“Female chefs are the recipe for success”

ONE OF Britain’s leading restaurateurs (Asma Khan) has urged Asian women to consider a career in the industry, saying the skills needed in a professional kitchen were “intuitive” to South Asian women.

Asma Khan runs the popular Darjeeling Express in Covent Garden, having moved to the largest site in the theater district near Soho in central London just as the lockdown was imposed.

In an interview with eastern eye last week to promote his new book, AmmuKhan also warned against those who might consider reducing the prices of their menus because, according to her, it means “you are devaluing yourself”.

Asian women have all the skills needed to run a restaurant kitchen, Khan said. “Please do it. You are a brilliant cook. You have the meaning of life. You are absolutely the mistress of the kitchen, an expert in spices.

“And the kind of timing you have is what they teach you in culinary school yelling at you. We know this intuitively. If you are five minutes late with your food (at home), the children think they have been hungry for 10 days. It’s an ungrateful public.

Khan, 52, is one of the few women who are part of the Asian restaurant scene in Britain. Nisha Katona, a former lawyer, recently opened a branch of her Mowgli restaurants in central London.

Most of the popular Indian restaurants across Britain are run by men – including Shamil Thakrar (Dishoom), Vivek Singh (Cinnamon Club), Atul Kochchar (formerly of Benares) and the Sethi siblings (Gymkhana).

Khan, who moved to the UK after getting married, studied law but went into the restaurant business after launching supper clubs which became hugely popular. She was the first British chef on Chef’s Table, a hit Netflix series.

She said eastern eye“Why should women enter (the) restaurants (the industry)? Because you are now going to be paid, honored and respected for something that you have [always] ended. In our culture, women eat last and girls eat least. In every household in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, a woman does the cooking.

Asma Khan with Ammu, her mother

“And in every restaurant – whether east or west, it’s (run by) a man. And there is no problem with that. I hope the men have a lot of success.

“But we are the ones doing it day in and day out. Yet we are not considered professional enough.

“I didn’t do any training. People still ask me, ‘you don’t have a professional kitchen?’ I don’t even know where to start. What is professionalism? It’s being able to be perfect in your job. He is a professional for me. You do not need to have a certificate with you.

“What is a certificate worth? It’s worthless. Your life skills (matter). And the most important thing is your heart. If you have heart and passion, be brave.

“Please if you are interested in cooking, find routes where you can get paid for the work you do and don’t underestimate the prices. If people like your parathas, let them pay what you think it should be worth. Do not underestimate your prices, you devalue yourself.

In her new book, Khan describes how her mother was a pioneer in her time in India. Faizana, whom Khan calls Ammu throughout the book, started a catering business while raising his family in Calcutta (now Kolkata).

Khan, who began writing the book during lockdown while her restaurant was closed, paid tribute to her mother’s leadership and cooking skills.

“I had learned all this value of equality, of respect, from how anyone, regardless of their background, was equal to you, and that you treated them as your own.

“A lot of what she’s done is even more amazing, more radical than anything I’ve done, because that was India in the 1970s and 1980s. And she did it while ‘no woman in my family was even going to work. No one had gone to college, no girls had gone to college.

“Yet my mother had created this company. No one could challenge her because she was so committed, but also respectful to the family. You couldn’t tell him, ‘you shouldn’t work, come back at 2:00 in the morning’.

“She would be in her sari, traveling in a tempo (a small truck). My mother sat on the dekchis (large pots) because of course there was no stool, and she got down from them, perfectly at ease in her sari. Nobody questioned that. You couldn’t throw stones at him. She was very powerful, but in a very humble way. She was kind and respectful. Incredible. I really learned a lot from her.

As Covid restrictions were lifted, Khan admitted customers were flocking to her restaurant, but she raised concerns that the looming cost of living crisis could be worse than the pandemic closures. Rising fuel prices would have a knock-on effect on prices for customers eating out, she said, as restaurateurs face higher VAT and full rates in a few weeks.

“And we have a labor shortage. Every restaurant is understaffed. It’s a very difficult space,” she said.

During the pandemic, Khan has spoken out to gain more support for restaurants, frequently appearing on television to champion the industry.

She said eastern eye“I wish (Chancellor) Rishi Sunak had tried to talk to independent restaurants, as opposed to just the big name chefs who are on TV. Also, (Prime Minister) Boris Johnson hasn’t done effort to talk to us.

“We are a very big employer of people, we contribute a lot to the public purse through VAT. And the food industry in India is massive. We haven’t had a chance to voice our concerns, which is very unfortunate.

“We should learn how maybe we need to unionize or we need to have better spokespersons and not be so fractured into different organisations.

“It’s something that I’m very committed to, trying to find a way where we can be a strong lobbying voice on behalf of everybody, instead of, you know, taking our flags and saying, ‘I I’m the Bangladeshi Catering Association.’ I’m Pakistani and I’m Indian. We’re all doing the same thing. And we’re all in trouble.

Khan is known for employing only women in her kitchen, but said the pandemic has made life difficult for women.

“It is invariably the mothers who take care of the children. (And as the restrictions are lifted), it’s like people stepping into the Mortal Kombat video game, or going to war themselves — they take the tough men, the men come back.

“You see that in restaurants too. Women are not rehired. And especially the mothers are not rehired. Women are seen as weak and unreliable. Always, every time in war and famine, in any crisis, women pay a very heavy price and women of color we suffer disproportionately the most.