A Woman’s Place
Words by Hollie Newton
Portraits by Rory Mulvey
It is on something of a low ebb that I make my way to Darjeeling Express this morning. What no one tells you about switching careers in your 30s is just how isolating it can be. Not all of the time, of course - most days are filled with rainbows and freedom - but some days, the fear creeps in. I schlep up the steps at Oxford Circus, moon past the road sweepers on Argyl Street, pause to lick the windows at Liberty, and drag my heavy self onto Carnaby Street where, after weeks of Mediterranean summer, even the sky has clouded over. Of course it has. I am Eeyor in a Monki neon t-shirt, questioning all that is good in life.
Should you find yourself in this position, for god’s sake go and visit Asma Khan.
“It’s not about food.
It’s beyond food.
This is about how you
deal with power“
On the top floor of Kingly Court the windows of Darjeeling Express are thrown open, sunlight pouring through. Where has the sun come from? Does it always shine here? I wouldn’t be surprised. Here is a welcome as warm as the cup of chai that Asma hands me. Dangerously sweet, with a low radiator hum of chilli to loosen the tongue and thaw the soul. I feel better already.
So here she is. Asma. The first UK chef to be featured on Netflix’ Chef’s Table. A woman. An immigrant. A “middle aged housewife who cooks as a hobby”. Wait… what? “A young female chef said that about me. Imagine! ‘A middle aged housewife who cooks just for fun’”.
And with that, my carefully planned questions bugger off into the ether. There is no stopping Asma Khan. We are here to talk about women in the food industry, and Asma has a lot of things to get off her chest.
“Ageism is a terrible thing”, she says, taking a sip, “and it disproportionately affects women”. The all-female kitchen at Darjeeling Express boasts an average age of 50, “some are a lot older, some a little younger,” a fact that would be surprising no matter the group of chefs’ sex. I watch the team prep for service. The kitchen breathes with laughter. “I tell everyone, this is not the autumn of our lives. This is the spring.”
“After you have crossed the insecurities of youth, your 30s… Women need to step back and look at themselves. This is when you are most powerful. You know your strengths and your weaknesses. This is your time”.
Having changed careers in her 40s, stepping away from the law (in which she has a PHD) for her now famous supper clubs, this is something Asma knows about.
“This is my second innings. I’m not going to get a chance to bat again. I come in to hit every ball out of the park. I’m the fire you cannot stop. I come in here to win. And not just me – because there’s no point me scoring a century if my team loses.”
Frankly, the idea of Asma as ‘just a middle-aged housewife’ is laughable. “I am from the oldest warrior tribe in Rajasthan. And our women fought in battle too”. Sitting across from her, I can see it. And it is glorious. Asma Khan is one of the few women in the public eye to make me look forward to my latter years. That the best may indeed be yet to come.
“It’s not easy. It’s very isolating. Especially when you’re changing careers. Often you’re having to start again. But this should be seen as a way to find – to start – a new tribe. The rules are different. You can work together collaboratively. Women who are older have learned that they don’t need to be competitive. And they don’t need to have this toxic, macho way of acting to succeed. Because unfortunately, you do see a lot of women behaving like men. Thinking that this is the only way to get ahead. And you hear stories all the time. Aggressive women. Women who throw away the ladder once they get up. I think it’s disgraceful. I think it’s really sad.”
“My personal success
My freedom and my
liberation mean nothing,
if the women around me
are in chains“
In the restaurant industry, sexism is almost exclusively spoken about within the ‘man discriminates against woman’ narrative, but the idea that it comes from women too is disturbing. That there are those who succeed who are happy to leave others behind them. I look at Asma’s team. The majority are immigrants. The nannies and the cleaners and the low paid workers. Brilliant women who, through sheer circumstance, had been squished into a box.
