At the height of lockdown last year Asma Khan closed her small Indian restaurant Darjeeling Express in Soho’s Kingly Court for good. But it was not the end for this trailblazing restaurant, with Darjeeling Express eventually reopening in the former flagship Carluccio’s restaurant in Covent Garden.
In this video interview, filmed late last year just weeks before the new restaurant was due to open before another lockdown hit, Khan speaks about how the move to Covent Garden is significant for her.
“Landlords were unwilling to give me any new space,” she says. “I ended up coming out of this, pivoting out of it by getting this amazing site where someone who looks like me, talks like me, has an all-female kitchen, our shadows would not have crossed this place.
“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 walked in and I realised I’m following in the footsteps of an amazing man, a larger than life figure, this is Carluccio’s flagship restaurant, 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.”
Now finally open for business (the deli had traded for takeaway during lockdown) the Covent Garden restaurant serves 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.
“It’s food from my family but also from regions that I loved. When you went on the train journey you waited to go through that place to have that particular dish. A lot of it is about childhood memories.
“And we have a beautiful restaurant, which is going to have a tasting menu, including a biryani tasting menu, a vegan tasting menu and a menu where the journey is from Calcutta to Darjeeling.”
As well as serving brilliant food, the new Darjeeling Express will be a force of greater good with Khan keen to use the space and her knowledge to encourage a new generation of female leaders.
“One of the things that I’m very happy about having this restaurant is that it gives me the space,” she says.
“The deli closes at 6pm and we are going to have a mentoring school in that place. It is something that I realised over time that change in hospitality cannot come from the bottom up, because there is diversity in kitchens – you will always have invariably a black kitchen porter, you will have people of different backgrounds, there’s sometimes one or two token women in the kitchens, but the power remains in the hands of men.”
“The mentoring school is not going to train people how to run a restaurant; I want to teach women how to lead.”