Asma Khan: ‘Restaurants should be ranked on how they treat their people’ | Food

Asma Khan’s biryani has the power to make you cry. Not in the hyperbolic, internet vernacular sense, where food is considered “amazing”, “divine” or “to die for”. But I took a friend to the farewell supper club at Khan’s restaurant Darjeeling Express, before it moved to a new location, and somewhere between the ceremonial opening of the daig (the cauldron in which the biryani is made) and eating those first few spoonfuls of rice, my friend – a part-time DJ and a full-time cynic – literally began to cry.

“It’s because it’s home,” said Khan sympathetically. Platters from her all-female staffed kitchen came out stacked high, making sure everyone had enough of the tear-jerking biryani to box up for afters. Reviews in the loos were similarly ecstatic. “It’s the taste of my whole childhood,” one middle-aged Indian diner told me in the queue. “Asma has haat ka maza.” It’s a compliment that roughly translates as having hands that hold a magic alchemy, which by south Asian telling can’t be learned by rigidly following recipes but is a gift one either has or hasn’t.

When we meet back at the restaurant on a hot, airless morning, Khan is emphatic that food should provoke a visceral response. “Food is our oral history, it is our roots, it is our DNA,” she says. “Every occasion – death, births, marriages – is about food and feeding people. It is symbolic. You can’t separate it from the culture.” Without wanting to be sentimental about it, she has a point: there are few reminders of south Asian heritage as evocative and commonplace as dishes passed down through generations.

“Our cuisine all over the subcontinent goes back centuries and it is extremely elevated and sophisticated. [People] here only think that’s true of French and Japanese cuisines and that ethnic food is all oily and greasy, a blow-your-head-off vindaloo to have with beer.” She eye-rolls. “It is not.”

Khan’s own gift, her haat ka maza, was born out of crushing loneliness rather than an ambition to become a chef: she was homesick for Kolkata when she moved to Britain in 1991 as a newly married migrant. At the time, she couldn’t boil an egg. Two trips back to see her family over the next two years became crash courses in learning how to cook and to feed her soul. To her surprise, she delighted in it. Khan’s ancestors descend from Indian royalty, she is a trained lawyer with several degrees, including a PhD in British constitutional law from Oxford, so it wasn’t expected she would do her most fulfilling work barefoot in the kitchen.

But it was from there, in her south Kensington flat, that she set up a clandestine supper club in 2012. If Khan’s husband Mushtaq, a quiet academic with simpler food tastes, was away for work, Khan would put on events. Her two sons, now 20 and 15, would often bundle into their rooms before the guests arrived. First it was a dozen people for £35 a head. Quickly it became a squeezed 45 diners. Soon after, her family insisted that home was becoming intolerable so Khan moved on to a pop-up restaurant in a Soho pub.

By 2017, Khan had opened the 56-cover restaurant off Carnaby Street. A year later she became the first British chef to be filmed for her own episode of the Netflix series Chef’s Table, aired in 2019. Danny DeVito was so enthralled by his dinner, he asked to invest. Khan laughed it off, but she was already racking up awards and, in the autumn of 2018, published an acclaimed cookbook, Asma’s Indian Kitchen. Darjeeling Express became so wildly popular and impossible to book a table for, expansion was inevitable. The restaurant has largely been closed since March, but will now move location to a space in Covent Garden several times its current size.

“The walk-in fridge is as big as our kitchen is right now,” she says, laughing. “You can dance in it.” Is she nervous about scaling up amid the pandemic, given that plenty of restaurants are shuttering for good? “I’ve been unsuccessful before, nobody wanted to eat my food when we were cooking in the pub,” she says, sounding unworried. “But my faith is very important to me and, in Islam, before you start something auspicious you feed the poor. You do good and everything else works.”

Asma Khan (in red) and her team at the Darjeeling Express restaurant in 2017. Photograph: Alex Lake/The Observer

On that basis, it bodes well. Last year, Khan set up a cafe in a refugee camp in northern Iraq employing traumatised Yazidi women. Most Sundays, she has given over the restaurant for free to other novice female chefs to host their own supper clubs. As her swansong in Soho she has negotiated a deal with her landlord so that the remainder of her current lease is secured for Imad Alarnab, a refugee chef whose Syrian Kitchen has been running as a pop-up across London for the last couple of years.

“I invested £200,000 of my husband’s life savings on fittings and furnishings here, so I wanted to have a say in what happened to the space. Imad came to see me, he told me his dream to be in here and afterwards I realised, ‘This is one thing I can do.’ I’m so excited because he’s such a nice person and he would never have been able to afford it otherwise.”

Khan’s loud and sensational arrival as “just a middle-aged housewife” seems to have come with a mission statement that demands respect for the food, culture and female cooks of south Asia. One that hasn’t always translated from high street curry houses, where dishes have often been bastardised for western palates. While the successes of Gymkhana, Benares, Dishoom and the like have revived an appreciation for how delicate and layered Indian dishes can be, south Asian restaurants often still have kitchens exclusively staffed by men in an industry dominated by them.

Darjeeling Express brings authentic home cooking to the fore. A real-deal “like mamma used to make it” menu because, in Khan’s kitchen, there is no other way: in a departure from convention and perceived wisdom, her team is made up solely of women who have only ever cooked at home. It’s a club of housewives and nannies, none of whom have had any professional training or experience.

