Darjeeling Express founder Asma Khan on building communities through food

The Drum 15 Jun 2020 11:20

In 2019, Asma Khan was the first British chef to be profiled on Netflix’s Chef’s Table. The Indian-born restaurateur is the head chef and owner of Darjeeling Express, the acclaimed spot in London’s Kingly Court where the kitchen is staffed solely by women.

Londoners will attest to the challenge of securing a seat at the coveted Soho eatery. Pre-Covid-19 the waiting lists were weeks (and sometimes months) long. They will also attest that the cosy atmosphere, crunchy puchkas and tamarind dal were just some of the things that made it well worth the wait.

Until the pandemic, Khan could often be found weaving through the tables of Darjeeling, chatting to diners. Like many other restaurants, though, Darjeeling Express has been forced to close its doors amid the greatest public health crisis in recent history.

Though the chef is “worried” and “afraid” about the impact the coronavirus will have on society and the economy, she tells The Drum’s consulting editor Sonoo Singh that she believes the pandemic could serve as a catalyst for change in how businesses currently operate.

Building a platform for good, through food

Darjeeling Express then started as a supper club for 12 guests at home, serving Indian food lovingly cooked from family recipes. After a stint as a pop-up it moved into its current space and many of Khan's friends – Indian nannies and housewives that she invited to her very first supper club – now worked with her in the kitchen.

Against the backdrop of the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests and conversations about systemic inequality, her advice to business owners and bosses to use their own brand as a true platform for social good that motivates staff is timely.

“How would you like to be treated as an employee? Treat others exactly the same and I can guarantee you is that you will end up with the kind of loyalty that no rules and no salary increase can give.

“My main concern, what drives me, is the idea of inequality being damaging and hurting people that look and sound like me. It hurts women, and older women, disproportionately. I never see myself as one kind of person, there is no box big enough which you can put me in where I will be what I want to be.”

Khan’s business model thrives on providing opportunities for women to earn money and learn new skills they can potentially take elsewhere. The community she has constructed has been built around one common currency: food. However, she has concerns about inequality in her own industry and beyond, post-Covid-19.

“I’m afraid that a lot of women – including women of colour and women who have children – will be seen as the weak link, because there’s a prejudice there… will we suddenly find ourselves at the bottom of the list of people being hired back and given a sense of responsibility? Will our wages be cut? Who will pay the price? That worries me a lot.”

“I’m very scared we go back to that old system because it’s built on exploitation,” she says, urging those in positions of privilege to set up structures that are fairer and support the founding of a union for restaurant employees.

“My first priority is the kitchen, and this means a very restricted menu. And we won’t be able to have a full restaurant. [Reopening] won’t even cover the wage never mind the rent. This is the reality of running a restaurant business, we run on very thin margins.”

“So what I think I will end up doing is supper clubs. I’ll go back to my roots.

Khan spoke with The Drum's consulting editor Sonoo Singh as part of The Drum's Can-Do Festival, an online event celebrating the positive energy, innovation and creative thinking that can make the marketing community such a powerful force for good. You can watch the interview in full here.

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Darjeeling ExpressKhanAsma KhanKingly CourtSonoo Singh
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