A longtime advocate for getting women into the restaurant industry, after having to close Darjeeling Express’ doors during lockdown, this month the London member reopened the restaurant in a much bigger location
By Rosalind Jana Portrait by Joe Cruz Images courtesy of Asma Khan and Darjeeling Express
It’s an unsurprising trajectory. Khan’s commitment to the convivial warmth, complex flavours and no-nonsense cooking style of her family recipes – as well as traditions she acquired growing up in Kolkata – have won her both plaudits and an ever-growing number of hungry customers. In 2018, she released her popular cookbook Asma’s Indian Kitchen. And in 2019, she was the first British chef to film her own episode of the hit Netflix series Chef’s Table.
When the first lockdown in the UK came about in March, forcing Khan to close her original Kingly Court restaurant, she had no idea what the future of her business looked like. But she remained undaunted – not just for her own sake, but for the sake of her team as well, who were relying on her. So, she decided to take it as an opportunity for growth. Now, she’s scaling up again with a new, much larger restaurant on Garrick Street in Covent Garden. After serving takeaways from the deli, it fully opened its doors on 5 December.
'For me, every time I hit the hurdle, I tell myself I have removed it for the woman coming behind me. She’s not even going to see it… and the girl or woman behind me is going to sail through'
In fact, from the very beginning, Khan has made it her mission to readdress the prejudices and power imbalances that still run rife throughout the restaurant world. The pandemic has seen particularly poor treatment of hospitality workers, many of whom have not just lost their jobs, but also their homes. ‘For an industry that has the words “hospitable” and “service” attached to it, this is absolutely shocking. It is so important to value who works for you,’ says Khan. In addition to advocating for better worker rights and an end to exploitative restaurant practices, she is also leading by example. ‘I’ve hit many hurdles before. I’ve hit hurdles of bias, of racism, of people just dismissing me, from my birth,’ she says. ‘But for me, every time I hit the hurdle, I tell myself I have removed it for the woman coming behind me. She’s not even going to see it… and the girl or woman behind me is going to sail through.’