If you hadn’t heard of Asma Khan a year ago, chances are you will have by now. One of London’s most renowned restaurateurs, in February 2019 Asma became the first British chef to star in Netflix’s successful series Chef ’s Table. Already a famous figure among foodies, the move into TV has catapulted her career into the stratosphere. Since her episode was released, tables at Asma’s restaurant, Darjeeling Express, have been almost impossible to come by.
Despite this immense success, Asma is vehemently against the ‘celebrity chef ’ status that usually accompanies TV deals and sell-out restaurants. Speaking at The Conduit for International Women’s Day, she states, “You have to use your privilege and your strength to make a difference, otherwise it’s worth nothing. If the people around me are still in chains, I’m not free.” Visibly irritated, she continues, “Every dish in the restaurant started from the porter who washed the plate. How is that one person’s success? How is it the Head Chef who’s the star?”
Born the second daughter of a royal Indian family, Asma has defied expectations at every turn, from playing cricket on the streets of Kolkata as a child to abandoning a successful career in law to become a professional chef. In fact, it’s cricket that she credits with teaching her the true power of collaboration. “If you score something spectacular but your team falls apart, you lose. My team always won because we understood that you need to motivate each other. You will only succeed as a collective.”
Many public figures and business leaders have spoken in similar terms, but it’s clear that, for Asma, equality is more than just a marketing ploy. From always serving the water in her restaurant – a habit borne of growing up in an arid country, where providing water to guests was a mark of deep respect – to enforcing a transparent pay structure, she isn’t afraid to take practical, visible steps to ensure the people around her feel valued. “I get paid the same hourly rate as the porter and everyone knows that”, she says. “This is how you break down walls: by letting everyone know that they’re treated the same and treated with respect.”
This commitment to justice and kindness is notable in an industry that’s renowned for quite the opposite. Where did it originate?
Asma believes it’s from growing up in a culture where, as a woman, she was taught to feel secondary in every respect. “I thought it was my bad luck that my fried egg was always broken. It took me a long time to realise that the eggs that weren’t broken and the roti that wasn’t burnt were given to the men in the family, and not to me.” Food, she says, is about politics and power. It was by realising her talent for cooking that she gained the confidence to choose a new path. Now, she says, she refuses to serve a broken egg to anyone at her table. “I will not let anyone feel less important than me.”
Darjeeling Express has made headlines in the past for having a kitchen team made up entirely of women, many of whom are immigrants and second daughters themselves. Surely this isn’t a coincidence?
“The thing is”, she says, “in my culture, the son is only called to the table when the perfect meal is ready for him. The Indian men now working as chefs trained at culinary school, so they don’t know what it means to cook intuitively.” Intuitive cooking, it transpires, sits at the heart of Darjeeling Express. “We don’t have a single scale. If someone asks me about quantities, I’m lost. I need to feel it in my fingers, hold it in my hands… That’s how my food is cooked.”
So, would she welcome men into her kitchen?
“It’s not that I don’t want male chefs. I want a man who can grab a piece of dough, feel it and know whether or not it’s the right size. That guy, I’ll hire.” She grins, slyly. “But I haven’t found him yet.”
While her all-female kitchen at Darjeeling Express may be more about skillset than it is about gender, it’s clear that the treatment of women is an issue about which Asma cares deeply. “In my culture, women remain nameless and faceless”, she says. “Our role as nourishers is never recognised. People might occasionally say ‘My mum was a great cook’, but did you tell her that? For centuries, women have gone to their graves thinking they’re not skilled.”
Despite the popularity of Indian cuisine across the UK, women are routinely excluded from professional cooking, she says. “Curry houses are shutting all over the country because they can’t find skilled chefs, but they still won’t hire women. We’re only good enough to cook at home. That is a brutal fact.”
It’s not just Indian women who are impacted by this internalised misogyny – something that became abundantly clear to Asma after the release of her Chef ’s Table episode. “I personally reply to 250 messages a day from women across the world. Women who have written absolutely harrowing reports of what has happened to them, who heard my story and saw themselves reflected.”
What wider impact does she hope to have on the world?
Well, she wants more female-led restaurants, for one. “Go into meetings. Ask for the money. Don’t start with the problems. Tell them how good you are.” Embodying that confidence is something Asma works at every day. “At first, I was embarrassed seeing my face on my cookbook”, she admits, “but then I thought, no. Let my face be the face of all the women who never thought they’d be recognised for their cooking.”
“A lot of us are held back by fear. Fear of failure, fear that it’s not how it’s supposed to be, fear that no one else has done it. I’ve always overcome fear by imagining myself running at the hurdles and flying. You’re only held back by your own self.”