Celebrated chef and restaurateur Asma Khan knew she was in the right place when she saw what hadn’t changed.
When she walked back into Kingly Court, in Soho, in 2022, she was returning to a space that her restaurant, Darjeeling Express, had outgrown by the time it moved out in 2020. The Carnaby restaurant was her first fully fledged opening, launched in 2017, after years of supper clubs at her home, and residencies across the capital.
In those years, she starred on Chef’s Table, turned the restaurant into a sensation, authored two cookbooks, and became a figurehead for bettering hospitality culture. But the staff at Kingly Court — the maintenance workers, cleaners, and fellow restaurant staff who had been there in the beginning — greeted her not like a celebrity, but a returning friend. “I cried. They knew me when I was nobody,” Khan said last week. “I come back a slightly different person, but they know me still.”
The vision of a homecoming is clear and bright, but alongside the things that haven’t changed, are the many that have changed beyond recognition. Darjeeling Express 3.0 will open in January 2023, but the build cost doubled in a few short months, thanks to the well-documented financial pressures on the restaurant world and the businesses that feed it.
The new, 90-plus-cover space hasn’t been used by a restaurant before; it’s a former yoga studio, next to Khan’s previous restaurant, now occupied by Imad’s Syrian Kitchen. “We have a space double what we had before, and I’ll be able to build an open kitchen in it. Nearly every restaurant I saw in the West End, the kitchen was in some dark hole in the basement. That’s where I didn’t want to be: I want my cooks to be the star[s].”
This has long been a tenet of Khan’s restaurant model, which employs only women in the kitchen. The original Darjeeling Express had an open kitchen, but its second version — on Garrick Street, in Covent Garden — was in one of those dark holes in the basement she decries.
She says this was out of necessity, and that it proved to be a boon during the COVID-19 pandemic. It allowed staff to be siloed away as far as was logistically possible, and allowed the restaurant to function as a deli and takeaway hub when dining rooms were closed. But it’s not a situation Khan wants to revisit. “I needed to stay true to who I am, which means being with my women, in the restaurant, in the open kitchen.”
Still, by 2020, the bigger space was very much required, and it thrived through reopening in 2021, becoming a fixture of the Covent Garden restaurant world and one of the few London restaurants where celebrities are showing off that they have taste in food, as much as themselves: actors Paul Rudd and Daniel Levy became regular customers. But a desire for the previous kitchen model — and the building owner demanding the space back, in order to let it out in its entirety — led to the move.
Khan envisions this Darjeeling Express as the best version of the two that preceded it, melding the homestyle Bengali and Hyderabadi Mughlai cooking of the original restaurant with the grander, fixed menu structure of the Covent Garden restaurant, which included a biryani tasting menu. Something new will be a breakfast and brunch menu, only available on Sundays, with masala omelettes, stuffed parathas with achar, and halwa puri, the platter of chole masala; sweet halwa; and puri. “Not a concocted and convoluted breakfast; the breakfast me and my cooks would eat on Sundays at home.” The return of the open kitchen will enable a wider variety of Kolkatan street dishes, as well as bringing back a Bengali goat curry and chicken chop that were hallmarks of the original menu.
It’s not just the food that is a throwback; Khan says organising a homecoming, like raising a child, takes a village. She is working with Alessio Nardi and Lukas Persakovas, designers of the first Darjeeling Express, as well as builder Aron Boogie of NVB construction. She credits Josh Craig and Bahrat Nahar, lawyers at RWK Goodman, and property agent Charlie Catterall at Etch, for enabling her to negotiate successfully with landlord Shaftesbury.
Despite the evolutionary success of Darjeeling Express, and the way in which these support networks’s backing have enhanced her ability to take it to the places she wants, Khan is in fact dispirited by her continued status as a figurehead for women in hospitality.
“I want me, and my women, to be able to stand and applaud the woman, and her women, who do something better than we ever did, more than we ever did,” she says. So far, she doesn’t see that being allowed.
Notwithstanding the transitional impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the restaurant world, she says its inherent structure remains defined by male egocentricity, reflecting on sites and opportunities lost by fellow London restaurateurs blocking her path by influencing landlords. “I have been gaslit in the past,” she says. “I was close to signing a deal on another restaurant, before Garrick Street, but someone stepped in my way.” She says that it was COVID-19’s cratering of the restaurant property market which, in part, saw larger landlords take a chance on her business.
Those challenges saw Khan learn a lot about herself as a restaurateur. She recalls people walking 90 minutes each way to visit Garrick Street in the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic, when everything was shut. “It sets the fire inside you, it kept hope ablaze.” But while that proved people’s faith in her new vision, it also proved a false dawn when coming back to old haunts. “I thought I could do this on my own, because of all the strength I had to show. But you need people by your side, you need people to guide you. A partnership.”