The chef-restaurateur says that the “pause of lockdown” has given her an opportunity to rethink how she can make things easier for her team and that she wants a restaurant with a bigger kitchen and dining room in order to be able to train more women in all aspects or running a restaurant.
Darjeeling Express began life as a supper club for 12 guests before Khan opened it as a restaurant in Soho’s Kingly Court in 2017. The small restaurant has been received with critical acclaim – it is currently ranked number 93 on the Top 100 UK Restaurants List – with a table often hard to come by because of its popularity.
Khan, who runs the kitchen at Darjeeling Express with a full female brigade that she has trained, says the restaurant had struggled to cope with the numbers, with the 50-seat dining room regularly doing 200 covers a service. "In the middle of last year I realised I was not coping," she says. "We struggled a lot. Doing 200 covers in a very small restaurant came with incredible pressure. We could not meet the demand at all."
Darjeeling Express closed a week before lockdown was announced, with Khan using money she had saved for a "trip of a lifetime" around Europe on a Royal Enfield motorbike to ensure all the staff at her restaurant would be paid. She says she left a light on at the Kingly Court restaurant because she believed it wasn't the end for it. "I left a light on in the hope that I can come back - I wanted to know I can come back," she says.
Khan did make one last return to it, to cook food for the NHS.
A new Dajeeling Express
The business has since got a Government loan and Khan says she is looking for a larger restaurant of around 70-90 covers, which she plans to use as an incubator to mentor and train future female restaurant owners, general managers and CEOs of food businesses.
"All of us are home cooks and we have learnt to cook in very restricted places. I need a big enough space where we can do that number of covers and also a kitchen where we can afford to have people in observing and learning and we can mentor them, and a front of house space where we can teach people how to manage."
Khan also says she wants her new restaurant to reflect the great diversity of the hospitality sector. "One of the huge problems I have noticed in a restaurant is - as a woman of colour especially - you feel awkward because there is something that happens by the way you are received at the door.
"You need to have a more diverse front to your restaurant, because the people who are sitting and eating are diverse. You will often find there is a particular look and a style that is replicated in all restaurants of who is front of house, and that really needs to change."
I have been through this a lot personally. Let's use this time to open the doors to not the usual suspects. You need to build that confidence in people. There is a lack of diversity at the top level."
Khan says she hopes to offer jobs to people working in Chinatown restaurants that were forced to close because of the Coronavirus pandemic and says she is angry at the lack of support or recognition from the industry Chinese operators received in the early stages of the pandemic.
"No one spoke up for Chinatown when it was decimated, it was left to fall. It is a huge part of London's West End and it was not discussed by self-appointed spokesmen of the industry. For people who were working in their parents and grandparents' restaurants [in Chinatown] the dream shouldn't end here, they can come and work with me."
Khan has been vocal in calling for more female chefs to enter the world of hospitality. In 2017 she told BigHospitality: "Professional kitchens need more women, especially Indian restaurants who are all complaining about visa restrictions and struggling to recruit male chefs from India and Pakistan. Look at the women who are already in this country that can cook, why aren’t they hiring them? I find it difficult to understand why these restaurants are closing down but won’t open their doors to their wives, aunts or mothers. I’m a living example, women can cook and we work just as hard."
A portion of the profits at Darjeeling Express are donated to a charity that supports second-born daughters, who are often denied the same opportunities afforded to sons in traditional India.
Details of the new site and when it could open haven’t yet been announced, but are believed to be imminent.