The Female Lead

Asma Khan: The first British chef to feature in Netflix’s Chef’s Table

Asma moved to Cambridge from Calcutta in 1991 to join her academic husband. She is Rajput on her father’s side and Bengali on her mother’s. After studying law, Asma went on to do a PhD in Law at Kings College London. Cooking was her passion and she began her food career in 2012 as a supper club in her home. In 2015, she opened a pop-up in a Soho pub and Darjeeling Express the restaurant opened its doors in June 2017. A year later, her cookbook “Asma’s Indian Kitchen” was published by Pavilion in October 2018. The book was the winner in the U.K. category for food publishing in Indian cuisine in the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. Asma’s Indian Kitchen was also shortlisted for best debut cookbook in the Fortnum & Mason 2019 awards. Asma is the first British chef to feature in Netflix’s Chef’s Table. The series’ sixth season, which includes Khan’s episode, was nominated for an Emmy in the Outstanding Documentary section. Asma is married and has two boys.

When did you first become interested in cooking and how did you gain the confidence to pursue your passion?

I first became interested in cooking when I came to this country to join my academic husband in 1991. I did not know how to cook, and I realized that one of the ways of dealing with the homesickness was to cook food from my home in India; also, I got a break from my husband’s chicken curry. I got the confidence from the response of the people who I invited to the house and fed. They were very grateful, and complimentary. This helped a lot. It encouraged me to cook and try new recipes.

At what point in your journey did you have the idea of starting an all-women kitchen and why was it so important to you?

The all-women kitchen grew organically; not because it was an idea that I had. Many of these women who are working in my kitchen today would come and help me in my supper clubs, which I hosted from home on their day off. Most of them were live-in nannies and missed food from home. It was very important because it seemed the most natural thing to me as I grew up around women who cooked, especially my mother. The men in our family never cooked.

Tell us a bit about the women who work at your restaurant.

Most of the women who work in my restaurant began working for me from 2012 when I hosted supper clubs at home. They were like me, home cooks and did not consider themselves chefs in any way. Some of them support families as large as 15-20 people back home.

 

We know that your food is unique in that it reflects your personal journey and heritage, coming from Royal Mughlai Ancestry and growing up Calcutta, so tell us about your menu and those influences?

My menu is a mix of street food and comfort food from Calcutta, they come from home food in Calcutta together with unique royal dishes from my maternal and paternal side. I also have a couple of royal dishes of Hyderabad where I spent my childhood.

What do you love most about your job and what has been the highlight for you so far?

I love the strength I see radiating from the women in the kitchen team, who have in the autumn of their lives found a spring. A highlight has been being asked to feature as the first British chef on Netflix; it was very exciting and a huge honour because no one had been featured from this region before.

Do not worry about what other people think about you. I wish I had disregarded people’s opinions of myself much earlier and believed in my own.

 

What is the Second Daughter’s Fund and what inspired you to set it up?

The Second Daughters is a not-for-profit initiative to celebrate the birth of second girls in Indian families. My personal memories and observation growing up in India were that the birth of a girl, especially a second girl is often lamented, as boys are preferred over girls in most families. I was inspired to celebrate the birth of girls because although a purely symbolic act of celebration may not change attitudes, it can begin the ripple of change as families realize the importance to celebrate the birth of a child whether it’s a boy or a girl.

One of The Female Lead’s key themes is ‘find strength in setbacks’. Can you tell us about a particular obstacle or challenge that’s affected your professional journey and how you overcame it?

When the time came to make a pitch for the lease of the restaurant I had to present a 5-year business plan to the board of the landlords. I had asked a friend to work with me because I had never done anything like this before and I was daunted by numbers and projections. The night before, although I had memorized it, I realized I was probably not going to be able to present the business plan as it did not make sense to me. The landlords were very understanding and allowed me to serve lunch and have a conversation instead of a formal business plan presentation. I used my strengths to overcome my weakness and was able to get the lease of the restaurant.

Are there any particular female role models or mentors who have acted as a source of support or inspiration for you?  

Wincie Wong of RBS, who helped procure the bank loan and go through all the formal procedures. Chantelle Nicholson, an experienced female chef, who helped train the team in the first two days the restaurant opened. Madhur Jaffrey as she is an Indian born role model who presented Indian food on television for BBC through her series ‘Madhur Jaffrey Indian Cookery’ at a time when many people didn’t even understand the cuisine. I didn’t see faces like hers.

Looking at how far you’ve come and everything you have achieved – if you could go back and tell your teenage self-something what would it be?

“Do not worry about what other people think about you.” I wish I had disregarded people’s opinions of myself much earlier and believed in my own.

What advice would you give to any young girls who want to get involved in the hospitality industry?

The image that the hospitality industry has, due to television shows like Hell’s Kitchen, is misleading. A lot of restaurants are positive, happy places to work. There is pressure and a lot of stress during service but it is a very rewarding career. There are bullies who pick on weaker members in the kitchen, men and women, and they need to be called out, because only by having more women in hospitality can we get stronger and fight for our rights.

We read that you’d like to see operators make hospitality a more open and welcoming environment – what does the industry need to do to make this happen?

We need to have clear rules set out which apply to everyone equally so there’s zero tolerance of abuse. Any allegations of abuse need to be looked at by an independent person so that the abused have the confidence that she or he will get justice.

We know that you’ve also been named as the first chef from Britain to appear on the Netflix series, the Chef’s Table – how did this come about and what has been the result so far?

I got an email out of the blue by Brian McGinn who is one of the executive producers of Chef’s Table who wanted to talk to me and told me he wanted to feature me in the series. I called him back and we had a very long conversation and I realized that they had researched everything about me and they really cared. Not only were they going to tell my story, but they were going to tell the story in my words and let me honour my team as well.

What’s next for you?

I have just returned from Yazidi refugee camp in Iraq where I have established an all-female café. I want to use all the skills I have acquired in the two years running an all-female kitchen to open food businesses and cafes in communities where women need to heal in conflict zones and societies where women have not been treated equally or fairly.

 

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