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Darjeeling Express founder Asma Khan on building communities through food

More brands than ever are looking to build communities and unite customers through purpose. They would do well, then, to pull up a seat at the table and learn from the restaurant industry. Darjeeling Express owner and cookbook author Asma Khan talks to The Drum as part of its Can-Do Festival about the power of food in bringing positive change in society.

In 2019, Asma Khan was the first British chef to be profiled on Netflix’s Chef’s Table. The Indian-born restaurateur is the head chef and owner of Darjeeling Express, the acclaimed spot in London’s Kingly Court where the kitchen is staffed solely by women.

Londoners will attest to the challenge of securing a seat at the coveted Soho eatery. Pre-Covid-19 the waiting lists were weeks (and sometimes months) long. They will also attest that the cosy atmosphere, crunchy puchkas and tamarind dal were just some of the things that made it well worth the wait.

Until the pandemic, Khan could often be found weaving through the tables of Darjeeling, chatting to diners. Like many other restaurants, though, Darjeeling Express has been forced to close its doors amid the greatest public health crisis in recent history.

Though the chef is “worried” and “afraid” about the impact the coronavirus will have on society and the economy, she tells The Drum’s consulting editor Sonoo Singh that she believes the pandemic could serve as a catalyst for change in how businesses currently operate.

Speaking during The Drum's Can-Do Festival, Khan says: “We’re going through something that many people in the west have never faced – curfews, food shortages and so on. So for a lot of people, this is very unusual. I’m hoping that people will come out of this with a greater respect for other people and community."

Building a platform for good, through food

When Khan arrived in Cambridge from Kolkota in 1991 she was a trained lawyer who couldn’t boil an egg. Separated from home and unable to recreate the food she loved and missed, she felt isolated and so returned back to India to learn how to cook the Mughlai cuisine she’d grown up on.

Darjeeling Express then started as a supper club for 12 guests at home, serving Indian food lovingly cooked from family recipes. After a stint as a pop-up it moved into its current space and many of Khan's friends – Indian nannies and housewives that she invited to her very first supper club – now worked with her in the kitchen.

This is still the case today and Khan has become an advocate for social change, dismantling stigmas around what it means to be a woman, a chef and an immigrant through her work and her words. Many of the women in her kitchens had never cooked professionally until she opened Darjeeling’s doors. After realising that some were sending their wages back to India to support their families there, Khan decided early on in Darjeeling's journey to pay her cooks the same rate she pays herself.

Against the backdrop of the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests and conversations about systemic inequality, her advice to business owners and bosses to use their own brand as a true platform for social good that motivates staff is timely.

“You are stronger when your workforce believes in you. The bottom line shouldn’t just be about money, it’s also about community and people’s rights. You don’t need to have a rule book thrown at you to show you how to treat staff. You don’t need directives from HR. It should come within you.

“How would you like to be treated as an employee? Treat others exactly the same and I can guarantee you is that you will end up with the kind of loyalty that no rules and no salary increase can give.

“When you honour someone for who they are and make them feel like their contribution is meaningful – not only their contribution at work, but their contribution from the culture and race they come from – and let them bring something to the table that is uniquely them… if you celebrate that, it makes such a difference.”

With a PhD in constitutional law from King’s College and now a bestselling cookbook under her belt, Khan says her move to becoming a cook and embracing her identity as a Muslim immigrant and female chef has been her weapon in challenging stereotypes throughout her career.

“My main concern, what drives me, is the idea of inequality being damaging and hurting people that look and sound like me. It hurts women, and older women, disproportionately. I never see myself as one kind of person, there is no box big enough which you can put me in where I will be what I want to be.”

Addressing inequality

Khan’s business model thrives on providing opportunities for women to earn money and learn new skills they can potentially take elsewhere. The community she has constructed has been built around one common currency: food. However, she has concerns about inequality in her own industry and beyond, post-Covid-19.

“What worries me, is that we’re definitely going to come back into a very different economic climate. Restaurants are not the only ones that will shed a lot of jobs, a lot of businesses owners will have to close.

“I’m afraid that a lot of women – including women of colour and women who have children – will be seen as the weak link, because there’s a prejudice there… will we suddenly find ourselves at the bottom of the list of people being hired back and given a sense of responsibility? Will our wages be cut? Who will pay the price? That worries me a lot.”

Khan also has concerns about a damaged industry being tempted to return to a model built on cheap migrant labour once doors open again after the pandemic.

“I’m very scared we go back to that old system because it’s built on exploitation,” she says, urging those in positions of privilege to set up structures that are fairer and support the founding of a union for restaurant employees.

Like those in the advertising industry, Khan is still working out what the new normal looks like for her business. Pubs and restaurants in England are expected to reopen in July, but most of Darjeeling’s staff are over the age of 50 and so the business owner has to navigate the risk of bringing people back into work.

“My first priority is the kitchen, and this means a very restricted menu. And we won’t be able to have a full restaurant. [Reopening] won’t even cover the wage never mind the rent. This is the reality of running a restaurant business, we run on very thin margins.”

Diners desperate for a slice of Khan’s cooking will be pleased to hear that she is intent on recreating the early magic of Darjeeling Express.

“So what I think I will end up doing is supper clubs. I’ll go back to my roots.

“I want people to be able to eat in peace. I want a beautiful experience where people can come with those they love and I can serve them separately from everyone else, I think that’s what I’m going to do.”

Khan spoke with The Drum's consulting editor Sonoo Singh as part of The Drum's Can-Do Festival, an online event celebrating the positive energy, innovation and creative thinking that can make the marketing community such a powerful force for good. You can watch the interview in full here.

Sign up to watch forthcoming sessions and see the full Can-Do schedule here.