As an Indian with a royal background, Asma Khan’s father raised her to help those less fortunate, impelling her to eventually transform lives. As a second-born girl herself, she is passionate about helping other second daughters who felt their parents’ disappointment about not having a boy, as is the case in many traditional Indian families. As a result, Khan, who has trained as a lawyer and did a PhD in Constitutional Law, opened Darjeeling Express, one of Soho’s most popular and critically acclaimed restaurants.
At the Kingly Court eatery, which opened in June 2017, the mother of two employs an all-women team. Some of the “second women” you can see busily preparing food in the open kitchen have been through some very tough ordeals and initially came to her for legal advice. Whatever her nine employees have been through, the one thing they have in common is loving to cook.
Khan’s labour of love earned her ‘Entrepreneur of the Year’ at the Asian Women of the Year Achievement Awards, which aims to honour the contribution of Asian women across various industries including media, business, sport and culture. Khan has also been voted ‘Female Entrepreneur of the Year’ at the Asian Restaurant Awards 2018.
“I am incredibly proud to stand on the shoulders of these women. People see me as a success story, but I’m the tip of the iceberg: beneath me is this deeply rooted, very loyal team. I think when you’re all equal, there’s a huge sense of teamwork, so there is no hierarchy in my kitchen: everyone is paid the same, even me,” the entrepreneur told “Time Out London.”
Khan, who has written her first cookbook, “Asma’s Indian Kitchen,” also lets second daughters feel loved via her charity, called Second Daughters. As well as sending girls celebration packages after they’re born, the charity helps in educating them. A percentage of all proceeds from the restaurant go to the charity.
“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,” the chef told the “Huffpost” UK edition.
Another thing Khan, an ex journalist, is proud of doing is helping unsettled immigrants feel more at ease while they’re away from home.
“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,” Khan, who personally serves the tables, also told “Huffpost.”
The chef, who suffered from homesickness herself when she moved to Cambridge with her husband, displays pictures of her family’s palace near Delhi on the walls of the restaurant to remind her of her roots. In fact, it was her homesickness that pushed her to learn how to cook while visiting relatives in India. Once back in England, she was able to comfort others by inviting them over for a meal and subsequently ended up running supper clubs in her Kensington home.
In 2015, Khan went a step further by opening a pop-up in Soho, and after being encouraged to find something more permanent, she crafted a five-year business plan, and then got the green light for a bank loan. The loan enabled her to open the doors of Darjeeling Express, which now has a sister site, Calcutta Canteen. Situated in Fulham Market Hall, an indoor street food court with 10 kitchens, it serves street food from Caluctta, where Khan was born.