The Asma Khan episode of Chef’s Table tells a fascinating life story that’s punctuated by mesmerizing cooking sequences and sweeping shots of rural India. Both in terms of its visual splendor and emotional heft, this episode, directed by series newcomer Zia Mandviwalla, is one of the best installments of Chef’s Table to date.
What was Asma Khan’s journey through the culinary world like?
Growing up in a well-to-do family in Calcutta, Khan experienced the stigma of being a second daughter. “In India, when a girl is born, there’s no celebration and no fireworks,” Kahn explains in the episode. “It’s that moment of darkness in a family. And when you’re unlucky enough to have another girl, it is not like a life, but almost like a death.” Khan says that she was a tomboy and a “wild child” growing up. “They couldn’t find a boy to marry me,” she remarks.
Khan left India to go study at Oxford University in England, where she met her future husband, Mushtaq. “I really liked him, and I wanted to marry someone who respected me for my intellect,” she notes. After the wedding, the couple settled in London and she got her PhD in British Constitutional Law. Before too long, Khan realized that there was something missing in her life. While taking a bicycle ride through town, she caught a whiff of fresh parathas being cooked in a nearby kitchen, triggering memories from long ago. “It was my entire childhood,” Khan explains. Upon realizing that she couldn’t cook any of the dishes from her youth, she decided to go back to India and learn how to prepare her family’s recipes.
Upon returning to the U.K. feeling like “a different person,” Khan noticed that there were a number of South-Asian women passing through the school across the street from her house. “Many of them were working as nannies, as housekeepers, with families that were European — strangers in a foreign land,” she says. Khan invited them over to have tea, and soon they formed a tight bond. After hearing that a neighbor had visited a private supper club, Khan decided to launch a similar project in her home with the help of her friends.
As more and more diners got word of Kahn’s excellent cooking, the meals became more popular. Although she loved this new business, her two sons hated the supper club. They told their grandfather about the dinners, and he, in turn, asked Asma to stop hosting the parties. “In my own excitement and joy of cooking, I had forgotten that my children also have equal rights in that house,” Khan says. “This was something that I felt was so wrong, that had been done to girls in our families.” Feeling awful about how the project had caused a rift in her family, Khan put the parties on hold, but started reaching out to people about possibly taking the project elsewhere. Eventually, the chef struck up a deal with a bar owner to do a pop-up version of the supper club at his pub.
What was her “aha” moment?
Since they had no experience cooking in professional kitchens before, Khan and her friends ran into all sorts of problems during the pop-up’s early days. The kitchen was running out of food, and the guests were not having a good experience. “It was very embarrassing,” Khan says. “I felt that I was letting everyone down. A lot of people had said I should get a professional chef. I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want these women to feel that their effort had been taken for granted.”
Although she had no idea how to turn the pop-up around, Khan knew that “losing was not an option,” so she just started winging it. The chef began engaging with the customers and apologizing when things went wrong, and writing “I owe you” notes for dishes when they would run out. By taking charge of the situation and charming the guests whenever possible, Khan bought enough time for her team to get the hang of things. “We all learned at the same time,” she says. “We learned how to multitask and get the food out. This was a different kind of training.”
Thanks, in part, to a sparkling review from critic Fay Maschler, Khan was able to turn the supper club into a full-blown London restaurant called Darjeeling Express. Although many of her friends had other jobs, they eventually all became full-time employees at the popular new restaurant. “The Darjeeling Express is an oasis for women,” Khan says. “I’ve watched these women grow, stand tall, be proud. This is what happens to women when other women stand by them.”
Along with running the restaurant, Khan also launched a non-profit organization called the Second Daughters Fund, aimed at celebrating the birth of second daughters in India. Part of the proceeds from Darjeeling Express go toward funding this endeavor.
What are some of Khan’s most memorable quotes from this episode?
On the joy of cooking for her guests: “There are no divisions in my kitchen or my restaurant. We always say, ‘The guest is an incarnation of God.’ I want people to feel that they are valued. They will be looked after as if they’ve gone to a relative’s house. I’m cooking food from my home, from meals I’ve had in my family. I tell them the stories of the dishes. I’m taking their hand, and taking them along. My aim is for you to leave feeling like someone had embraced you. That’s how food should be. I get happiness from seeing people’s eyes when they eat the food I’ve cooked. That feeling, when you can light up someone’s soul with something you’ve prepared, that is a privilege and an honor.”
On a lesson learned from her father: “One day, he took me to my family’s ancestral fortress, and he took me up to one of the towers, and he pointed out the slums that were below. He said, ‘It’s an accident of birth. You could have been there, or you could have been here.’ And he told me, ‘Use your life to make a difference, because being in a position of privilege, you have a duty. To lift others up.’ That kind of education, it left a deep impact on me.”
On having an open kitchen: “I wanted to have an open kitchen because I wanted people to see the hands that cooked the food, [and] just celebrate the soul of my kitchen. Now, people are walking up to my women, ignoring me, and saying, ‘Thank you very much, that was a great meal.’ I was watching these women, so blasé, ‘You’re very welcome, so glad you liked the meal.’ They’ve taken ownership of the kitchen. This restaurant is theirs as much as mine.”