Chef-restaurateur Asma Khan will not reopen her celebrated Soho restaurant Darjeeling Express. She will instead search for a new, bigger premises, which she hopes to open when the future of the industry is a little less unknown.
Plans to move out of the 55-cover space in Kingly Court, which opened in 2017, were underway before the end of last year. But the pandemic hit, “and then everything went pear-shaped,” Khan said this lunchtime.
“It was getting too difficult, doing 200 covers in a 55-seat restaurant. When I designed the restaurant, I never visualised we’d do these numbers. We found a way to do it through sheer grit and working so hard,” she said. “It was a ridiculous situation — there’s only so much you can do with enthusiasm and passion and as much as I loved it, I had to leave.”
At the beginning of this year, Khan had identified a new location, had spent money on designs, and was excited to make the move: “Unfortunately, for unknown reasons, that offer fell through and I was back at the drawing board when the pandemic hit.” She added that the last four months had given her the time to find something more suitable and confirmed to her that it was neither viable nor practical to return to Kingly Court.
The motivation to move out was also because she wanted to reward the 25, all-female staff who had helped build the reputation of Darjeeling Express. She wanted to give them more space not just to ease the practicalities of day-to-day cooking, but for those cooks to develop: “To take them to another level. I want them to have that feeling that they’re proper chefs,” Khan said.
She added that it felt like a “coming of age for us — we certainly felt like maybe we should be more grown up.” Khan laughs when admitting that she and the team “weren’t trained to cook in large areas of stainless steel with lots of shelves. We don’t have chef’s knives; we also use basic, small serrated tomato knives.” It was time to change that, she said, while acknowledging that among the reasons for Darjeeling Express’ success was that her team was equipped to cope with the kind of demand that was out of the ordinary for a kitchen of its size and resource. “The advantage of having one team who came from small kitchens cooking lots of food — we’re all home cooks. It’s a labour of love and that’s what people taste,” she said.
In the guide to the best Indian restaurants in London, Eater contributor Sejal Sukhadwala wrote of Darjeeling Express:
Asma Khan’s famed Carnaby restaurant is not generally thought of — or promoted — as Bengali, as such. Reflecting her own complex heritage, it combines the everyday and festive fare of Bengali and Hyderabadi Mughlai traditions, along with the classic street food of Kolkata. The short menu showcases the different facets of Bengali home and festival cooking, with many dishes so influential they’ve started appearing in non-Bengali restaurants: among them, tangra chilli-garlic prawns, Bihari lentil phulki, goat kosha mangsho, prawn malaikari, and beetroot chops. The flavours are like a culinary orchestra: one minute, the subtle sweetness of coconut-accented gravy; then the surprising bitterness of fenugreek seeds; a high note of chillies, followed by a crescendo of peanut-enriched sauce. Balloons of soft pooris hot from the frying pan are not to be missed — a true labour of love by the all-female kitchen team that sums up this restaurant perfectly.
Khan has spoken out at the inadequacy of the government’s communication and response to the coronavirus crisis and she fears that there are yet more problems ahead for a restaurant industry that has been hard-hit by the pandemic. Though Prime Minister Boris Johnson has sanctioned the reopening of restaurants in England from the 4 July, Khan is nervous of the consequences of returning too quickly. Even were she planning to stay in Kingly Court, it would be too soon to reopen, when the safety of her staff is among her top priorities. “I put the collective over myself, by not putting them at risk. I’m not Darjeeling Express; all of them are,” she conceded.
Khan hopes to make an announcement on the location of the new site soon, even though she does not necessarily envisage opening it in the short-term. But when she does, she has aims that go beyond serving the customers who will be eager to return. “I want to absorb a lot of people — women in hospitality — who have lost their jobs,” she said. “We will use the next site as an incubator to rebuild the confidence of women, many who are walking into further insecurity.”
She says that while her focus over the last three years at Darjeeling Express has been to give kitchen staff the ability to grow, she will use her next restaurant to “train [women] to manage and run restaurants, not just to work in the kitchen.”
Progress has been achieved and the restaurant’s success and reputation is testament to that. But Khan wants to go further. “Change will not just happen from the kitchen level up,” she said.