Asma Khan: "Indian restaurants need to open their doors to more female chefs"

By Sophie Witts contact

- Last updated on GMT

Khan (third from left) and her kitchen team
Khan (third from left) and her kitchen team

Related tags: Indian cuisine

Self-taught chef Asma Khan has been winning plaudits for her London supper clubs for years and opened her first permanent restaurant, Darjeeling Express, in Soho’s Kingly Court earlier this month. 

The restaurant has an all-female kitchen team and donates a portion of its profits to a charity for vulnerable Indian women. Khan believes that Indian restaurant kitchens need more women and that this could help solve the visa crisis facing the sector.

What are the biggest challenges moving from a pop-up to a permanent site?

The unpredictability, in a supper club everyone pre-books, pre-pays and tells you what their dietary requirements are, but there is so much uncertainty in restaurants. There might be an evening where no one turns up or everyone decides to order the goat curry. We cook everything fresh and a few people have been angry that we've run out of things. It's been difficult because I’m used to knowing exactly how many people are coming.

How do your dishes differ from most people’s typical experience of Indian cuisine in the UK?

You won’t find this menu in an Indian restaurant, it’s the kind of food that people would make at home in India. These are all dishes my mother and grandmother used to cook. Housewives don’t have tandoors at home, they try to get a lot out of what little they have. The difference between commercial kitchens and home cooking is that in restaurants everything is scaled up to make it more efficient. We don’t try and economise in my kitchen, a lot of labour and love goes in to our food, so we only have four or five mains.

Why did you decide to have an all-female kitchen team?

It happened by accident. A friend helped me run the supper club and then a few people joined through word of mouth and it grew in to a band of women. I’ve ended up recreating the kitchen of my mother and grandmother, it’s very relaxed and there is a lot of laughter.

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.

Ghee-Prawns,-Asparagus-with

Will you be keeping the all-female team as the business grows?

Yes, our team is expanding and soon I might have three generations of women from the same family in my kitchen. This restaurant is an immigrant story, I am a first generation immigrant and some of these women didn’t used to speak English and grew up feeling quite isolated and disconnected from UK society. Now they are in the heart of Soho feeding people of all kinds of cultures, earning a good wage and going home with stories to tell. That’s what I feel most proud of. I might not become very rich from this restaurant but my success story is that I’ve transformed the lives of these women.

You are donating part of the restaurant’s profits to charity…

I discovered that many of the women involved in the restaurant were second-born daughters and we had a big discussion about how we always felt a bit unwanted, as boys are prized in Indian families. Every time a second girl is born in the villages where these women come from we send clothes to the mother and pay for their education. In very poor Indian families second-born daughters rarely go to school, parents keep them as nannies or cooks to help with housework. If people can see that girls from those families are running a successful kitchen in Soho, then maybe their daughter can too. I probably sound like an idealist but I can’t take money to my grave and just want to know that I’ve changed people’s lives.

Would you ever open a second restaurant?

I’ve learned so much setting up this restaurant that it would be a waste to not do another site, but I’m not in any rush. I want to empower these women to be able to take over and build up bigger teams. We are all paid the same hourly rate, which makes a big difference to them. Hierarchy is never a good thing. I’ve grown up as a Muslim girl in a feudal family, so I know how it crushes creativity and ambition. I have a duty of care, if you have some power you need to help other people out, otherwise what’s the point?

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