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Chef Asma Khan On Why 5-Star Chef Brigade Can’t Keep Up With Her Home Cooks

  • IWB Post
  •  February 5, 2020

There are some people you take an instant liking to. Their straight forward, non-pretentious ways almost immediately open up an honest conversation. Asma Khan, though a well-known chef, who also happens to be the first British chef to be profiled on Netflix’s Chef’s Table, is a true desi at heart. The Indian born Asma grew up in Calcutta (and let’s just call it Calcutta without the political correctness because that’s how most of us nostalgically remember the City of Joy). And even though she has lived in London since she married in 1991, she can feel the walls, streets, corners, and trees. The ‘mitti’ (earth/soil) recognizes her when in Calcutta. ‘Calcutta is everything to me!’ says an emphatic Asma.

And so here we have Asma Khan, the author of the cookbook, ‘Asma’s Indian Kitchen’.  She runs the much popular Darjeeling Express, a restaurant that is frequented by celebrities, with an all-women team of chefs who are not professionally trained, including herself. Asma is in fact, a Ph.D. in British Constitutional Law and her unconventional career switch might seem bizarre on the face of it. But once you talk to Asma for a few minutes, all doubt lifts into oblivion. You know for sure that she was perhaps born to cook. Her love for food, her reason for cooking (and that is because she loves eating!) and her hell-bent efforts on using food as means to liberate and empower women are the most refreshing and inspiring ingredients of her life’s story.

For someone who learnt to cook because she dearly missed eating her kind of food in the west to someone who now runs a restaurant which sometimes makes people cry for its sheer burst of tastes that remind them of things left behind. From the relatable ‘ghar ka khaana’, or ‘ma ke haath ka khaana’ feeling to a homely run kitchen that is bereft of the hierarchy of the professional chef world, Asma Khan has emerged as the flower that bloomed best when uprooted. But again that is not the right word, because for Asma home is still where her parents are and the mitti of the place where her ancestors lived and died still tugs at her heartstrings forever.

Before we share experts from her interview, a few more details about Asma’s life story so far. She initially started with the shahi dawat or the supper clubs in her home in 2012 and then moved to a Soho pub and served lunches. It was a review by Fay Maschler, a renowned restaurant critic, that changed the course quite distinctively for Asma. The stunning flavors and the traditional food started attracting more customers and she eventually opened her own restaurant the Darjeeling Express, in 2017. This doesn’t seem too long ago, and within the span of a couple of years, Asma’s name and fame in the world of culinary delights have reached gastronomical heights. But what defines her most is her big open-armed heart. She offers her premises free for aspiring women chefs for supper clubs and supports a non-profit organization called Second Daughter’s Fund to celebrate the birth of second daughters. She set up a café in Iraq in a refugee camp, which initially met with some skepticism, but she was able to convince the women that she was taking them to the ‘kitchen to liberate them.’

In conversation with a fiery, feisty, practical and empowered Asma Khan.

You learnt to cook because you missed eating the food you liked. How different is this motivation compared to what many girls hear every day, ‘You have to learn how to cook!’. 

Asma: When a new bride comes to a house everybody is comparing her to her mother-in-law who is a stranger to her. Some of it comes from the mother who says you must know how to cook before marriage. My mother didn’t do that to me. There is also a class factor. There is a difference in someone making exotic pasta and the middle-class women making dabbas for husbands or kids every morning. I didn’t initially learn how to cook because I love to eat. And in Calcutta when you get such good food why would I want to cook. So this (learning how to cook) was about my choice. Cooking can be a double-edged sword for women. It can be very oppressive if you are being forced to cook.

What made you want to turn it into a business idea instead of just cooking at home? Was it like a calling that happened once you learned how to cook or were there people who saw that spark in you? 

Asma: Actually it was a gradual journey. I don’t know when it became an interest and switched to a profession. I started cooking at my house then I started doing it for other people. But I come from a family, where I have seen from childhood that people come and pay to eat biryani and shami kabaabs. My mother had set up a huge catering business. So if I had not seen this in my own mother, I wouldn’t have known it was possible to do. I would have thought that I should go to a chef course, I should get a degree. But I saw my mother from nothing becoming everything. Also, investment was not that big, it was not like I had to open a big restaurant or that I needed a lot of money. I opened it from my house, and I only spent 50 pounds as the initial investment.

Not having worked in a professional restaurant and working with other women who are not professional chefs, what were some of the challenges that you faced? Did it ever cross your mind to have at least a single professional in your kitchen?

Asma: Never. The whole point is that the idea of professionalism is something defined by men chefs. But I think more than the scale and techniques that they know, you need a very big heart to cook. And women can multi-task, say you give her potatoes to peel and once she is done she will be doing something else. So this whole thing about this is my job, this is my assignment; this professionalism is actually a very male way of working. Men have a very structured way to cook which is like a brigade way of working in the kitchen. This is a very French concept, of the different hierarchies, the sous chef, head chef, etc. It’s like a military ranking that men can understand. So the idea that someone screams and shouts at you, like in the army where people are under you, that is not how I can work, which is why I ended up this way. I don’t want a professional who is waiting for instructions from me, that is why I have no professional or a man in my kitchen because I don’t know what to do with them.