“These women are the backbone of this business, it is theirs, they’ve been with me from the very beginning,” explains Khan. The recipes, she says, are cooked with an instinct for flavour that relies on memory rather than measurements. The ambition was to create a space that felt like an extension of her family dining table in India. A place to gab and be generously overloaded with food.

“You know, in the first two months of opening, I sacked my entire management and front of house [teams],” she says bluntly. “They were trying to impose a ‘restaurant ethos’, they were not getting it, so I got rid of all of them.”

A bold move, but then Khan is hardly known for being a wallflower. She’s ever present in the restaurant, an enthusiastic force who explains her dishes to the customers, unafraid of putting them off, because she is determined that they appreciate the history and the context in which their meals would traditionally be made.

“A lot of countries take the food and don’t respect the culture. But you cannot have my food if you don’t have me. It is a connection and if you take that away, you disrespect me.” Khan’s take on cultural appropriation is vociferous and unapologetic. The food world, like art, fashion, film and music, has been built on blending and borrowing, often riffing on ingredients and styles. “I don’t have a problem with this,” she says. “You can be from any culture, be any colour, you can cook our food but you must respect our traditions and our people.”

The difficulty comes, she says, in watching supermarkets and food companies mangle this to sell new products. “What is a biryani vegan sweet potato wrap? What is biryani about it? If I introduced something called ‘toad in the hole’ to my restaurant and it turned out to be a rocket salad, that would be weird. I would be using language that has certain connotations, and it wouldn’t be clever or funny. If I’m smart enough to come up with a salad, I’m smart enough to come up with a name.”

As a Muslim Indian woman who made “no attempt to lose my accent”, Khan has endured her sizeable share of prejudice and bigotry, so it’s unsurprising she’s so no-nonsense about shallow claims of celebrating diversity.

“The way I see it, when a majority community takes the food and culture of a minority, without honouring the traditions and people of that culture, only the majority community benefits financially.” Her voice rises. “That is my problem with the random use of our food and ingredients. I won’t let you eat my food, take my music, wear my clothes, take any kind of art form and architecture unless you want to embrace me too. If you do not honour the people, none of this has any value.”

Asma Khan filming Chef’s Table.

Asma Khan filming Chef’s Table. Photograph: NETFLIX

To put it another way, and she does several times, it’s the hypocrisy and racism that sticks in her throat. In the restaurant world and beyond, Khan questions why foreign cuisines can be so easily commodified for a society that treats foreigners with suspicion and contempt.

“Refugees are treated poorly. People of colour and LGBTQ minorities [face] discrimination. There is a disconnection between what is taken and enjoyed from other cultures and how people from those cultures are treated.”

At 51 and a relatively late bloomer, Khan sees herself as a vital heckler on the sidelines of the industry, rather than part of its elite club of star chefs. She is especially scathing of a macho restaurant culture that has allowed workplace bullying and abuse to become normalised – and of those who enable it.

“My deep concern during the pandemic is seeing very prominent people with considerable wealth remove the entire workforce without a safety net.” A surge of restaurant and pub workers were reported to be sleeping rough in central London in April, a fact Khan can’t shake. “It is so shameful, my heart bleeds for the industry, it is immoral. I don’t want restaurants to be ranked by Michelin stars for the fluff and edible herbs they put on a plate. I want to know how they treat their people, they should be ranked on that. Where there is bullying and racism, where there is sexual harassment, where staff don’t feel safe, people should boycott those restaurants. I don’t want to see them prosper.”

Having created a business where she is adamant that it is possible for women to meet the demands of work, family and home, Khan is agog at the slow crawl to progress around her.

“The problem is that people in positions of power are maintaining the status quo and, very sadly, women who have made it in the industry have kept silent. I understand that some of the men in question are their mentors but there are prominent female Michelin-starred chefs and I have never heard them raise their voices. They have never talked about violence in kitchens and the abuse that goes on.”

In her view, Darjeeling Express is about fostering a caring environment. Khan says the staff, in which she includes herself, are all paid the same rate in a bid to do away with traditional hierarchy. Hospitality, she says, is about being hospitable but at every level of the business. Khan talks at length, in poetic aphorisms and in sentences that run on, about the need for equality and better representation. It’s cheering to hear her, but she also walks the walk.

“My next dream is to set up a cricket league of all the Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis working in the industry,” she says, with intense seriousness. “I want to set up this league because we are in this industry together; I’ll pay for the entire kit. I’m desperately keen to set up a trade union, too. Not of restaurant owners but the workers.” Both her father and grandfather helped unionise manual labourers in India and their socialism has become part of family lore. “I stand on their shoulders and all the voiceless women before me; I hope everything I do makes it easier for another woman of colour to know that she can dream and rise.”

But for now, Khan faces the challenge of a new restaurant that will be hosting 120 covers, including 16 outside. At least one commercial landlord in central London has negotiated appealing terms to new restaurant owners determined to operate in the coming months. Instead of rent, 15% of the turnover is due each month, be that £5 or £500,000. Khan can’t comment on the terms of her own deal but she is excited for the October opening.

The new Darjeeling Express will run a deli selling street snacks, “a lot of 80s railway food”, have biryani on the menu every day and will be doing away with à la carte. Instead, there will be three tasting menus, including a vegan one, with more dishes from Nepal.

“My team will be bringing in their food and cooking their grandmothers’ dishes, not just my grandmother’s food,” says Khan. “It’s important to pass the baton on and I want these women to feel a sense of ownership and to cook the incredible food of their childhood villages. Why should it just be my story?”

Darjeeling Express will open next month at 2a Garrick Street, London WC2E 9BH

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