Meet The Restaurateur And Her Team Of Female Chefs Serving Up Curry And Social Justice

The entrepreneur creating a stir

Asma Khan started a supper club in her London home five years ago. Today she is the founder of one of Soho’s most popular and critically acclaimed restaurants, Darjeeling Express. She was voted Entrepreneur of the Year in the Asian Women of the Year Achievement Awards and Female Entrepreneur of the Year at the Asian Restaurant Awards 2018. At the Asian Curry Awards she and her all-female cooks won a Special Recognition Award. Next, she will be opening Calcutta Canteen, serving street food in the New Fulham Market Hall, formerly Fulham Broadway tube station, and later this year her recipe book will be published.

But for Asma, 47, these impressive achievements all flow from one simple mission - “the pleasure of feeding someone, feeding their soul, that is my calling.”

Extraordinarily, when Asma arrived in the UK in 1991 she says she didn’t even know how to boil an egg. A successful journalist in Calcutta, she met and fell in love with her husband Mushtaq, whom she accompanied to Cambridge University. She was often lonely and missed the warmth of home - and most of all she missed the comfort of familiar and delicious food.

On a trip back to India to see her family she persuaded her mother and aunts to show her how to cook her favourite recipes. “Food saved my marriage and my life,” she jokes now. She trained as a lawyer and did a PhD in constitutional law while bringing up their two sons, Ariz, now 18, and Fariz, 13. Her life was full but she never forgot the crushing feeling of homesickness she had first felt - and she used the healing strength of food, when she met nannies from other countries at her son’s schools, and invited them to her home to cook and eat together.

“Food brings people together,” she says simply. “You cannot be strangers at a table when you have cooked together and eaten together.”

From these simple beginnings, Asma started a supper club and then a much-lauded pop-up in Soho. One of her pop-up food devotees was the landlord of her current restaurant, who was so keen for her to move to his premises he offered an initial three and a half months rent free.

But Asma still had to find funding for a restaurant fit-out and for all the suppliers needed to open. “I was very keen to have a restaurant but to have complete control, from the dishes made to the colours of the wall,” she says.

“I really didn’t want to have investors who would interfere or to whom I would feel answerable. I really felt this was my journey - independent, driven by my passion, not feeling held back in any way. Crowd funding was an option but I hesitated because it would have required so much of my creative and emotional energy to raise money. I wanted to focus on the food, on the restaurant and not go through that extremely stressful process.”

It was at one of her supper clubs that a guest, who worked at NatWest, suggested a bank loan. “I had no idea that a bank loan was an option,” she says. “I didn’t feel a bank was a place I would go to and where I would be made to feel welcome and ask what I needed and actually do something for me. This was just my own prejudice, thinking it was run by and for white men, and lack of understanding. But I don’t think I’m alone - I feel a lot of women think the same.

“When she suggested I go to the bank, I laughed. She told me, “I work for a bank, my bank will help you”. I was very surprised.”

Thus, Asma wrote a five-year business plan. “My relationship manager was also very helpful and gave me a lot of guidance and was very kind. I had not expected kindness. Everyone was very enthusiastic and helpful and reassuring that I would get a loan.”

Fully aware that the failure rate for restaurants is high, Asma says the bank’s confidence in her boosted her own confidence. “It really is a game changer to know that a bank - which would not risk its money - seemed to think that I would succeed. It also helped me to negotiate with builders and suppliers. I could see that in their estimation I was suddenly seen as serious, that the bank was willing to support me.”

Asma’s experience has taught her that a bank loan can be the springboard to success. “I think a lot of women are worried about borrowing. Women are inherently cautious and risk-averse and this can inhibit us. But we need to learn to considering borrowing and you can also have access to professional support to help you grow your business.”

In June 2017 Darjeeling Express opened its doors. Asma’s chefs are not traditionally trained but they all share an innate love of cooking. “They’re the women who came to me, who cooked with me at my supper clubs and they sent their sisters and sisters in law and their friends. They sent people who thought needed the food and the friendship.

“I see people’s surprise when they come in and see nine women in the kitchen - and I love that look of astonishment,” says Asma. “In the heat of serving, in the open kitchen, you can see nine women who are cooking, nine women who are immigrants, nine women who are older and on their second innings.

“Darjeeling Express is about feeding with love; home style food, food we grew up eating. You don’t have to be Asian to recognise this in our food and feel this sense of homecoming and healing. Our food takes you back to a place when you were probably sat on a lap and fed with love, probably by a woman.

“One customer wrote on her blog that she went home and waited for morning in India so she could call her mother and thank her for all the things she never thanked her for, because in my food she suddenly realised the effort and labour of the food her mother had fed her for years. When people say these kind of things, you know you’ve got it right.

“I serve every table, because I need that eye contact and conversation with someone who’s taken the trouble to come to my restaurant, I’m grateful for that.”

A percentage of all proceeds from the restaurant go to a charity Asma has founded called Second Daughters. “The focus is to celebrate second daughters (in traditional India sons are still often favoured over daughters), we will send celebration packages,” says Asma, herself a second daughter.

“We also want to support women who’ve been abandoned because they’ve had second daughters. We want to try and change the mindset so that this level of discrimination cannot happen, that all women are special.”

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