Indian immigrant female Chef and entrepreneur leading a high impact social movement empowering women in hospitality, training leadership, and inspiring change.
Photo: courtesy Asma Khan
“Food can be the kind of educator that really leads the impact.” - Asma Khan
There is something special about Asma Khan, and it’s not the fact that she was profiled in the Netflix documentary series Chef’s table, nor the fact that she was named number 1 on the list of "100 Coolest People in Food and Drink" in 2019! When talking to Asma, you immediately know she is a Chef with an impact. Caring and driven by a strong vision that keeps her awake at night, Asma aims to empower women by challenging the archaic norms of the hospitality industry.
Born in Calcutta, Asma Khan moved to England with her husband in 1991. After obtaining a PhD in Constitutional Law in London, she chose to embark on a culinary adventure to fight homesickness. She began her food career in 2012 with a supper club at her home. She quickly realized that a business was a powerful vehicle for change, a useful tool to uplift people, and a way to build a legacy for future generations. In 2017, Khan opened Darjeeling Express in London’s Soho, a restaurant that nourishes the body and soul by exclusively employing women immigrants with no professional training. Asma is not politically correct, and she doesn't care. She dusts off kitchens, challenges preconceived notions, shatters conventions, and shakes up an aging white dominated industry. She denounces the industry for its intimidating hierarchy, lack of respect and opportunities, especially for women of color. Asma decided to create opportunities for them. With passion and inspiration, she dreams of a world where change will be carried forward by a future generation of female CEOs, Chefs, and leaders for whom she is building the foundation for change.
Sustainability does not stop there at Asma’s Darjeeling Express, where environmental protection is not left out. Their best practices include: no single-use plastic, minimal food wastage, and finally local and seasonal sourcing, which all form an integral part of her philosophy. A percentage of all proceeds from her restaurant goes to Khan’s Second Daughters, a charitable cause close to her heart.
Welcome Asma to Chefs for Impact!
By Asma Khan as told to Chefs for Impact
What’s your definition of sustainable gastronomy?
“For me, food was always a conversation and a bridge between my culture and my host community. As an immigrant, I wanted to introduce people not just to myself, but also to my food. People who cook my food are not what people think. In every home you go to, not just in India, but also in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the rest of South Asia, it is a woman cooking. Why is it that in every Indian restaurant, it is a man cooking? What happens to us women in between? Why do people who feed and nourish families suddenly vanish on the professional stage? They are few and far between, not respected, not valued, not seen as being good enough to head kitchens. But yet, my grandmother would cook for 200 people with very little resources and no one would complain. My food represents every woman in South Asia who was not respected for the food she cooked, whose food was taken for granted, and where she was taken for granted as well. I am the face of all the women who never got the respect they deserved. Yet, they spent hours cooking, putting so much love and patience into preparing food, and who sometimes would feed 3 generations in the same meal. All of that, yet no one gives them a platform on stage. This is what drives me, and I don’t call myself a food business. This is about social change. I want people to recognize that you need to value the hands that cook.”
How do you hire your team of Chefs?
“I like to think that I select these women but in reality, they chose me. They come with a desire to change their lives and be part of this journey. You recognize that in the look in their eyes, and I know it from the minute they come in. Most of them tell me that they have never worked in a professional kitchen before. I always tell them you need to start small but you need to dream very big! This is how women in food can make it because we do not have the privilege that men have. It is even harder for women of color. For example, we don’t have access to funds. When you walk into a landlord office, they are immediately more reluctant because it is a women-run business. All those hurdles that I have jumped, every woman of color jumps as well in order to do something in their lives. When they come here, I know that they are ready. All I have to do is to tell them to come and work and that I believe they can make it. That’s it, and they make it. They push themselves so hard that they start believing in themselves and their own skills. They realize that what they do is sacred because the food they cook is unique. That is what makes them special. Initially the journey started with 4 or 5 women who were nannies in the school where my children went to. The same people I met in 2012 are still with me today. Not a single person has left because they trust me and they understand what drives me.”
Asma and friends at Darjeeling Express
Why is food a powerful tool for change?
“Food gives me the opportunity to make people feel that they belong to my tribe - and I don’t mean it in a sense that everybody looks the same. My tribe of women are not all the same, but we are all tied to a vision of, not only freeing ourselves, but also breaking the gaze of others. I am using food as a weapon to break patriarchy and all the old-fashioned norms of the industry.
As an immigrant, I want to tell host communities: you can’t take my food and not take me. If you separate culture and food, I will not let you eat my food, listen to my music, wear my clothes, and disrespect my culture. You need to understand that my food is my blood, it is my DNA. My food is not just something I am cooking to feed you. I am nourishing your soul and in that, I give you something that is the most valuable of all, something that I can never buy back: my time.