“When you are labelled and put in a box. This is where you will live and die. I told these women, this is not how your story ends. You will be liberated and you will define who you are.” There is a lump in my throat. This is one of several points in our conversation when I find myself holding back the deeply unprofessional threat of tears. It is a message not said enough, especially to women: it is not too late. Perhaps this is where Asma’s most powerful message comes from. That all is not lost. That you can start again. With the help of the women around you, you won’t feel small and lonely anymore.
“My personal success means nothing. My freedom and my liberation mean nothing, if the women around me are in chains. My freedom and my strength and my power come not from me and my success, but from what I did for someone else”.
“It’s not about food. It’s beyond food. This is about how you deal with power. Women are so powerful, but they are just… they’re the last to recognise it.”
The food at Darjeeling Express has often been described as ‘home cooking’. And it is. Brilliant, wait-three-months-for-a-table cooking from the kitchens of Asma’s royal Mughlai ancestry and the busy streets of the Calcutta where she grew up. But alongside that label comes, from certain corners of the restaurant world, a sneer. ‘Michelin cooking’ looking down on what has predominantly been ‘a woman’s place’. The home kitchen. (I think of Claude Bosi and his suggestion that Asma should “take the risk” of working in a man’s kitchen. “The arrogance of the man!”) Is Darjeeling Express an anomaly, or could it signal a real change in the restaurant world? On this, Asma is clear. And suitably furious.
“I am the face of a movement and a revolution – it’s not me, but I am that face. Look at me, because coming behind me is an army of home cooks who will make it, and surpass me. And that’s what I want to see. Women rise, and fly, and really succeed. When I started there was not a single woman that I could look at. Who I could relate to. And it’s not about ethnicity. I’m not interested in breaking this glass ceiling, “first British chef on Netflix…” or being an unusual person in the industry. I want to bring the whole damn edifice down”.
The edifice’s cracks are showing. Last year, the #metoo movement finally began to reach the food industry, and the prevailing abuse that has passed as ‘the norm’ for so many decades. I mention a friend of mine, many years my senior, who spent her early years on the line with an enormous metal rolling pin tied to the waist of her apron. “Whenever one of them would go in to grope me, I’d hit them. Really f***ing hard”. Has Asma had a different experience to other women in the industry? I suspect that she has circumvented it entirely by coming in a different route.
“This is not the autumn
of our lives.
This is the spring“
“Yes. I have. I am very fortunate that I haven’t been through this crime. But why is it necessary?? It is so unacceptable. When you read the arguments – when you read between the lines that the kitchen is a very stressful place – it’s hot, it’s cramped, these things happen, bullying happens, men physically abuse women, “these things happen because they’re very stressed” – these men need to go into therapy. I’ve been a school governor for 10 years. Taking 30 primary school children on a school trip is the most stressful thing I have done in my life. But do schoolteachers go around groping each other every day? How is this argument allowed? Because too many men have defended each other and closed ranks.”
We talk about a recent controversy surrounding one of London’s most lauded chefs. “I didn’t see any male chefs – even prominent, powerful female chefs, shame on them – I was the only one who wrote about it. Everybody else stayed silent. Why were the women silent? I will not forgive them for their silence.
This deafening female silence, and the lack of help and openness offered to those below them, is deeply damaging and difficult to understand. Do they, perhaps, still feel reliant on the male chefs they worked under? That they owe their mentors? Asma considers for a moment.
“There is this silent… club. If you’re not part of it, you’re out. Of everything. I am very much out of it. I’m an outsider. And when you are outside the system, you have no fear. I owe no one any debt. I do not have a sugar daddy or a ‘great mentor’ who I was trained under. I am in a unique position, and I am making the most of that.”
Darjeeling Express’ independence means that Asma can run her restaurant following her own rules, in direct opposition to the norm.
“I’m the face of a new movement. You cannot ignore me. I will not let you ignore me. You need to know who I am. And there are others coming behind me. And we will create our space and open conversations that need to be heard.”
“I want people to see me and know that good people win too“
“You cannot ignore me. I will not let you ignore me. You need to know who I am.” Thank god for Asma. Fearless, unedited Asma. Because, of course, it is fear that silences those further down the food chain. A fear that disproportionately affects women of colour.
