Asma Khan: “I am the ultimate outsider”

By Stefan Chomka contact

- Last updated on GMT

Asma Khan Darjeeling Express Covent Garden UKs most expensive Indian tasting menus

Related tags: asma khan, Darjeeling Express, Restaurant, Casual dining, Indian cuisine

The founder of Darjeeling Express on finally being accepted into Covent Garden, developing female leaders and why her new restaurant is serving one of the most expensive Indian tasting menus in the capital

Diners at Asma Khan’s new Darjeeling Express in Covent Garden will be able to order an eight-course tasting menu that will set them back £95, not including drinks. For those familiar with Khan and the previous incarnation of her hugely popular Indian restaurant in Carnaby’s Kingly Court, where dishes rarely troubled the £16 mark, a price tag nudging £100 might come as a bit of a shock. But guess what? That’s exactly the effect Khan wants.

As the first British chef to feature in Netflix’s award-winning series Chef’s Table in an episode that aired last year, Khan’s star has been on the rise, with her critically well-received cookbook Asma’s Indian Kitchen​ adding to the reputation of both the chef and restaurateur and her restaurant, which takes its name from a steam train that runs through the foothills of the Himalayas that Khan used to catch as a child.

But this isn’t about the recently found fame going to her head, with her major screen debut justifying a hike in menu prices. It is about something much more important and closer to Khan’s heart: respect.

Khan’s motive behind creating what she says is the most expensive Indian tasting menu in London (it’s actually just pipped by the Michelin-starred Benares in Mayfair, where an eight-course menu is £98 per person) is to help elevate the reputation of Indian cooking in this country, which she still believes is lacking despite the popularity of the cuisine the country over.

“It’s really important for me because I’ve realised in my three years as a restaurateur that very often there is a prejudice that Indian food is cheap and cheerful and it is more than that,” she says.

“It’s a very ancient cuisine. There are a lot of layers and heritage and techniques in the way we cook but somehow this has not been explained properly. People are happy to pay £95 for a French, Italian or Spanish tasting menu, maybe Japanese, but would ask ‘why is an Indian tasting menu at that price?’. It’s at that price because it deserves to be.

“I say this with no arrogance but say it as treat me and the people who create my cuisine equally.

“Do not dismiss Indian as a cheap and happy cuisine - we are that too. I stand on the shoulders of the curry houses. Thank god for them that they did this in the 70s at a time when this country was so racist. They struggled to set up something, they didn’t go on benefits and instead changed the palate of this nation.

"But now the time has come that I expect us to be honoured. In their name I want to have a cuisine that says we are on par with everybody else.”

Up for the fight

When Khan speaks there is real purpose in her tone. Friendly but direct, she is unafraid to ruffle feathers or to challenge norms, and has absolutely no intention to pull any punches.

Although we are talking about restaurants, in particular the opening of Darjeeling Express in its new location in Covent Garden, there is more to it than just hospitality. Khan’s story is one of struggle, not just with the current pandemic that is threatening to decimate the hospitality sector, but with landlords and even her peers, and of a fight for female equality in a male dominated sector.

The need to move Darjeeling Express from its original location, two floors up in Kingly Court, has been well documented​ and was purely down to space. When Khan opened the restaurant in 2017 following the success of the supper club she ran in her home, the 55-cover restaurant was the perfect venue. But acclaim from the restaurant critics and the Netflix documentary that followed eventually meant that the venue could no longer cope with the rise in demand for her food.

“We were struggling,” she admits. “It was a 55-seater doing 200 covers a day and the biggest problem was the kitchen and lack of storage. We never ever imagined we’d feed 200 people, the largest we’d hoped for was 100 on a Saturday night, and it was so tough.”

"Treat me and the people
who create my cuisine equally"

After the Netflix documentary broke and demand surged Khan knew then that she needed a larger home for Darjeeling Express. With a packed restaurant and an enviable TV profile, particularly for a female chef, surely landlords would be crying out to help to rehouse her?

Not so, she says, describing the process of finding a more suitable site as a struggle. “Landlords being very traditional were not engaging and everybody knew I didn’t have an investor,” she recalls, equating the experience to the process of arranged marriages in her native India.

“A girl only has value once she has got a rich husband; without that rich person bolted to me the landlords were hesitant to give a valuable site to me despite my proven track record.”

Khan thought her luck had changed after finding a new site just before the pandemic broke but having spent £4,000 on design drawings the deal fell through after she says another restaurateur deterred the landlord from taking her on.

