Last week, the celebrated London chef and star of Netflix’s Chef’s Table, Asma Khan opened a new restaurant. Darjeeling Express 2.0 arrives bang in the middle not just of the COVID-19 pandemic, but of lockdown 2.0 in England.
Because restaurant takeaway is permitted under current coronavirus restrictions, Khan stuck to the opening plans she laid out this summer. But because of the restrictions placed on restaurants since the 5 November, it meant that guests weren’t able to dine in; instead, the space opened as a deli, offering lunches and snacks to take away, as well as cakes and tea.
It will open as a full-blown 120-cover dine-in restaurant from next week, when Khan will revert to inviting customers to stay and eat one of three new tasting menus — on the premises itself.
Eater London caught up with the chef, a vocal critic of the government throughout the pandemic, who announced the closure of her debut restaurant in lockdown one, and has ended the year opening a new restaurant in lockdown 2.0. Looking back on a challenging and tumultuous year, Khan says she has to be optimistic about 2021.
How would you describe opening a new restaurant, at a big new central London address, in the middle of the pandemic?
I see this as a victory of hope over despair. The restaurant is not just a light at the end of the tunnel for us, but I hope something that can inspire people who have all lost in the pandemic. Showing them that it is possible to rise from the ashes and that the day will return when we can be with our loved ones and eat out again.
What were the conditions you needed to meet in order to opening when you did? Or rather, what gave you the belief that it would work?
I was completely convinced I could make this restaurant and the space work. I visualised the deli as an old fashioned tea house of the 1930s where many of the design and architectural features were very similar in London and in Calcutta. I am very pleased with the way it has turned out. The dining room was far more challenging as we had to work within the restrictions of being in a Grade II listed building. I was very lucky to work with the same team. Interior and furniture designer Alessio Nardi, and the building contractors NVB Construction, who I worked with when I opened the Soho site. They completely understood that the soul of Darjeeling Express was a very earthy, rooted, and warm space. I am very proud that we were able to create that ambience of home and warmth which fits in with the food.
Is it working, so far? How has trade been?
It has only been a week and we are delighted with the response and the welcome we got from Covent Garden residents who are now repeat customers. It is also very nice to see my lawyer, accountants, and landlords regularly buying lunch from the deli. We feel very much like we belong here although it has only been a week. Our customers have ranged from supper club guests from my home to people who could never get a table at my last restaurant. There is much joy in this space and a sense of celebration. One of my chefs described the atmosphere like an Indian wedding home where lots of people gathered to celebrate with food and music — a joyous occasion.
How have the guests responded to it?
Almost everybody has been very kind and very complimentary about the food. It has been deeply humbling as well — as I have lived and breathed this project since August. To be able to open in the middle of a lockdown and see so much support from customers has been very emotional.
For the time being, it’s just a deli. Can you tell us a little more about what is coming in the next few days and weeks?
We are hoping to open after the lockdown is lifted, on the 5 of December. We will be doing a debut brunch on the 6th. We are fully booked till next year and I oscillate between deep stress and high excitement looking at our bookings. I really want every guest to have a meaningful experience when they come to the restaurant. The pandemic has been really tough for all of us and I want people who come to the restaurant or the deli to feel valued and cherished.
On the government, you’ve been vocal in your dissatisfaction with them during the pandemic. Sum up their performance, and how you feel about their actions and their communication right now.
The government has shown a complete lack of direction and has allowed non-scientific considerations to influence their decision. The March lockdown of which I was very critical as it seemed to take forever to close the country to stop the spread of the virus. Once again, I feel the priority to make Christmas a family occasion is taking a priority over the potential crush on the NHS — which is always evident due to the winter flu. I really don’t think the targeting of hospitality was necessary — the government clearly did not talk to people in hospitality. The curfew was completely ill-thought out and I don’t have a lot of hope for how this government will manage the rest of the pandemic till the scientists come to the rescue with a vaccine.
How are you feeling about 2021 and beyond? There’s Brexit to contend with, of course...
I have to be optimistic, having opened a new restaurant in the autumn of 2020, that the year ahead will be better. I am very aware that it is going to be very challenging times for everyone in hospitality and I worry about the impact all of this is having on young people and their aspirations. I have two young boys and I can see the difficulties they see ahead. I think 2021 has to be the year of the community where those that are privileged and powerful step forward to support those that are deprived and disenfranchised. Going beyond school meals over vacations — we need to recognise that there is food poverty in this country, that there are huge areas of deprivation and there are people who are marginalised because of the colour of their skin. I hope 2021 is a time when we try to heal these scars on our nation.
Sum up 2020 in one word.