“Our families are often not happy if we want to be a chef. Culinary school is expensive. You can pay that much and become an architect. There is this obsession with being a “professional”. A doctor. A lawyer. So already these girls have gone through a battle. And then they can’t even come home and tell their parents that they’ve been groped at work. They cannot weep. Because it just confirms what the parents had been worried about. ‘I told you so’. And so they stay silent.”
“I am the fire
you cannot stop”
This is a scandal that goes beyond the kitchen, radiating out to front of house, to the bar, to fast food joints and restaurant offices. And if the restaurant industry is, after all, simply a place for people to come and eat, what on earth does this do to the food?
“Food is sacred. It is about nourishing the soul. And yet we have this toxic environment where a plate leaves the pass, and the person who has washed the plate has been racially abused – invariably every KP in a kitchen is black – where the junior staff have been touched… Is that food beautiful? It may look aesthetically beautiful. But for me, it may as well be poison. I will eat it and I will pay a bill and leave, but it is an ugly experience”.
For Asma, a hefty slice of blame lies with the restaurant owners who can’t bear the thought of losing their star chefs. “But the women in the lower ranks… they are disposable”. Let go or paid off or simply ignored.
The women in Darjeeling’s kitchen here are happy. Working in top gear (service is only now only 37 minutes away), but joking as they do so. They are a close and affectionate team.
“I want people to see me and know that good people win too. You can be good. You can be kind. You can be generous. You do not need to be tyrannical.” Asma leans back and looks at her restaurant. A delivery of eggs at the door, staff arriving just-about-on-time for their shift, pictures on the wall, not a single one straight. “I am able to sleep at night. No one on my watch has been treated badly or bullied. I’m doing the same thing as all these men. And I’m doing it better.”
And this is the crux of the matter. If we are to achieve parity in the food industry, we don’t simply need more female chefs… we need more female owners. This is where real power lies. “The data is clear: women are more successful as entrepreneurs. They fail at a lower rate than men. Yet we don’t get money.”
“Why were the
I will not forgive them
for their silence“
Back in the supper club days, Asma never considered starting a restaurant because she didn’t want an investor (“I already have one arranged marriage”), recoiling from the idea of a man telling her what to do. Shareholders and VC stakeholders. “If I had one now, I’d have Hollywood and Bollywood stars coming. Restaurants everywhere. A Darjeeling Express on Mars.” “You’d be McDonalds”, I suggest. “Yes!” she laughs. “I’d be McDonalds”.
What is needed, particularly if independent female-led restaurants like Darjeeling are to thrive, is a different model of funding.
For Asma, that alternative model came in the form of her landlord at Kingly Court. “He was incredible. I had no credit history. I didn’t even have a credit card. 55 people applied for this space. Well-established restaurateurs with deep pockets. Well-established chefs. But he had eaten my food. He invited me to pitch to the committee.”
It was only the night before, when Asma sat down to go over her business plan, that she realised she had no idea what any of it meant. She hoots with laughter as she tells me. “I thought; I’m going to go in there like Dragons’ Den and not be able to explain anything! So I asked the landlord, ‘can I come in and serve lunch to the committee, rather than stand in front of a Powerpoint presentation?’ And I fed them.” And after that, no one asked to see her figures. Darjeeling Express is Kingly Court’s greatest success.
“Sometimes you need to go in there and take those chances. It’s never a level playing field. Never ever play to your disadvantage. This is what happens to a lot of women. The systems are created where a lot of women feel intimidated. They do not perform to their best. Change the rules”.
Asma has changed the rules. And more importantly than that, she has given other women – women outside ‘the club’ - a path to tread. Many successful women are seen as the exception, untouchable in their formidable achievements. Here is the opposite. Asma is both hard as nails and totally welcoming. I would give anything to be even a tenth as brilliant as her.
Asma is very calm as she looks at me.
“I speak to everyone. Irrespective of what background you are, or what age. You can be me. You can be better than me”.