As has often been the case with Khan though, she has had the last laugh, with the aborted move, and indeed the fallout from the Coronavirus, eventually proving serendipitous for her future plans.

DE covent garden

Darjeeling Express 2.0

So, onto Covent Garden. With her new location Khan has bagged a bit of a doozy in that it used to be the flagship restaurant in the Carluccio’s group before it was forced to file for administration​.

Pre Covid, she puts her chances of securing such a prestigious site as next to nothing, but the pandemic that is still sweeping the country changed the game.

“Someone who looks like me, talks like me, has an all-female kitchen, our shadows would not have crossed,” she says. “Covent Garden is a very rarefied European style cuisine place, the owners all belong to this elite club of which I am not a member, nor do I want to be one because I am the outsider. 

I am the ultimate outsider. I realise I am following in the footsteps of an amazing man in Antonio Carluccio, and it says a lot about how this industry is changing post pandemic when a place like that is being taken over by someone like me.”

This feeling of acceptance after being told that you’re not good enough is not a new sensation for Khan, who has previously set up a second daughters fund to raise money to support girls in Indian who are given fewer chances in life purely by virtue of their gender.

"You need to know my story and who
we are, our food is part of my DNA,
you have to take the food and the people"

Khan has spoken poignantly about her own experience as being a second daughter and the disappointment it brought her parents who were hoping for a boy second time round. In the Chef’s Table episode, she says her mother cried with sorrow at her birth.

With Covent Garden, Khan can build on the strides she’s already made to address this gender imbalance. At the original Darjeeling Express her kitchen brigade was famously comprised only of women - and those with no professional cooking background, with Khan instead building a team from former nannies and cleaners she had befriended - and this will remain the case at the new restaurant.

This time, however, the larger kitchen means she can employ all nine of them full time - the size of the Kingly Court kitchen and also the age of some of the chefs' children had proved prohibitive for working hours - and she will also expand the female team further.

“I will not take on a man,” she asserts. “We need to keep that ethos but also we cook intuitively. I can’t have a trained chef, the mindset is different, whether male or female. I’m looking for home cooks.”

She also says she will continue to look for people of different ethnicity and intends to take on those who have worked in their family’s Chinese restaurants and who now find themselves out of work as a result of the pandemic.

“Chinatown has been devastated. A lot of people worked there because it’s what they grew up doing. I’m looking for people who love cooking but whose family restaurants have closed down to bring them on board. I’m really trying to expand our team and include women who have a passion and strengths and qualities that we lack.”

Tangra prawns - one of the courses of the biryani tasting menu 

An exploration of regionality

Khan’s intuitive style of cooking is at the heart of Darjeeling Express, imparting her home style of cooking onto her team in the same way it was on her. But she’s also well aware of how it feels to not know how to cook. Her naked lunch moment came while living in London having successfully finished a law degree and realising one day that she was unable to cook any of the dishes she had grown up with. Thus, she returned to the bosom of her family in India to learn the culinary secrets she hadn’t been taught as a child.

At Covent Garden she says she will explore the regionality of the women working in her kitchen, from places including Nepal, Darjeeling and Mumbai, through the deli aspect of the restaurant. Here Darjeeling Express will serve some of the railway foods of the 1980s and 90s that Khan recalls eating as she was transported from one part of India to another.

She describes the food as very nostalgic. “It’s food I ate as a child when air travel was really expensive, and people went on long one or two-day train journeys. I remember waiting to reach a place to have a particular dish.”

“I want people to feel like they
are at my mother’s table”

With dishes on the railway deli menu starting at £3.50 for a vada pau - a bun filled with a spiced potato chickpea coated ball with chutney - and including the likes of a chilli cheese or keema toastie (£5/£6) the menu will be more democratic than the £95 tasting option, although Khan says there will be dishes on the tasting menus that diners will be able to try at the deli.

What about the tasting menus? Alongside the £95 biryani one is a £55 Calcutta to Darjeeling eight-course menu that celebrates two styles of cuisine from Bengal, from the delta of the Bay of Bengal to the foothills of the Himalayas. Again, with both menus the notion of travelling is important.

“Coming to a place like Covent Garden the first thing I wanted when I walked in was a biryani tasting menu. I want to take people on a journey. I want to hold their hand and introduce them to my country and the food of Pakistan and Bangladesh, of an undivided India. My food is of a place before the British came and drew lines and divided people.”

The menus will feature what Khan describes as the “big hitting” dishes of the supper club and Kingly Court, including her dum biryani. But, despite the price tags, they won’t follow the conventional tasting menu format - the single lamb chop on a fancy plate or “food with little bits of foam” as Khan describes it. Courses will be “substantial” often accompanied by either naan or rice.