In all this commercialization where people put more nitrogen in their food while featuring beautiful dish presentation, I often wonder what’s behind the scenes. When seeing a beautiful presentation on a plate, I want to know what is the soul of the kitchen. I want to know that no one got bullied, that everybody has been paid a fair rage, and that there is no one who is afraid of coming to work. I also want to know that a woman who works in the kitchen has the same opportunity to rise up at the top as a man. I actually don’t want to see your beautiful presentation, I want to see the beautiful heart in the kitchen and that the employees feel happy, respected and feel like they belong.
I have a dream that keeps me awake at night, and food helps me make it come true. I want to take more women out of this cage in which many are in right now, and where they never get the respect they deserve. I will be their voice. People don’t talk about these issues because it is not convenient. It is because the decision makers don’t want to change the status quo. I do. And I will keep shaking it very gently until change happens; and it will. Even if I don’t see it in my lifetime, I will leave a legacy where the generation that comes after me will not have to jump the same hurdles that all of us had to.”
Do you think that a more sustainable restaurant model will emerge from this crisis?
“This crisis is a reminder that we need to respect the earth and what it is giving us. Where I come from, people couldn’t see the mountain from the village and during the pandemic, they could see it again. Our responsibility is to tell the next generation not to lose this beautiful chance we have got. Everything could be purer, cleaner, more responsible, and local.
At Darjeeling Express, I have never served vegetables and fruits flown in from Africa and Asia. I don’t want to know that an okra I’m serving has been blown up using genetically modified seeds and fertilizers, that the farmers family will starve if they don’t get a good price for this okra, that the middle man makes all the money, and that it’s going to spoil in two days’ time if I don’t use it. I don’t want any of this. I think restaurants should stop putting so much food on their menu. We all have a responsibility, but I’m afraid that people will go back to their ego and try to impress people by using ingredients that are difficult to get. They should stop flying produce from afar and stop keeping them in the refrigerator because it is so damaging. We need to change the way we use perishable foods because too much food is being wasted. I come from a country where children die of hunger. I don’t throw anything away in my restaurant; we have a very small tight menu, and we run out of food every night. Let us all be able to see the mountains that we saw during the pandemic.
If your priority is not to impress but how to impress the earth and your inner soul, I think that a restaurant can be a good place for you. We need to change our mindset of what it is to be successful. Is it to produce fabulous food and get Michelin stars while keeping silent in regards to the rights of workers and the abuse of women? I want people to get stars based on how ethical and decent they are with their staff, and how they plan their menu to minimize waste. The restaurant model has to change and become more sustainable.”
How will Darjeeling Express emerge from this crisis?
“I believe that being in a position of privilege, you have a duty: to lift others up. That’s what I try to implement. Not a single day do I forget that this is my mission, this is my motto, and it is what drives me. Every day I try to think how I can do things better, because every day I have one day less to live. My time isn’t unlimited so I need to create a story for when I am gone. I hope that more people like me will come in my place and do better than me to become the face of change. Even if I’m not there to harvest it, I know there will be a generation of women who will be equal to men in the kitchen. There will be a generation of people who respect ingredients and care about how things are produced, shipped and packaged, as well as caring about the environmental impact of consuming food. I may not be there to see it but I will work very hard to build the foundations for it.
I closed Darjeeling Express during the pandemic. I’d like to reopen a restaurant that would be an incubator for future food CEOs because I know that change happens when the leader is a woman. I want to train this generation of women who will become leaders in the food industry so that they will then make sure that they raise the agenda of issues that impact women. I will set up a 3 months training program where I’m not going to teach how to cook, but how to lead and build a team. Change will not happen from bottom up. You will not find that one or two women who have been bullied in a kitchen who will make that change. We need the change to come from the top. We need the rules to be set up and enforced.”
What would be your message to all the Chefs in the world?
“Restaurant isn’t a place where you go to be impressed or to impress your clients, your friends, or your partner. Take your ego out of restaurants. Restaurants are no longer a place for turbulent, highly temperamental, yet talented Chefs. There is no more space for bullying or for people who are unpleasant, aggressive, and abusive. Be compassionate. Have empathy. Believe in equality, diverse backgrounds, and have a broader stage of people who have not had the chance to have their voices heard. There are lots of cuisines which we still need to find out about because if you find that cuisine, you need to find out about that person and their culture. Food can be the kind of educator that really leads the impact.”
Where do you want to be in ten years?
“I want to be in areas where people are struggling. On my 50th birthday last year I opened an all-female restaurant in a refugee camp. I want to have more projects like this one in which women are suffering, in war zones etc. I want to use food as a way to bring people together, of healing them, and of giving them a sense of community. If you are a refugee, you will never go home, and you need to find new roots. My aspiration in ten years’ time is to develop Darjeeling express in these areas not as a business, but as a social movement where food is used to empower women and to give them the sense of belonging, pride, and respect for each other.”