Long Reads

How ‘Chef’s Table’ Star Asma Khan Is Breaking Down Barriers With Her All-Women Kitchen

On life as an immigrant and activist.

March  8, 2019
Photo by Netflix

Asma Khan is a force of nature. When I interviewed her for this video, shortly before her featured episode in the recent season of Netflix’s Chef’s Table aired, I left her restaurant feeling both giddy with hope and moved to deep introspection. An encounter with Asma and her warrior spirit is like nothing else.

As an immigrant to England from India, she has found her calling in life by lifting up the women around her—mostly immigrant women, women of color, and women who would otherwise likely be housewives or house cleaners in West London. Asma’s restaurant, Darjeeling Express, employs a rockstar all-women kitchen.

When we were chatting off-camera, I asked her about what she considers to be the best London souvenir. She chuckled, “Maybe I’m biased because I like him, but I think Paddington Bear. He’s from the deepest, darkest Peru and he came to London; he’s my ultimate refugee bear. I like his spirit, and that he settled in and made the best of it!”

I sat down with Asma at a cozy table in her restaurant to hear more about her women-run staff, why her Second Daughters charity is so important to her, and her stirring philosophy on life and all of her experiences along the way.

KATIE QUINN: Tell us what it was like shooting Chef’s Table! How did it feel having the cameras follow you around all day?

ASMA KHAN: This was the first time I’ve done anything like this. I had no expectations. What I did not expect was 13 people to turn up in my very small restaurant and film from so close. I could’ve cooked two of the camera guys in my biryani! I think it was interesting for them to be in close proximity with seven women jostling for position. I said, yeah, this is like being on an Indian bus or train, in Bombay a commuter train. It was so fun—they were so incredible.

KQ: You exude confidence, both in the show and in person. It’s powerful! Have you always been so confident?

AK: I was born to lead. In my blood is the genes of my ancestral family, I come from one of the oldest warrior tribes in India, I come from a royal family that was known to be great warriors. So I was aware from a very young age that I came from this family. Even though I’m a second daughter...so now I promote and support second daughters. I think the confidence comes from the fact that I realized I needed to do something spectacular in my life to justify my…my…

KQ: Existence?

AK: …my existence and my right to stay in this family, to be counted. To be acknowledged. Because you sense that you are not wanted when you’re born, because you’re not the heir, the boy everybody hoped.

KQ: Right, the dowry system. Everyone wants a boy.

AK: And you know, when you have a girl the first time, everyone’s like, “Oh, how exciting”—you know, first baby. “Of course, the second one will be a boy,” they think. But when the second one is another girl, there is actual sorrow. And I think that either it crushes you, or makes you into this person with this fire to change the world. I think that’s what it did to me: It left me with a huge desire to do good, to make a difference, to lift other women. To be so good that no one would ignore you or think you’re a burden.

KQ: No mediocrity!

AK: No! And this is not arrogance. I realized that I needed to be something different, I needed to shine so that I could also bring light to other people who are going through this tough realization that maybe they’re unwanted and maybe people see you as a drain on the family because of this crazy dowry system.

KQ: I’ve heard you refer to yourself as a warrior. Will you talk about that, and how it relates to what you’re doing now?

AK: As a child, every time other people pushed me around, I saw myself as a warrior and I would just close my eyes and imagine myself flying, being victorious. Every time I faced a hurdle because I was a girl, I didn’t even just see myself overcoming it, I saw myself flying over it. I was visualizing myself with my family flag, which is not something that most girls would hold, but I would see myself putting down this flag, fighting for others, and making sure I got where I wanted to go and making sure nothing was going to stop me. I’ve always seen myself as a warrior.

KQ: Wow. Just wow. I see you as a warrior, too... Can we rewind to when you first came to this England from India? What was that like?

AK: It was the darkest time of my life. It was horrible. I didn’t know how cold winter can be—I grew up in Calcutta, which is hot the whole time—and I moved to Cambridge, UK in January. It was one of the coldest winters, where even the river had frozen. Walking through trees that were stripped bare, I felt like the trees. I felt everything I knew had been stripped bare in this cold land that I could not relate to. I was just empty. That’s when I realized how important food is to me and I learned to cook. It may sound a bit shallow that food is so important, but when you can’t change anything around you as an immigrant, having no family and friends, the only thing you can do is infuse your kitchen with aromas of home. This way you claim back that space and you feel you have the right to be there, to exist in this space, and that was why food was so important.

KQ: You joined your husband, who was already living in Cambridge, and then you started studying law, right?!

AK: Right. I applied, I got a space at Cambridge, but then my husband and I moved to London and that’s where I did my law degree and then went on and did a PhD at Kings College London, and I loved it. It was a way of trying to find a way to have roots in this country. It’s a classic immigrant’s story, you know—you try to fit in, try to get a better qualification, get a good job. That’s what the law degree was supposed to be for, but of course I realized very soon that my greatest passion and my calling was cooking.

KQ: Wow, that’s a different path! How did the career switch go?

