MOB Meets... Asma Khan

We spoke to the Darjeeling Express owner about running an all-female kitchen, discrimination in the hospitality industry, and why you should be eating keema.
Asma Khan socials

As the only British chef to feature on Netflix’s global smash hit Chef’s Table, Asma Khan is a chef, restaurateur, and cookbook author whose face you probably recognise. But if you somehow haven’t heard of Asma, or haven’t been lucky enough to sample the unbelievable dishes that come out the pass at Darjeeling Express, then we should probably give you the heads up that she’s one of the most important people working in the hospitality industry today.

The fact that her restaurant – which is currently serving everything from takeaway portions of biryani to crispy keema toasties – started off as a pop-up in a Soho pub and quickly became one of the most difficult reservations to get in the capital is impressive in and of itself. However, it’s Asma’s philanthropy outside of the kitchen which has made her such a vital and empowering figure. Whether it’s through the all-female staff she employs at her restaurant or her tireless work supporting the Second Daughters Fund charity in India, Asma has always been a vocal supporter of social change. Especially within the restaurant industry. And especially for women.

After studying law, Asma went on to do a PhD in British Constitutional Law at King's College London but it’s at the helm of her restaurant where she’s felt capable of making the most impactful changes to the lives of others. Darjeeling Express might have recently moved to a bigger, glossier location in Covent Garden but it’s the retained the ethos that Asma has become renowned for. We caught up with Asma to find out how she was handling everything in such a “strange” and “unprecedented” time for hospitality.

Why is having an all-female staff at your restaurant still so important to you today?

The thing is, I didn't start off by wanting an all-female staff – that wasn’t ever in the plan. I just needed to have people around me who knew how to cook the way that I knew how to cook. The irony of it is that in every Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lanka, and Bangladeshi household you go to, it’ll always be a woman cooking. But at every restaurant you go to in those countries, a man will be in the kitchen. We are a very, very, very patriarchal society in India; our boys never hung around the kitchen and they never helped out, so the girls were the ones who were in the kitchen. The girls were the ones who picked out the food ad the girls were the ones who ate after the boys and men had eaten. In India, it’s still very normal for all the men in the family to eat first and the girls to eat whatever is left behind. I grew up in a very, very privileged background and that didn't happen to me. But it happened everywhere else and I was uncomfortably aware of it. It didn't make me feel equal at the table. I wanted to change that.

What is it that makes the food at Darjeeling Express different from what you’d get at another Indian restaurant that’s run by, say, a male head chef?

What you have in most restaurant cooking, that batch cooking-style where the chef has been taught at a five-star hotel, is absolutely alien to Indian cuisine. I cannot relate to one dish that is made in an Indian restaurant like that. The lack of understanding that is exhibited by those chefs about what our cuisine is, and of who we are, is incredible. The people who are left out are always women. For too long, no one has told the real stories of our food because none of the male Indian chefs can: they don't know the stories. They don't know the real dishes. They were never there in the kitchen when your grandmother told you, ‘can you smell that roasted cumin smell? That means it's ready' – they don't have that experience. They never had some crazy aunt in the background saying 'you do this and then you do that' when you were washing kilos and kilos of rice for every event. But you know what? Women had that experience. And now, we all make perfect rice.

The pandemic has obviously been a tough time for everybody. How do you think the hospitality industry, in particular, has handled everything?

I still have a lot of issues with how the industry is running and all the campaigning that's happening. For example, I have serious issues with the way that the interests of restaurateurs and big chefs are put first by big money investors. I think that's a huge problem because, when things have gone wrong and there have been allegations of bullying or racism or harassment of women in kitchens, it is incredible how little action is taken. I can say this as a lawyer but if that level of touching without consent happened outside of the kitchen, there would be a criminal prosecution. The reason why chefs and harmful people in the kitchens get away with a physical violation of someone's body is that the owners and the investors see the chef as God, and they are protected at any cost. You wouldn’t get away with that in any other industry. I see a lot of people get their spirits destroyed in kitchens. I think it's easier for me to speak about that because I've always been the outsider.

I think that’s a fair point and that there’s definitely a case where many chefs are too entrenched inside the system and feel that they'll only hurt their own position if they do speak out.

Yes, and I've pointed this out repeatedly but every time there has been significant accusations of a male chef sexually harassing a female in the kitchen, the silence from powerful female chefs who had Michelin stars was deafening. Not a single one said anything. I was the one who wrote a huge article about what happened with Dan Doherty. But no-one else did. And this is why it's a huge problem. It's a massive problem. If I was a female working under a powerful female head like that, I would immediately feel undermined and small. I even wrote an article once about a chef who said that pregnant women were a liability because they couldn't lift pots. Again, I was the only one who spoke out about how horrible that is, how degrading that is to hear that our physical prowess is somehow all we are there for. As if all we are there is for a woman to do is lift pots. If all the chefs are doing in your kitchen is lifting heavy pots up and down then, my God, what are you cooking?!

Do you think with the current generation of women in professional kitchens that we're starting to see women's roles in restaurants change?

I think it's changing and I think there's definitely something positive happening. You see a more self-confident and more resilient generation of women coming in but I'm still deeply uncomfortable with the way a lot of kitchens are run. We need men to stand by female chefs and we need to form a partnership with like-minded people because, whether you're a man or a female, I don't want you to be doing a 16-hour shift. You're not in mortal combat. You're not working out to go into battle. I want everyone to have a normal life. Not just women. I don't want anyone to work in a kitchen where they never see the light of day. Everyone has a right to have a normal life and we all talk about women, and the fact that we need to have better shifts for women because of our family lives, but I want the men to have a normal family life as well. I want everyone to have a decent relationship at home, even if it's just with their dog.

