she talked about how community and society views girls as a burden. While Khan chose to study the law, it was only when she moved to the UK with her husband that she realised, home was tied to memories of food. A trip back, and learning to cook from her mother was what Khan needed to get over her homesickness. She says, “I realised one way to cope with the loneliness, especially missing my mother was to cook dishes she made at home. Then while my kitchen in Cambridge was infused with the spice aromas, I felt as if my mother was standing next to me.”
This is perhaps why, she’s been in the news for recruiting women as chefs and servers in the restaurant. Khan says, “I could say now it was a deliberate decision – it was not. It just happened that way. In my early supper club days I made friends with the south Asian nannies in my kids’ school and although many came from very different backgrounds from me – they all cooked in the same way as me – by ‘andaz’, and with unwritten recipes. By instinct. Following the unspoken rhythm of cooking with our mothers and grandmothers. We cooked with our hearts – there was non-verbal communication, you watched and followed.”
Once the supper club morphed into a restaurant, with its attendant hours and pressures, Khan retained her staff, choosing to forgo trained chefs in favour of the very same nannies and chefs. In the show she explained, “I think the world is big enough for everybody.” But when asked to elaborate Khan, ever articulate says, “Following an unconventional route I did not acquire any of the bad habits of the industry. We began working in my home kitchen cooking for supper clubs as a collective of women, with no hierarchy. It showed me that French military-inspired brigade-style ranks in kitchens were not suited to my kind of kitchen. I learnt that the way our grandmothers and mothers huddled together and cooked for large numbers every festival or family celebration was a very effective way to cook for a restaurant kitchen.”
Breaking the mould
This return to tradition, has ultimately been a way to break so many established norms. Says Khan, “We feel cooking is our liberation. It is the way to express emotions and spread happiness. Almost all the women who cook with me in Darjeeling Express have families away from England. Coming to the restaurant is a homecoming for them. In that small kitchen, following the unspoken rules of cooking of our mothers and grandmothers, we recreate the food of our childhood.”
When quizzed on how her non-traditional career has impacted her current position as owner and chef, Khan is able to draw a through line from starting out in advertising to studying law. Khan elaborates, “I have learnt from every job I did. In my first supper club I presented the stories and heritage of every dish to my guests. I still tell my guests in the restaurant the story behind each dish. I suppose my advertising and journalist experience helped me to narrate stories. The legal education and advocacy training is probably used more for my political activism and discussions about food as a bridge between communities.”
How then, does she measure the impact of her work? She recalls her father saying, “Use your life to make a difference, because being in a position of privilege, you have a duty to lift others up.” Khan responds, “I hope the most meaningful thing that comes out of my story is that women are resilient and I am always inspired by Tagore’s ‘Ekla Cholo Re’ (never fear to walk alone). I began alone but women came behind me and lit my path, my Darjeeling Express chefs. The average age of the women cooking in my kitchen is 50. This is not the autumn of my life, this is our spring. We are renewed and we have a new purpose in our lives. I hope this message is something women reading or hearing about our stories will take away. My greatest success will be when all-female kitchens spring up all over the world. That is the legacy I want to leave behind,” Khan emphasises and signs off.