AK: When I finished my PhD, I kept very quiet and didn’t tell anybody what I was going to do was to cook, because I didn’t want to look foolish. I was the first person in my family to go to college, to study law, the first female PhD. Everyone was so proud of me; I was going to embarrass everybody by doing the one thing that all the women in my family can do, who are not allowed to go to college—is to cook. It’s seen as something so ordinary. That’s the greatest pity of it: that no one has celebrated their cooking, so they thought me cooking was equally not worthy of celebrating. And this is the sad thing that has happened to our culture: The women who cook at home are considered to be just housewives.

KQ: But you have taken that concept, that notion, and flipped it on its head. Talk about all the women you have in your kitchen.

AK: All the women in my kitchen are home cooks. For all of us, this is the first restaurant we’ve worked in. But that doesn’t mean we don’t know how to cook!

KQ: Yes! Home cooks can be the best cooks!

AK: Home cooks are brilliant because we can multitask, we’re used to cooking in very cramped spaces, we have very limited resources and we don’t shout at each other! Because you don’t need to shout—we just look at each other. There’s a lot of chatting going on, but no one is screaming instructions. This is not the army! There’s no hierarchy in my kitchen, no one has any ranks.

...when you can’t change anything around you as an immigrant, having no family and friends, the only thing you can do is infuse your kitchen with aromas of home. This way you claim back that space and you feel you have the right to be there, to exist in this space...

KQ: You’re all on a level playing field because you’ve all cooked for families and big events.

AK: Anyone who has an Indian friend, who has been to an Indian wedding, has been to an Indian house will know that cooking and food is very central to our existence. When you have a small gathering of family—it’s 50 people! And people arrive with no warning! It’s pretty much like working in a restaurant. No one has booked and then 50 people walk up. For everyone it’s like “Oh yeah, family’s turned up.”

KQ: Right, well, your biryani serves 100 people, right?! It can’t serve less than 100 people.

AK: It can’t serve fewer than 100 people because, you know, this is the way we learned to cook. Food is so important, it’s a way of showing respect. And honor. So we cook very much in that tradition. And this is why I could not have chefs cooking for me, because if you learned to cook in culinary school, you learned it as a profession. I need people cooking for me who have soul, who feel happy with the small things you get right. So it had to be an all-woman kitchen.

KQ: Going back to when you realized this was your passion and you decided to leave law, it’s not like you snapped your fingers and bam you had this incredible, successful restaurant in London’s Soho. You had a supper club for five years, right?

AK: Yes, for five years. Because I had no money and no major support from my family to do supper clubs, I did all the supper clubs behind my husband’s back. Every time he traveled.

KQ: Ha! I’ve got to hear more about this.

AK: My husband is an academic who likes his peace and quiet. The fact that 40 people were coming into his house and eating on his dining table would not have impressed him. So I didn’t lie, I just didn’t tell him it was happening. I waited for him to leave and then it was literally like he left and then all the supplies would come in, all the women would turn up, and we would cook in this crazy way in my house. Entertain, wash up. When he came back, he had no idea! It was a great sense of adventure.

KQ: But the supper club did eventually lead to a pop-up, which led to your opening your restaurant. You don’t strike me as an average business person; you’re not in it for the bottom line. Can you tell me what food and politics mean to you?

AK: For me, they’re completely related. The restaurant is not a business, it’s a platform for me to discuss issues about race, ethnicity, immigration. In today’s world, the word "immigrant" is seen by many—politicians—as an abuse. It’s a way of scaremongering and creating hatred and mistrust. I’m an immigrant business. People, when they listen to me, they hear the voice of an immigrant. I’m accented. I give away the fact that I come from a different heritage. But I am a proud Londoner—I’m so grateful. And I can be whatever I want to be, and I think that people need a space where they can discuss these issues. Especially women of color need to be able to see other women of color.. on television, listening to them on radio, women they can relate to. And this goes for all women, I think.

KQ: What’s it like having this platform in London?

AK: London has a huge heart. People in London will always embrace you because that’s what the city is! It does it so well. It’s this umbrella under which so many of us have got shelter and have grown. And I’m using the restaurant for that purpose. On Sundays I give the restaurant to women who are home cooks, to take over the restaurant and to cook. I just think it’s important to give back. So I give the space for free so I can inspire the next generation of Asmas. I want to start the ripple effect so that long after I’m gone people will still feel that a woman has a right to follow the path I did, and women will succeed. The biggest thing that holds us back is fear, and that’s the one thing that I’m trying to communicate: let go of fear. And you will succeed.

KQ: Asma, you’re amazing. Can I have a hug?

AK: Yes, absolutely. (Hugs.)

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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Katie Quinn is a video creator, host of the Keep It Quirky podcast and author of the Short Stack Editions "Avocados" cookbook. She lives in London, England.

1 Comment

Antoinette March 12, 2019
The power of one woman. I love this. It’s my favorite strong woman article of all those circulating all week. All of our stories are important, but this one touched my cooking-from-home heart.