Asma Khan

You have always maintained your love and belonging to Calcutta. But now with your home and base in the UK, do you feel you can share that a bit with London or will Calcutta always remain first home, first love?

Asma: Now I have lived in the west and the east. See Calcutta will always be my home and I don’t feel like a citizen of England or Britain, I feel like a citizen of London. So London has given me shelter to set up and develop the Darjeeling Express and I have lived there for a long time. I love the city and the city has been very embracing and loving to me and has accepted me, so I have a huge love for London. But if I am walking on the road and someone pats me and says where is home, I would say Calcutta. I believe that when I walk in London I don’t feel the earth recognizing me. The mitti in Calcutta has the dust of my ancestors and my home, so in some way you walk on a soil where your family breathes and dies is a very different feeling. If someone asks if I have family in London I say no. For me, my family is always where my parents are. I have my husband and children in London, but it’s something about your parents and I think anyone who is married and left home will understand, home is only where your mother is, you get emotional.

This space of co-existence is tricky because many women tend to just shut out their dreams when the family doesn’t approve. But you found a workaround, so what according to you is the strategy to follow when you know that your near ones don’t approve of your career or passion and yet respectfully continue doing what you like without causing too much friction?

Asma: My advice to women is that as much as possible keep your family on your side. If not on your side, at least not against you because a lot of women think they will have to burn everything. Even though my husband disapproved, I didn’t want to make it ugly with him or with people. Like some said why you are cooking, do something in law, you are good at it.  Some people said things with good intentions, some not. But I didn’t want to isolate anyone or say anything that I regret later on. The biggest advantage I had apart from that my parents were literate and didn’t tell me anything, my mother-in-law was very supportive of me.  A Bengali mother-in-law is a formidable force, if she is on your side you can win every battle. She genuinely loves me, so the whole point is in the family someone will support you, someone will be against it, but never ever cut links with the family as much as possible. You don’t need your own family as your enemies.

You look at the larger picture of integrating food with a social cause of women empowerment. What do you tell the women, in Iraq refugee camps or even in other countries like Bangladesh or even India, to make them realize that cooking is not just an everyday chore but more?

Asma: In refugee camps, in Iraq, I had to explain to them that I am taking you to the kitchen to liberate you. And they understood that. The biggest incentive is you get paid. Money matters. When you are making food for your husband or kids is very different from professional cooking when people are paying you and some are kind enough to even give you a tip. So there is a huge difference. The attitude that they are professionals comes on its own, the transformation happens. So women in refugee camps suddenly see that they have got something and people are paying money so that’s a big thing. I mean people getting paid for their work is normal. But when your whole life you have been a giver of things to people and again it is not always about money, it could be something like the whole family comes and tells you ‘Thank you’! So no matter what and how much you tell women that this is good for you, they will believe it only when it happens to them. And my experience is that when they see a transformation, they feel empowered.

What scope do you see for your book and recipes in India? Since it is Indian food, what is different or special that your book has that most Indian women may not already know?

Asma: I am bringing something different to India with my cookbook because some recipes, like chicken chaap, rezala, etc., a lot of people, who are not from Calcutta, have never tasted. I also have a recipe for raan in a very different way. There are traditional Indian recipes that you can do straight away and I have other Bengali recipes like luchia aloo dum, so I think that there is something for everyone. In Calcutta, there is Bengali cuisine and Mughlai cuisine, and I have presented recipes from both sides. The book also shows how cooking can be done in a practical way, how you can make use of the stove, some stuff you can do in advance, some you can do last minute, something you can reheat. It also gives you a guide on how to plan for more people.

My team! Today was first day of cooking and they were so amazing! #KulmCountryClub @kulmhotel @mulomueller @st_moritz_gourmet_festival #stmoritztopoftheworld #stmoritzgourmetfestival2020

137 Likes, 3 Comments – Asma Khan (@asmakhanlondon) on Instagram: “My team! Today was first day of cooking and they were so amazing! #KulmCountryClub @kulmhotel…”

A lot of women are beginning to sell home-cooked food and are able to do so with digital technology. What advice do you have for ordinary women who do small businesses from their homes to sustain and make it profitable?

Asma: The important thing is that you should price it correctly. I understand there is a fear that if you charge more they may go somewhere else, but this under confidence, I don’t know if it’s in our DNA, but we all feel under confident. I still feel scared, here I am giving advice, but I still feel in my own restaurant that people might not want to pay. So plan it out. Find out your cost for making the particular portion and though you must not look for making a fortune, you must know the money you are making. The one risk of home food is that we don’t count the gharka things (household items). So that is my practical hard advice.

Your expertise lies in traditional dishes. Do you stick to the original flavors or do you also at some point see yourself trying a fusion of sorts?

Asma: I don’t want to do a fusion. I am very traditional. I like to cook my food. If I want to eat Japanese food, I will go and eat Japanese food, if I want Indian food, I will have that. I don’t want both on my plate together.

Finally, some people live to eat and some eat to live. In which category do you fall and why? What are some of your favorite dishes and do you like these better when you cook them or when someone else cooks it for you.

Asma: I live to eat, though I am aware I need to be more careful about what I eat. I love Biryani! My favorite is the one made at weddings – that is the best biryani made in a big degh (pot). I love that!

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