“’Ekla Chalo Re’ by Rabindranath Tagore inspired me. It means if you walk on a path alone, people will come; it doesn’t matter that no one’s walked on the path before. Once I remove the hurdles, people can overtake me. This is what motivated me — that I will remove the fear, the barriers that held up [women],” says Chef Asma Khan.
That Khan herself has become a poster child for the song is no coincidence. She’s worked hard for it. From living in Kolkata to being a homemaker in the UK to becoming a celebrated chef, Khan has broken the glass ceiling in more ways than one. Her appearance on the Emmy-nominated Netflix show ‘Chef’s Table’ earlier this year made her the first British chef to feature on it. Her award-winning book ‘Asma’s Indian Kitchen’ made it to bestseller lists, and her restaurant Darjeeling Express has been a must-dine-at hotspot in London for sometime now. And her Indian home-style cooking, a mélange of royal Mughlai and Bengali–from aloo biryani to raan to beetroot raita–has all of London hooked .For a journey that started only six years ago, with a love for food at its core, Khan’s rise has been meteoric.
“My mother ran a catering business in the 1980s, so I grew up in a kitchen. My greatest memory is waiting for little plates of food – everyone would wait for me to say that it’s okay. They took it very seriously even when I was a teenager. My mother used to say I’m an expert and know how a dish should taste,” shares Khan, who incidentally only learnt cooking much later, when marriage took her to Cambridge. Yet, being a chef was nowhere on the horizon. Her initial years in the UK were invested in procuring a law degree and a PhD, something she always knew she’d never pursue professionally.
Food and cooking were her real loves, and it was in 2012 that Khan began her supper club out of her home in Kensington. Unbeknownst to her husband, she began serving groups of 12 that quickly grew to 40. “When I saw the impact of my food on people – ‘Maa ka khaana yaad aa gaya’ is a very big compliment in our culture – that’s when I realised I have a future in food.” When her husband did get to know, she gave her venture a bigger form via pop-ups at the popular The Cinnamon Club, Soho in 2015.
Even four years ago this was a big thing in the UK – an Indian homemaker setting up a pop-up. But the breakthrough moment came later that year. Fay Maschler, one of London’s most revered restaurant critics, praised Khan’s food, leading to queues piling up outside. As if the wheels of fate were churning, a space in the prime Kingly Court was offered to her to setup her own restaurant. Her husband, who wasn’t the most approving of Khan abandoning law, helped by giving her his savings. “I think he just gave me the money to ensure I don’t cook in the house again,” she laughs, but adds. “This is his strength, he’ll let me fly. I wish more partners were like this, not trying to micromanage each other. Now that I’m 50 I can say this – be with someone who’ll stand and watch you grow and give you space.”
Darjeeling Express opened in 2017 to rave reviews, in the process also getting her featured on the list of the 100 most influential people in food in the UK. This was followed by the book and ‘Chef’s Table’, which made her a household name across the globe. Along the way, she’s also championed the cause of women empowerment — today Darjeeling Express boasts an all-female team, perhaps the only restaurant of its stature to have one. “Initially, with the supper club, these women came to me because they cooked the same way, with ‘andaz’. They didn’t ask questions like what temperature, how many spoons etc. And when the deal was sealed for the restaurant, Khan saw that from being shy, embarrassed, and awkward at the supper club, “they suddenly stood very tall and powerful. I knew then.”
Khan has a deep desire to help women in any way she can. “My mother cried when I was born, but we made peace when I was still very young. My elder sister, younger brother, and I were treated equally. But others would remind me of the sorrow when I was born. I’d be like ‘they don’t understand that I’ll become something in my life. Why am I being dismissed? We carry those scars, I carry it…but from that scar came fire. If I can help other women break their chains, I want to.” Khan has also started a charity, Second Daughters, to fight the stigma attached to the girl child in India.
“I’ve realised one thing — my success has been this stream of women alongside me. Even though people just see me, these are the people who were on the journey with me.” She recalls, “At night, none of us would put our shoes back on because our feet were so swollen. We’d be barefoot, holding hands to avoid slipping. We were all laughing so much and singing. My entire story these six years has been about the hands that have held me when I was weak and helped me when I was strong. It’s never been about me. Without your team you’re nothing.”
To that effect, she does feel that the F&B industry has grown over the years. “They have a broader mind about women, though there are still not enough women in Indian food. However, the hospitality in this country needs to change because there’s a lot of bullying, gender bias, sexual harassment, and too many women are scared to talk about it. But I’m here to help them talk because I’m not scared of anyone.” Truly a force to be reckoned with.
Asma Khan was recently in India in association with Culinary Culture, to create a special dining experience at the Taj Land’s End, Mumbai.