Asma Khan on amplifying the voices of women who cannot speak up

By Reyhaan Day

From hosting supper clubs in her home, to launching the acclaimed Darjeeling Express, featuring on Netflix’s Chef’s Table and an inclusion on Time Magazine’s Most Influential People of 2024 list, Asma Khan has become one of Britain’s most celebrated culinary figures. But now her focus is on amplifying the voices of women who cannot speak up.

If there is one constant in Asma Khan’s story, it is that she has never been conventional. “I came to London from India to join my husband who lived here. As a late starter – I began at 45, not trained to run a kitchen or run a business – I succeeded.”

Khan, the supperclub chef who opened the acclaimed Darjeeling Express in Kingly Court in 2017 after a residency at a hip Soho pub, has just returned from the New York ceremony for Time Magazine’s TIME100: The Most Influential People of 2024 – a list in which she was included. Though rubbing shoulders with the likes of Dua Lipa and Dev Patel at the star-studded event, Khan has stayed grounded. “My inclusion felt like an acknowledgement of the unloved, uncelebrated and unpaid females who have kept families together. The entire south Asian community in this country is full of women who were uprooted, but who made their lives, who fed their families, who even now are feeding grandchildren. They are the custodians of a culture.

“I think that there is a second innings in so many women. If someone hasn’t heard of who I am, maybe through this recognition, they might read what my story is and understand that it’s all possible. I felt grateful to God, because I felt that this would allow other women to dare to dream.”

Khan’s food has been universally praised, and she is admittedly dedicated to her restaurant (“I’m never home on a Saturday night”, she says), but it is her work in underprivileged communities and how this extends to issues surrounding the hospitality industry, that occupies her thinking.

Khan’s Second Daughters Fund was born out of the injustice she saw in many Indian communities, particularly rural communities, that the birth of a daughter is “lamented as if it is a death” – and the birth of a second daughter, even more so. “The preference is for a male child. It has many layers, to do with property, with assets; the fact that the honour of the family is always linked to the girl, never to the boy. Everybody is concerned about protecting the honour of the girl in a society where they feel that they have to get them married, they have to pay for a grand wedding and pay for the dowry…”

Using her own connections, as well as those of her kitchen team (Khan exclusively employs women of varying ages at Darjeeling Express, many of whom are untrained but excellent cooks), Khan looks to create new perspectives for the appreciation and acknowledgement of daughters in these communities. “We try to celebrate girls from the villages where we are all connected. We also subtly try to get them to send their girls to school. What traditionally happens is that they may send the older girl to school, but the second girl might look after the younger sibling or get water. It is across every layer of society, but what concerns me most is the more deprived families. With deprivation, girls get to be fed less; they get married off very early because parents are worried about their physical safety; and they can become very young mothers. This is not a life. But you can’t go in and lecture people; the advantage of being from the east and from the west is that I understand what the layers are in my own culture. Within that, I work. That’s my advantage.

“There is no justification for discrimination at any level. If we understand that you can’t other someone for their sexuality or colour of their skin, you cannot other people for their gender.”

Khan is clear to point out that this isn’t just “an eastern problem” – but that systemic misogyny is rife in the West too. “It’s more nuanced. When you look at venture capital funding: one per cent goes to female founders. And women of colour? They don’t even register in the statistics. If just one per cent of funding is directed to women, it says everything about attitudes in the west as well towards women. Yes, they might not lament the birth of a second daughter, but when this girl grows up, do they invest in her? It’s a universal problem that women are still not seen, and are still being shortchanged.”

No industry is as problematic when it comes to the treatment of women as hospitality, according to Khan. The first thing Khan wants to see change in the industry is stopping the ‘16 hour shift’ – where chefs are praised for early starts and late finishes.

“This excludes women deliberately. Most restaurants have a different menu for lunch and dinner – and nothing happens between those services. I run a restaurant, I know this.

“This not only excludes women, but also any normal man. Look at hospitality, they’re all psychopaths. Working in basement kitchens and not seeing daylight, the amount of drug-taking and alcoholism… they’re holding on to these substances to survive this kind of lifestyle. It erodes your mental health.”

More sinister are the stories of women who suffer abuse within the confines of professional kitchens. “I’m one of the few voices that speaks up about this. Women are not safe in kitchens. There are so many allegations of misogyny, bullying, racism – and yet, powerful females in hospitality don’t speak up. The ones on television, the Michelin-starred female chefs… protecting their privilege is more important than speaking up for those that are voiceless.

“It is incredible that women are scared to go into work; women who are afraid of going into the walk-in fridge because of some guy who will molest her – yet they stick it out because they are passionate about cooking. Why do you need to extract such a high price, that we break these girls – and that those that go on to become powerful are then very tough to other women, because they see that that is how you lead. It’s normalised.

“Violence and toxic behaviour in kitchens is unacceptable and it has to stop – but not enough people are saying it.” The stories Khan has heard from women chefs – particularly those working in the traditionally “aggressive, shouting, discipling” French brigade system (which Khan dubs as “the worst system”) paint a picture of an industry rotten to its core. “If I had a daughter and she wanted to go into a kitchen, I would stop her. If that means I’m a hypocrite, then I’m a hypocrite. I would be awake all night. I would check to see if she had bruises. I’ve seen bite marks.

“I will spend as much time as I can to amplify the voices of those who are too afraid to speak up. I feel that this will be my legacy. Sadly, this is not just in my control. I need others to step in and say, ‘my kitchen will no longer be like this.’”

As well as operating Darjeeling Express, Khan is fervently working on projects that support and uplift women cooks from across the globe. “It cannot just be talk – there has to be action as well. I’m working on a whole project which involves setting up schools, business plans and processes where women from different cultures can become food entrepreneurs. I think this is the way that women can actually become self-reliant. This is particularly true for older women who are great cooks – the world is very tech-based, and many of these women have been left behind. They have the right to earn money, they have the right to glory and a space on the hospitality stage.

“I want to be able to get out of the spotlight, go to the wings and applaud other women, who, inshallah, will surpass me.”

Darjeeling Express, 2.4 Kingly Court