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Britain’s First ‘Chef’s Table’ Star Explores Identity on Her Own Terms

Through her food — and her upcoming appearance on the Netflix show — Asma Khan wants to show the plurality of her history

Asma Khan stands in front of a plain backdrop in a mustard and green dress
Asma Khan, photographed at her restaurant Darjeeling Express
Ming Tang-Evans/for Eater London

Asma Khan, of Indian restaurant Darjeeling Express in Soho, is the first British chef to feature on Netflix’s Chef’s Table. Khan opened the restaurant in June 2017 to much acclaim after five years hosting supper clubs, both in her own home and across London, including what is now seen as a restaurant pilot with a residency at Soho’s Sun & 13 Cantons pub.

“I am a warrior,” Khan says calmly, with her hands interlocked in front of her at a table in her restaurant, with the morning sunshine kissing London rooftops through open windows like a scene from Mary Poppins. Being witness to the sheer force of will that exudes from her goes part of the way to understanding the remarkable story of how an immigrant woman, in her 40s, started a new career as a chef and restaurateur.

Khan descends from an ancient warrior tribe in Rajasthan, in northern India. Her ancestors were at war with the Mughal Empire and the only way for it to end was to be given land, “And so we swapped the sword for a spade. We grew orchards. We became farmers,” she says. Khan speaks of her heritage with great pride — and there is a strong sense that her ancestors are with her now, not just as in history but as part of her contemporary story, a conflation of time. She, too, is a warrior and a farmer like her ancestors, and those stories are embedded in her understanding of her identity: as a restaurateur and chef. It’s not just folklore or mysticism, it is real and it guides her in the present. It is in those stories — the ones of her ancestors, translated and told by this chef — that one understands Khan’s food and the layers of identity that she wants to communicate through it.

Puri at Darjeeling Express, on a black platter and a pink and navy background
Calcutta chicken chaap
Ming Tang-Evans/Eater London
Niramish with puri at Darjeeling Express
Seasonal Bengali niramish
Ming Tang-Evans/Eater London

In 1991 she moved to Cambridge to be with her husband. In 1996 Khan got into Cambridge, Hughes Hall, to study law. Around the same time, her husband was gained a place to teach at SOAS, and so they moved to London; Khan took a place at King’s College instead. After her law degree she started her PhD as a part-time student. “I then took a break to have my second child. I studied and raised two kids while cooking and feeding armies of friends and relatives. I finished my PhD viva in 2012.” She specialised in British Constitutional law and worked on church and state — ”looking at parliament’s role in making laws for the Church of England. But that was an excuse to write about politics,” she says. Khan explains that now, it is her food that is excuse to talk about and explore politics.

Khan’s move into the restaurant industry has never been just about the food. “It isn’t about the money, the accolades, it is a platform for me to talk about politics and race,” she says. Khan challenges people to see her as a Muslim, a woman of colour, and a business person. She asks to be counted. Filming Chef’s Table was an incredibly positive experience for Khan as it allowed her to continue her story, giving her another platform. “They gave me complete freedom to talk about what matters to me. There is a story about my journey, which is essential for this format, [but I also] talked about immigration and race and how [food] is about more than just food.”

Inside the kitchen at Darjeeling Express
Ming Tang-Evans
Frying papad in the kitchen at Darjeeling Express
Ming Tang-Evans

When Khan received the first email from Brian McGinn, producer and director of Chef’s Table, she didn’t open it, thinking it was a hoax. Then she didn’t open it in case it wasn’t what she dreamed it could be. It was real. The two of them organised to have a phone call. It lasted over two hours and Khan says she was impressed at the depth of knowledge McGinn had of her.

That was April, and by July they were filming in London and India. In India it was monsoon season, so a chaotic filming adventure (“everyone came back in one piece, so that’s all the mattered”) and London was a task to keep a secret with her trailing 10 crew around the capital.

