A “rattler of cages”, a “heckler on the sideline”, even a “mad banshee”. These are all words Asma Khan uses to describe herself and her position within the restaurant industry.
They’re perhaps not the first words that would come to mind for anyone else describing the award-winning chef-owner of The Darjeeling Express, the restaurant that grew out of her supper club for home-cooked Indian food, and that is run, famously, by an all-female team of cooks, rather than professional chefs.
The restaurant, pre Covid, was racking up the plaudits, both for its food – a combination of traditional Indian dishes and food from Khan’s heritage in the Mughal dynasty – and its owner. Khan interacts with her guests, telling them stories of the origins of the food they are eating and welcoming them to her world.
Boosted by word of mouth and some prominent food writing, The Darjeeling Express and Khan rose to further notice after she became the first British chef to feature on an episode of Netflix’s Chef’s Table. She was named in Business Insider’s 2019 list of ‘100 Coolest People in Food and Drink’, thanks largely to her commitment to inclusivity and using her platform to raise ethical issues.
But back to the rattling. Khan is not interested in talking about her own fame or fortune, and says the only reason she appreciates such a “stage” is to use her voice to highlight those in the shadows – primarily women, but also other marginalised people and communities.
This interest in oppressed women is deeply personal. Born in India as a second daughter, a traditional stigma where women are seen as a financial burden, Khan set about giving her mother a reason to be proud of her. Moving to England with her husband, she studied law to PhD level, before loneliness sent her back to India to learn the secrets of her culture’s home cooking.
“I grew up in a very gender biased society, I was a second daughter, which traditionally were unloved and unwanted. Once you leave the cage, you think: I’m never going to go back to that,” she explains.
Returning to London, she forged links with other South Asian women in her community, hiring them to cook at her supper clubs – a core team that remains with her today after leaving their jobs as nannies and cleaners. But it was within the restaurant industry she came across another version of female oppression.
“I seriously think there is a problem in our industry. Because in almost every central London restaurant, the day-to-day running of the restaurant and the owner are different. The people who own it, the venture capitalists or investors, or foreign restaurant owners who come in – they are divorced from the day-to-day running; they do not have a moral responsibility to see what’s happening to their staff.
“The so-called leaders of our industry are so tied in with the vested interests of the big boys – and I say boys as boys. It’s almost all male, mostly white, very driven by alcohol interests.
“It’s irresponsible, uncaring, and not willing to invest in people. They are not standing up or supporting females who accuse powerful men of abuse,” says Khan, who says the restaurant industry is “still waiting” for its ‘#MeToo’ moment.
It’s unlikely that many people would consider suing Khan lightly, but if they did, it’s fair to say she’d relish it (“I’d clean the floor with them”). But in any case, there seems to be little dispute over the problem of harassment in kitchens. After we speak, there are fresh headlines about yet another toxic workplace, this time Tom Kitchin’s restaurant in Edinburgh.
“The silence is deafening,” she continues. “When prominent male chefs have been accused of violence and bullying and sexual harassment in restaurants, the leaders of hospitality are quiet. Including the women who are powerful Michelin star chefs; they are silent. Everyone knows what’s happening, and everyone is silent. I am the heckler on the sideline.”
Clearly, speaking out isn’t a problem so much as a raison d’etre for Khan, whose current preoccupation, like her peers across the breadth of hospitality, is the uncertainty over how the sector will survive post-Covid.
A perfect storm of Brexit and the pandemic, where furlough offered restaurant workers a glimpse of normal working hours, have combined to leave restaurants crippled, with anyone from top chefs to kitchen porters in severe short supply. It’s a crisis that is affecting livelihoods, both in restaurants and their supply chain – and it’s often the small-scale sustainable suppliers who depend on the eating out sector.
“Of course there is this major issue, which is Brexit,” says Khan, referring to the exodus of many Europeans working in hospitality after the vote.
But she says the issue runs much deeper. “Why is there no one asking why we’re in this position? Yes everybody is having this issue about Brexit – food processing, drivers, they’re all suffering. But we are suffering in a different way.
“I have a very controversial position on this, and it’s been my consistent position for many years. I always said it’s the way that hospitality treats its teams: as cannon fodder, as if they’re just passing through. They don’t invest in supporting them emotionally, or for their mental health.
“I’ve said this for years; you cannot expect people to do a 16-hour shift. There are some psychopaths working in these kitchens. They come in early in the morning, they go home late at night; it attracts a particular kind of toxic, manic behaviour.”
Khan’s picture brings to mind the widely accepted caricature of the head chef, embodied most famously by Gordon Ramsay, as the explosively angry white male solving the inadequacies of his staff.