I do think there's an irony in that you'll get some restaurateurs who will talk endlessly about the sustainability of their produce but they'll treat their staff so poorly. That doesn't scan to me, personally.

No, it’s not right and I've said this before: I don't want to see how many Michelin stars you have, I want to see the list of your staff and I want to know what the diversity of your staff is. Not only that, but I want to know who has power at the top. I want to know who you have from an ethnic minority, who is in a position of power, and how much you're paying them. I've asked these questions to a lot of restaurants and got silence. It's shameful. In the first lockdown, I went out feeding all of the staff in hospitality who had started sleeping rough in Trafalgar Square. I felt like tearing my heart out and I was weeping while I did it because they were, until a week ago, serving people in high-end restaurants. They were a vital part of your “brand” and now they're just sleeping rough in Trafalgar Square because they have nowhere to go? That level of abandonment is unacceptable.

What’s the solution?

This is our greatest hour but it's also our very worst hour. We need to accept that we, as an industry, have not supported and not been good to our own people. I am personally very, very disappointed with the campaigning that has been done by people in the name of hospitality. Things like campaigns about not paying rent for nine months or campaigns about allowing people to have alcohol while standing. How is it that these are the important debates? What about all of those people that were not furloughed? What about the fact that around 700,000 people left London because of the pandemic? Most of them must have been in hospitality. Where have all those people gone and how are you going to recover now they’ve left? I want to restart the industry on a fresh, positive note as much as anyone. But we need to ask: can we have positive rights for the people who are working for us? Can we make sure that people do not have to work crazy hours with inadequate pay? London Living Wage is the bare minimum we should be paying. It's unfair to crush your staff just because you want to serve someone a steak for £17.99. Don't. Serve them a steak that costs £25 instead and stand there and say, 'the person who made this deserves the wages. That is why it costs this much.' I will not cut my price. I will not. I think that people need to understand that you need to factor in a fair wage for everybody.

How did your family react when you first got involved in the restaurant business?

My parents were very supportive but the rest of the family were very shocked. I studied Law and I was the first girl to do that in the family and, even though I didn't take up my place at Cambridge, I was the first girl in the family to have been offered a place at Cambridge as well. I had this reputation of being a very smart person and my father was always so proud of that but when I told him I wanted to open up a restaurant he was like: ‘Yeah, sure’. My parents know me well enough and I've actually used my legal training and my skills of advocacy for something far more positive. Which is that I speak for the voiceless. I speak for those who do not have power. I speak for those who feel at the margins of hospitality and no amount of money, no number of successful court cases, and no citations in textbooks would give me that same sense of belief that I've made a genuine difference.

What's your ultimate comfort food? What’s the dish that most reminds you of home?

I think it’s got to be paratha. I love paratha. When you're from a big family, especially if you're girl, you tend to get half of everything and no-one tends to give you a whole thing. But with paratha, I always got a full one. And I don't want to be judged by anyone here but I would always sprinkle sugar on it. I put on butter and then sugar so that the sugar would melt and then I'd roll it up and have it like that. That's comfort, and I still love that today.

What's the one dish that you think everyone should be able to cook?

I think everyone should be able to cook potatoes. And I think if you're afraid of cooking chicken korma or a chicken dish or something with lamb that's more complicated, I would say definitely go for an Indian-style potato dish. There are lots of dishes out there, and many in my cookbook as well, that require little more than boiled potatoes. All you have to do is boil your potatoes in salted water, remove their skin, and cut them into cubes. After that, nothing can go wrong. You can toss those potato cubes around in a pan with mustard seeds, cumin, dried chillis, fresh chillis, garlic, turmeric or whatever, and it's perfect. The other thing I would recommend learning how to cook is keema. Which is mince. You can get beef, turkey, chicken, even soya mince. All of those will work and keema is a great thing because it’s very economical; once you get the mince you can bulk it out with everything from peas to, again, potatoes. In India, we always ate keema at least twice a week because it was a cheap way for everyone to get meat. It's a very democratic dish.

You describe keema as a democratic dish. Would you say that all food is political?

Food is always about power: who eats, who doesn't eat, and what is it that you’re eating. Again, there's very little understanding about the power structure of how food is cooked. That’s why I find Indian restaurants, in particular, uncomfortable places to be. Because there is no honour given to the stories behind the food. There is no respect given to the women who were the custodians of those recipes, who have passed them on for generations. Somebody has simply sat in a culinary school and created fanciful recipes. They have taken away our legacy from us. That’s why I had to claim back that space with Darjeeling Express. I might not have a seat at the table but I will pull a chair up and sit down, and you better notice me and listen to my voice when I do. Because in my accent and in my words you can hear the struggle of the women who have cooked in the east for centuries. I am from the east and I am from the west. In fact, I've lived longer in this country longer than I have in the east. But I still carry with me the burden of all these women who were never recognised. So food, for me, yes, is about politics. It is absolutely about politics and about power, and who has power and who doesn't.

What's your favourite song to listen to while you're cooking?

I love listening to Abida Parveen who is a Sufi singer from Pakistan. She makes very rhythmic qawwali music which is great to cook Indian food with. Her song 'Aaqa' is especially perfect for cooking. I’d say either traditional Sufi msuic or Queen. Because Freddie Mercury's got some Indian in him, right? As for which Queen song? It'd have to be 'I Want To Break Free'. I just love that song and, in a way, I suppose it's very symbolic of the struggles that all women face.

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