A black and white portrait of a woman on a coloured background with block colours painted over her.

Asma Khan

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

For chef Asma Khan, the journey to becoming one of London’s most remarkable restaurateurs all began with a group of friends around her dining table. A series of informal get-togethers in 2012 soon became a supper club. When the supper clubs swiftly grew in size, she turned to pop-ups. And when she wanted something more concrete, she opened her first permanent restaurant in Kingly Court, just off Carnaby Street, in 2017. 

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.
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'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'

Two plates of Indian food.
Khan hasn’t lost that initial love of the dining table’s intimacy, and shared stories and rituals, either. It comes through in every aspect of her business, not least the team who does the cooking. Her kitchen is made up of all-female, mostly immigrant staff, many of whom had no culinary training before. ‘I needed to work with people who cook like me,’ she says, always quick to emphasise that although it is women who have traditionally been tasked with cooking (among myriad other domestic duties), it is men who have historically started restaurants and made food a full-time career. She hopes that restaurants like Darjeeling Express, and others of its ilk, provide a welcome corrective. 

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.’ 

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