“And now all of the wringing of the hands, saying we can’t recruit anybody,” continues Khan. “I know it’s a bit too late. But like this crazy mad banshee, I’ve been saying this for a while; if you don’t treat people properly, if you don’t respect them. This is the price we are paying. In the early days of furlough, so many restaurant owners and chefs behaved appallingly.”
The Darjeeling Express, which coincidentally is not facing any staff shortages, according to Khan, runs two separate shifts, where women can come in early and leave at 3 to collect their kids, while the afternoon shift starts at 5 so they can collect, feed and see their families. It’s a common-sense approach she applies to another so-called barrier to women working in the kitchen: lifting heavy pans, a view chef Heston Blumenthal notoriously put forward before being widely criticised.
At the moment, I have two women who are pregnant. It’s no big deal. There are five other people who can lift. What kind of bloody kitchen are you running if people are lifting pots all day?” says Khan.
In many ways, Khan seems to run a restaurant in a way it should be done, for people and for planet. And like other ethical pioneers, she makes it seem simple. As well as flexible working, she buys primarily British produce when in season for her staples including potatoes, onions, cauliflowers or squash.
Speaking about her food sustainability, she says: “Because I rattle so many cages, I don’t make this into a big issue. But I don’t use any fruits or vegetables from India or Africa. Because I don’t want the carbon footprint on my menu. And also I know the damage it’s doing to the farmers in India, because my father is a farmer,” she says, explaining how farmers are being encouraged to grow GM cash crops for western markets, with no focus on growing for their own families.
“I’m making traditional Indian village dishes, all from British produce. I try to buy organic as much as I can. We get aubergine and herbs from the continent – that’s the furthest I will go,” she says.
Food waste doesn’t seem to be a problem, either, as all guests are asked to take their food away if they can’t finish it (all that returns to the kitchen is empty boards). “If people genuinely can’t take their food, we put it neatly into boxes and we give it to the homeless at night,” she says. “It’s such a nice feeling because people die of hunger in my country. How can you throw food?
“Sustainability is very, very important. This is the only Earth we have. We have a duty of care to the environment, because you can make a difference.”
What is the solution that would bring the restaurant industry onto a more equal footing? Simply, she says it’s a case of more women in positions of leadership.
“Our greatest strength is the fact we can multi-task, and we’re able to separate issues out. A lot of women have life lessons, from being not picked for the science prize to not being selected for football; we have all gone through discrimination. We understand what it is to be ‘other’.
“All of this burden that women carry can be turned around into a powerful leadership lesson. Despite everything that could have dragged them down, they’re successful,” says Khan, who to this end is opening a mentoring school to train women for leadership in hospitality, to run from her deli and restaurant in the evenings.
Trained in law and by nature willing to champion those who are overlooked, Khan would seem primed for a switch into politics. It’s something she says she’s thought about a lot, but ultimately prefers the freedom of her own business, from where she can rattle as many cages as she likes.
And then there’s her own secret power of transformation; her cooking. “There is so much fanning of hatred. This is why cooking is so important to me, I use it as a way to open people’s hearts and minds,” she says. “So you can sit next to someone who looks like me in the Tube, smelling of masala, and remember this meal you had in my place.”
Of course, racism in the UK isn’t just a coincidence, with an educational system that largely prevents children from learning about history in a balanced way. Reversing this would solve many issues, believes Khan, who says: “It’s about putting it into context, because the descendants of slaves and those who suffered under colonialism may be sitting next to you at your workplace. It puts into context why they’re here and what their story is. And you understand them better,” she says.
Racism is also her own personal lived experience as a woman of colour. “We jump hurdles that no one else can see. Not just in hospitality, but in every profession. It’s deeply problematic,” she says, recalling a racial abuse incident she witnessed and intervened in recently.
For all the challenges, Khan says she is an optimistic person, and takes most hope from the thought of the next generation. And as a late arrival to cooking herself, she also offers inspiration in overcoming a very different obstacle; how to learn how to cook from scratch.
“I think everybody can cook,” she says. “It is about appreciation and appreciating yourself. When you cook, this is you at your most powerful.
“Take time, step down, listen to music and take it slow. The most expensive ingredient you’re putting into that dish is your time. It’s not the saffron or the quality of the meat, or the expensive, organic vegetables that you’ve gone out and bought.”
Her tips seem to come from a deep self belief rather than anything else, albeit endowed as she was with generations of highly skilled teachers in the form of her mother and aunties. But it’s this belief in the power of food, in the chance for a better world and our own power to create it that is perhaps her most compelling quality, and one that places her right in the centre of the table.
This interview was originally published in the Wicked Leeks summer 2021 issue. You can read the full magazine for free on Issuu here.