For this week’s podcast, in collaboration with SheSays Says and The Drum, we speak to the founder of Darjeeling Express, and soon to be, the first British chef to appear on the award-winning Netflix series, Chef’s Table.
There is no surprise that Khan has been recognised by Netflix for this achievement – she is in her own words, a storyteller. The Darjeeling Express founder Asma Khan talks to The Drum about her journey from the busy streets of Calcutta to the Chef’s Table at Netflix.
Despite having a great passion for history and knowing that cooking was her calling, Khan studied Law at Kings College in London. A decision made to please her family, with a reliable and profitable profession. On receiving her doctorate, she made the decision to take a completely different career route.
“I kept quiet about it and waited until I finished my PhD. I think as a woman, you feel insecure that people will think you didn’t have it in you to finish something if you change your mind, because you hear these things being said about women all the time. I was very driven to finish my PhD and I left that room on fire, because I’d done it. That same night I registered Darjeeling Express as a company. When you go on these train journeys in India and in Pakistan, you can see the tracks changing as you are going. That was a space I knew I wanted to get to – to change tracks.
“I don’t want to teach. I don’t want to be a researcher. I don’t want to take a job in the House of Lords. I want to cook.”
It’s impossible to listen to Khan speak and not be immediately transported into her world. Visitors to Darjeeling Express are immersed into the story, culture and passion behind each dish. But the journey to the Chef’s Table was not an easy one.
“The girls in my family had not been allowed to go to college and didn’t have the opportunities I did. They didn’t have a liberal husband. I felt I let down all these girls that were married off when they were 18, who had children by the time they were 21, who were housewives and good daughters-in law and good wives and cooked for the family. Because they had to. No one ever asked them – do you want to cook? Do you love what you are doing? Does it excite you to cook?
“If I had done things because it was expected, it would bring honour to the family – becoming a lawyer, as the first female PHD in my family. But it wouldn’t be me. I didn’t want to live this life for others, because that’s what so many of us have to do.”
Her journey growing up in India to the experience of moving to England 28 years ago plays out in everything from the ingredients she cooks with, to the environment she creates in her restaurant, to the stories she tells guests.
“I thought I had made a huge mistake to leave everything that was warm and comforting. 28 years down the line, I have created a home for others, who can come to Darjeeling Express, and not just people from South East Asia but Europeans, Africans, and feel they are at home. I wanted to open the doors to others.”
And despite cooking from recipes that have been in her family for generations, Khan prefers to use ingredients that are grown a little closer to her home in the U.K.
“I feel horrible after a 13-hour flight, can you imagine what the okra feels like?! And then to be cooked? It’s unacceptable. My father is a farmer and it is destroying us, growing food for the western market. If it’s not the perfect size, it is rejected. Money is not being made by the farmer, but by the middle men and the supermarkets. I never buy anything from a supermarket that has been flown in. That’s my little protest.”
There is a beautiful narrative that Khan weaves around the things she loves, and cares about. An all-women team of housewives runs the kitchen at Darjeeling Express, and have been doing so from day one.
“I am a self-taught cook. I watched, and I learnt, and my mother would hold my hand a lot. And these women do exactly the same thing. I hold their hand, show them how it should feel. There is no other way of teaching, unless you know how it feels. You cook from your heart. From your soul.”
Darjeeling Express started as a dinner for 12 guests at home, serving Indian food cooked from family recipes that go back to generations. In a homage to Khan’s Mughlai ancestry and the busy streets of Calcutta, there are also plans for a pop-up café on Carnaby Street, serving tea and creating an open space where everyone, regardless of gender, religion or race, feels they are ‘embraced’ and welcome.
The rhetoric around Brexit and fear-mongering around immigration could not be further from the experience Khan is creating for others in Darjeeling Express, and her story in building a life – and business – in the U.K.
“I will be who I want to be. You do not put me in a box, you do not draw lines around me and say you are this or you are that. I will be Muslim, I am an immigrant, I am a woman, and I will be whatever I choose to be at this moment. Your heritage is something wonderful. It’s not something to be ashamed of. This is what I’m trying to do with the restaurant.”