“In this story, please don’t refer to me as a chef,” says Asma Khan. “I am just Asma.” She is the founder of Darjeeling Express, a restaurant in London famed for recreating dishes from Khan’s family home in Kolkata. Her signature, undoubtedly, is the Kolkata biryani. The menu, featuring puchkas, Tangra prawns, rezala, korma and kebabs, is influenced by her family’s royal Rajput lineage. She doesn’t talk about food in terms of flavours and ingredients; a conversation with Khan about her work is all about dishes cooked by mothers and grandmothers, stories about her all-women kitchen team, and personal goals about creating spaces for women-run restaurant businesses.
She aims to be the face of social change.
Darjeeling Express got a huge boost after an episode featuring Khan on Netflix’s Chef’s Table aired in February 2019. She was the first British chef to be filmed for the show. It was significant for many reasons—Khan is not formally trained as a chef. She is from Kolkata and after she got married, she moved to the UK in 1991, and secured a PhD in British constitutional law from Oxford. She is an immigrant woman of colour and taught a team of nine women to manage her kitchen. Each of them comes from deprived backgrounds and most have no formal education. Kalpana Kunder is the first woman she recruited. Kunder and Khan met at her children’s school in South Kensington, when Kunder, was working as a nanny. A sense of solidarity as immigrants brought them together and they quickly became friends.
In 2012, when Khan started a supper club out of her home, Kunder was by her side as a kitchen assistant and got more women from her community to help. The supper club was organised in Khan’s home and featured dishes from Kolkata as well as her Rajput family’s specialties. Through the supper club, she would frequently organize fundraisers where the entire profit would go to the charities such as Action Against Hunger, Islamic Relief, Hope Found.
In 2017, when Khan opened her restaurant, Kunder moved with her. Her husband Mushtaq gave her his entire lifesavings and she secured a bank loan to start the restaurant. Kunder says, “I am happy to be the first worker of Darjeeling Express when it was a supper club in Ma’am’s house—now it’s in a big restaurant and I am glad we can feed more people.”
During the Netflix shoot, Khan was insistent on featuring the all-women team. Each episode on the show reaches a crescendo as each chef’s, about 38 have appeared on the show, signature dishes are laid out with their names appearing on screen. Khan told the crew she wanted the women who work with her to be captured in this manner, with their complete names: “Why should they be nameless and voiceless when I stand on their shoulders?”
Khan takes the same pay as the women in her team: “When I don’t clock in as many kitchen hours as them, my salary is adjusted accordingly. It’s the right thing to do.” Her team is well paid, and she says with pride that one of the women has bought a house in England. Last Durga Puja, a peak business period when they serve dishes from Kolkata, she closed the restaurant for four days and they celebrated at her team member’s new house. “Everyone said I was mad. I told them—you don’t understand; it’s like I went to a palace. These are things that you would think would never happen,” she says.
Khan witnessed the women evolve from being unsure and fearful to owning homes in England and being featured on the Netflix show. Now they are celebrities, and people stop them on the streets to take selfies with them. “They even sign my cookbook,” she says, referring to her book, Asma’s Indian Kitchen (2018). During Diwali and Eid, her diners get mithai and flowers for her team. “They get hugged and thanked. I think people know that these are not just chefs cooking for them. There’s something more to my girls.”
“It’s not like we are a no-man zone,” Khan is quick to add. “Only the kitchen is run by women. We have had boys at the bar and for service. We treat them very nicely, we pay them the same as women, we don’t bully them, we don’t call them names, we treat them with great honour; they are very grateful,” Khan says with a hint of caustic humour. Recently, she hired a new male general manager and she has a ‘very trusted’ personal assistant who is a man. Khan faced problems while training boys to cook. The men come from culinary schools and want to be exacting with measurements—it’s a far cry from her philosophy of taste-as-you-cook food. She learnt cooking from her mother and now she recreates dishes by instinct or andaaz, just like the women who work with her. She says, “These boys didn’t learn from their mothers like we did, and that’s the difference.”
A week before the lockdown in London in March, Khan decided to relocate to a bigger space. Her 56-cover restaurant on Carnaby Street was too small to contain diners who would queue up for hours. This month, she will open Darjeeling Express in Covent Garden with a 120-cover and a deli: “I hope that the deli will become a space for customers to collect food in these uncertain times with restrictions. I’m designing a restaurant in a pandemic where we are able to provide a safe environment for our staff and customers.”
The menu will expand to include street snacks, 1980s railway food from Kolkata and the women in her team will add to it with food from their mothers’ kitchens. There’s haleem for Sunday brunch, which will also be available on two weekdays in the deli to takeaway for lunch. Khan believes the Hyderabadi specialty will be perfect for the darker and colder autumnal season.
Explaining the process of developing the menu, Khan says, “The father of one of my chefs Rashmi had a vada pav cart in Mumbai when she was young and she would help the family prepare the potato stuffing everyday. She will be making the pav for the deli to takeaway and also for Sunday brunch. There’s the mutton Khassi ka Masu, similar to the Bengali kosha mangsho in texture. It is made especially on bhai phota, a festival that celebrates sibling relationships, by my Nepali-origin chefs. This dish will be on the railway tasting menu.”
All this ties up with Khan’s food philosophy of introducing family dishes and the larger goal of creating an inclusive work environment for women. With a bigger restaurant space, she hopes to train more women to become successful business owners in the hospitality industry. She says, “I am very aware that one of the problems we have is that there are not enough women in positions of power and we need decision makers to be at the table to protect the interest of women. I intend to use the new restaurant as a school to mentor future female leaders in hospitality.”