Key to the Chef’s Table process, for Khan, was that the episode was directed by Zia Mandviwalla, a woman of South Asian background. Khan explained the shorthand between them and the respect and understanding of particular cultural nuances, meant that a narrative could unfold that felt genuine, and elicited a range of stories that otherwise may not have been heard. “She did not ask me pointless questions about my husband and marriage, I did not need to explain what my mother meant to me, she got it. She noticed things like I took my shoes off after a filming session, so before a shot she would call out ‘Asma put your shoes on,’ just like my sister would — little things, but they made me feel she understood what made me tick. Zia was born in Mumbai, moved to Dubai and lives in New Zealand — I felt as someone who had moved countries herself, she understood me.”

Asma Khan
Asma Khan, photographed at her restaurant Darjeeling Express in London’s Soho
Ming Tang-Evans

Khan learnt to cook from her aunt, Rukhsana Hamidi (her father’s sister), after moving to Britain, who took it personally Khan’s own inability to cook. Asma’s cooking started with allu dam (a potato dish), easy and manageable, which she cooked perfectly. The satisfaction of getting it right, meant learning more felt less daunting. Khan’s aunt died a year after she had moved the U.K. “I cooked the few dishes she taught me, especially the zeera aloo, cumin potatoes, as I missed her and the smell of the spices reminded me of her standing next to me in my kitchen telling me hilarious stories of her childhood with my father,” she says. The first spice Khan cooked with was cumin, which is what her aunt taught her, but also because she remembered watching her own mother’s application of it: “The spice that I used for the [zerra aloo] potato dish was whole cumin. Still, it is my favourite spice. Because I used to watch my mother cook with it, so I knew what it looked like before it was getting burnt. The first time I did it, I cooked it completely correct. I felt confident. I picked the right spice, the most delicate, and I smashed it!”

That first year in the U.K. Khan only cooked with vegetables, because meat was too daunting, and in 1992 she returned to India to develop her knowledge of cooking, with two new teachers. “The two people who [then] taught me [were] my mother and my family cook Haji Saheb. Haji Saheb was convinced I was going to be the best cook in the universe and started my cooking classes with great enthusiasm. I learned all the Mughlai dishes I loved [first] and how to make paratha — my all time favourite bread.”

It is this deep connection with home, identity and belonging that is seen in Khan’s current relationship with food and where the political discourse starts today. Khan’s restaurant — as has been widely publicised — is staffed mainly by women; the kitchen staff is is entirely female. Even though she says that was accidental, a focus on women has been a driving force in Khan’s approach to the restaurant business, as she looks to practically support and actively platform women across the industry. On Sundays, when the restaurant is closed, Khan runs the Women in Food supper club, an event which gives would-be female restaurateurs and chefs the chance to cook for the paying public.

“My tribe is now women,” Khan explains. “If I had an army it would be powerful women alongside me.” This is what we wants to achieve with her female focused Sunday supper clubs. “We are all linked, you realise you are not alone, it is empowering. We need to link up, food is a great way to do that. Food is the chains that bind us”.

Through being heard in her multiplicity of identities Khan feels she confronts stereotypes — her faith is hugely important to her, as is being an immigrant woman, and a successful restaurateur. To do that, she takes strength from the India word ‘sultan’: “Sultan means ‘power and authority’, women should take this, take ownership,” she says.

“It is really nice they [Netflix] asked someone like me. From a very small restaurant that is very female oriented. I hope it inspires women all over the world. It is a success story. I can say that now. It took me awhile to say that. To begin with I would never say ‘I am a successful restaurateur, now I practise that in front of the mirror — I say it not for myself, I say it because I want people to hear it. To hear a woman of colour to say ‘I am successful,’ because I think that will inspire.” Khan hopes if other women, particularly those that are marginalised, will take on this mantra and feel a sense of belonging in whatever they do.

“Anywhere I want to call my home, is my home. ‘Where are you originally from,’ no one should ask me that question. Home is an emotion, home is not about the passport you carry. To me home is Darjeeling Express. I have finally come home.” she says, signalling the team’s readiness for lunch service.

Asma Khan’s new cookbook, Asma’s Indian Kitchen, is published in the U.K. on 4 October 2018. Season six of Chef’s Table will launch on Netflix on 22 February 2019. This piece was originally published in October 2018.

Darjeeling Express

2a Garrick Street, , England WC2E 9BH 020 7836 8888 Visit Website

The Sun & 13 Cantons

21 Great Pulteney Street, London , W1F 9NG Visit Website

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