“It is the way that we eat at home. Go to any feast in India and there will be at least 20 dishes on the table, and you eat each dish individually. I’m going to combine those dishes and give them to you as a taster. I want people to feel like they are at my mother’s table.”

Vegans will also be catered for handsomely. Khan says that in Indian culture one day each week is meat free so feeding non-meat eaters is not an onerous task. “I’m very surprised more people don’t know that. Even coming from a meat-eating family one day a week I had a feast of vegetarian things.”

Darjeeling Express biryani

Championing women in business

As well as being the first thing Khan wanted with her Covent Garden restaurant, the deli element also enables her to do something else close to her heart. Once the deli closes at 6pm each day, her intention is to use the space as a mentoring school to inspire and educate a new generation of female leaders from minority backgrounds to challenge the status quo in hospitality.

While she acknowledges there is diversity in the nation’s kitchens and dining rooms, more often than not the roles occupied by people that aren’t white are low down the hospitality hierarchy, such as that of the kitchen porter, rather than those in decision making.

“Change in hospitality cannot come from bottom up. There are people of different backgrounds and one or two token women in the kitchens, but the power remains in the hands of men. The decision making is done by men.”

“I stand on the shoulders of the curry houses.
Thank god for them that they did this in the 70s
at a time when this country was so racist”

She talks of “self selection” and the often “opaque” recruitment process where she believes men often hire someone they may have met before in a pub or social occasion. “If you don’t hang around in that group or are not part of that circle of people you pretty much struggle to get a decent job and then you don’t get promoted.”

She is also vocal of the need to address the bullying and sexual harassment she says still occurs in the industry. “No restaurant has an HR department where you can complain. We need to change the entire way that hospitality is structured and bring in women into positions of power and this is what the mentoring school is going to do. I want to train women not how to run a restaurant, I want to teach women how to lead and create teams where there is quality, diversity and mutual respect.

“I think I’ve done it and I’ve seen that it works. I want to create an empire of people who will go out and actually try and shake the place from within.”

Beyond the industry, Khan is also battling the racial prejudices with which she has been confronted as an Indian woman living and working in the UK, and the hypocrisy of people happy to eat and enjoy the food of migrants but are yet staunchly anti-immigration.

“I don’t understand how people are willing to take my food but not take me and label me as an immigrant; how they celebrate the death of 16 year old drowning [Khan is referring to the Sudanese boy who drowned while trying to reach UK] yet are happy to take my food. No, you can’t. You need to know my story and who we are, our food is part of my DNA, you have to take the food and the people.

“My tasting menu is not just about food and my ego it is about storytelling. I tell you a story about my people through the food so that when you get up from the table you may still not like someone who looks like me - I forgive you - but at least you’ll understand where I come from.”

Chicken kati roll

Opening in a pandemic

These are big issues to confront at any time but add in the fact that we’re in the midst of a pandemic and the task seems even harder. But not if you’re Asma Khan.

Yes, she admits that opening a 120-cover restaurant during a pandemic has risk attached to it, and says she is prepared for the decimation of bookings should the Government repeat its ‘don’t visit restaurants’ rhetoric of March.

She even goes as far as describing opening a restaurant in a pandemic as “brilliant” because it means she hasn’t got to redesign things and that she can open with distancing measures already in place.

“I think I’m in the best position. Unfortunately, this is going to be around for a while, but when it is all over let’s try and keep these rules about not having people breathing down each other’s necks. Whatever I’m setting up and all the cost going into it is worth it.”

"My food is of a place before the British
came and drew lines and divided people”

The second England lockdown has also put paid to the restaurant launching this month, but Khan is still going ahead with opening the deli for takeaway as from next week (18 November). The plan is to extend the opening hours to 8pm to give people more time to visit while the home delivery details are being finalised.

There have been other dramas, too. In an email exchange after our interview Khan says she’s had replace all 10 cookers in kitchen because the parts were too expensive to replace and it might take weeks to arrive, at the cost of £30,000. But as usual she is phlegmatic about the situation. “Apart from these shocks - all going well!,” is how she sums it up.

Khan hopes that in the aftermath of the pandemic landlords will learn some compassion and stop charging “the brutal rents in central London that are killing us”. But even if they don’t, she’ll still be here.

“The overwhelming feeling when we do open will be of gratitude,” she says. “I know that many people didn’t survive, and many people suffered but I am confident we will be successful. I have fallen too many times, I know how to stand, I won’t fall."

Related topics: People, Casual Dining

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