Asma Khan went from not being able to cook to running a successful restaurant. She talks to Sarah Shaffi about food, stories and being humbled upon meeting female refugees in Jordan.
It’s late on a hot weekday afternoon and the staff at Darjeeling Express are getting ready for the evening’s dinner service.
Over the sounds of the crowds on Carnaby Street below, the sweeping of the floor inside the restaurant, the moving around of pots and pans in the kitchen, and the flow of water as people wash their hands, there’s an unusual sound. It takes me a minute to pinpoint what it is — singing. And it’s not coming from a radio, it’s coming from the cooks in the kitchen at the restaurant.
It’s unexpected to say the least. Given that they’re cooking for dozens of people, it seems strange that these women — and at Darjeeling Express all the cooks are women — are joining together in song and laughter just moments before a busy dinner rush.
But it’s only strange until you meet Asma Khan, the extraordinary and inspiring owner of Darjeeling Express, and realise that her kitchen is far from the image of fraught, stressful ones that perpetuate on our TV screens.
Those types of kitchens — the kind that we see in Gordon Ramsay’s shows among others — have “destroyed the reputation” of the culinary industry, Khan tells Stylist.
“I am sure not all kitchens are like this, but because they’re portrayed as this that’s what people think happens everywhere,” she continues. “It may happen even in a majority, but it doesn’t happen everywhere.
“But it has destroyed the reputation of chefs having these aggressive, testosterone-driven men screaming at clearly people weaker than them, not at their peers. This is not a discussion about ‘shall we do this or shall we do that?’ No, it is someone berating someone, and that is not okay.”
Khan’s refreshing approach is more about teamwork and respect, which is only to be expected from someone whose journey from novice cook to culinary superstar — she’s the owner of a critically acclaimed restaurant and the first British chef to appear on Netflix’s Chef’s Table — is the stuff fiction is made of.
When she arrived in the UK after getting married, Khan couldn’t cook at all. Returning to India, she learnt to cook from family members, and then set up supper clubs in the UK, before doing pop-ups. The first one did not go well — initially the kitchen was chaotic, the pop-up sometimes ran out of food and Khan faced hostile guests, but she and her team eventually found their groove. Eventually, she opened Darjeeling Express on London’s Carnaby Street.
Khan is very clear that she is a cook, not a chef, as are the women in her kitchen, and that that’s a real strength. “Women who have come from the home and are home cooks are just so strong,” she tells Stylist. “It is the strength of the women that’s staggering, the physical strength and then the mental strength.” They can “produce incredible food” with very little equipment and in small spaces. She adds: “I am less impressed by chefs who cook in a professional space with every kind of gadget that they would want, with very expensive equipment and assistants all by their side. I think they have a very easy ride.”
Fancy equipment is not found in Khan’s kitchen — there are no chefs’ knives and fancy machines that can make foams or reductions, and there’s no liquid nitrogen. What there are are capable, strong women who know how to make good food.
“They don’t need things written down, they don’t need instructions to be shouted at them,” says Khan of home cooks. “They don’t shout instructions to anyone. It is a much calmer, more collaborative cooking process when they’re cooking as a team, because [at home] you’re cooking with someone you love, and there is that dependency and there is a give and take.”
After featuring on Chef’s Table, Darjeeling Express saw a quadrupling in bookings for lunch (I optimistically and naively ask when Khan next has a free table — the date is too far away to think about), but her staff took it in their stride.
“They took that with not a murmur, they just stepped up their game,” she says. “I think with any other team of chefs there would have been several meetings and memos to be produced about how they were going to manage and who was going to take on what responsibility.
“I don’t even know how my team did it. Without any verbal communication I saw people taking on new roles. They just stepped up, because that’s what you do when you’re in a family. I’m in awe of them, because they didn’t even worry about what was happening, how they were going to cope, because not coping is not an option.”
Khan’s kitchen staff are “bound by the honour and respect we have for each other”, which is even more impressive given the divisions that the cultural backgrounds they come from ascribe to. “In a South Asian context, people from that kind of background they come from and the background I come from in India, there are loads of divisions,” she explains. “You wouldn’t share a meal with them, you probably wouldn’t even sit down and talk to them, because that is how our society works — a deeply divided, very class-ridden, caste-ridden society.
“But every barrier came down for us here.”
That food has bound these women together is no surprise, given the huge part it’s played in Khan’s life. “Because of the kind of background I come from, from South Asia, food is central to everything for us, from birth to death and marriages and everything,” she says. “But it’s also very telling of my age that I was pre-internet, pre-mobile phone and pre-cable TV generation, where the only entertainment you had was to eat at each others’ houses.
“Food was the only way of communicating and the only way of entertainment and the way to meet people and to celebrate. Everyone was only focused on the food and not looking at their phone and everyone ate at the same time because there was no television and nothing to distract them.”
One of the first things that Khan learnt to cook was biryani, from the man who cooked it for her wedding and her sister’s wedding. It’s an illustration of how a dish can evoke memories, regardless of where you are and how your circumstances have changed.
Ahead of Ramadan this year, Khan went to Jordan to meet refugees from Syria and Palestine with Islamic Relief. These refugees cooked dishes that they had carried with them from their homelands — for many, that food is the only thing they have left of the places they have had to leave, and it’s the thing that enabled them to open up about their experiences.
“It was extremely exciting being part of the team and I think after they realised I could cook, that is when the acceptance came and they wanted to talk to me about other things,” says Khan. “They talked to me and each other. They discussed their partners, they discussed their children, they discussed the food a lot.
“In a very unusual and difficult space where these women were all from the refugee camps, it felt like for me like I was in my own home with my aunts and family
“They were singing and there was a lot of dancing as well. They told me jokes and showed me pictures of all their kids, and they wanted to see pictures of my kids, so it was pretty much like any other family.”
The experience is one that has stayed with Khan, not least because she was surprised at how generous the women were. She says: “I learned [from them] how important it is to rise above your own grief because when they were ready to dish out the food they, one of them, who lost all her children, started this Syrian chanting, blessing my children and praying for my success and that I did really well in life for my business and my health, and my life and my parents’ life.
“That is just staggering, that they could stop for a minute and remember to pray for my children when they’ve lost so much of their own. I can’t even imagine that you can have that generosity of spirit, that you can rise above that grief.
“I didn’t cry because they were laughing and chanting and clapping. It was so hard not to cry, because it was just such a shock as well that they had that depth of kindness, driven by faith, that they stopped to pray for me and my children and my family. It’s deeply humbling.”
In Jordan, as in her restaurant, Khan witnessed food bringing people together. When people come to her restaurant, she shares stories about the food with them.
“I’m deeply political, for me food is about politics,” she says. “It is about trying to connect to people who may not necessarily understand my traditions, my culture, my religion. But by telling them stories I hope that it lower the walls for them.
“The next time they see someone with the colour of skin I have, or have the name that I do, or understand that I’m similar to that person, they may remember a meal and be less hostile and more willing to communicate. And that is what I really want to do, I want people to understand people like me through my food.
“This is why I need to tell them my story.”
Images: Islamic Relief, Netflix