Welcome back to The Lightbulb; the monthly newsletter from our Strategy team uncovering perspective-changing moments from the world's most inspiring creative thinkers.
For this issue, we interviewed Asma Khan, the highly acclaimed chef and founder of the all-female restaurant Darjeeling Express. Asma recently opened the restaurant’s permanent new home in Kingly Court, less than a year after releasing her cookbook ‘Ammu’ (a tribute to her mother.)
Moving from India to Cambridge, UK in 1991 Asma found herself away from the mothers and grandmothers who cooked in such abundance and realised she didn’t know how to cook alone. But as she learned, cooking became Asma’s connection to home, her new community and an aspect of her new life she was able to control.
“It was never my intention to do it professionally. This was the 1990s when you didn’t see anyone who looked like me or cooked like me on TV so the notion of that wasn’t even imaginable, but it created this universal bond between a community of immigrants in Cambridge from Afghanistan to Sri Lanka, we all found connection over food in my house. And I really began to understand the healing power of food”.
A PhD in law and two children later, she decided she wanted to lean into this and started doing supper clubs from her home despite scepticism from family and friends who couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t pursue a career in law. Everything changed after a pop-up Asma had been doing in a pub in Soho was put on the map by a review in the Evening Standard. And the restaurant opportunity then came calling.
“The idea of having Indian food in a pub in the 1990s was mad and it didn’t do well at all, then the review in Evening Standard changed everything”, Khan says.
On a bustling Wednesday morning, an hour before service was due to start, we caught up with Asma on her lightbulb moment, inspiration, the advice she lives by and much more.
WHAT HAS BEEN THE BIGGEST LIGHTBULB MOMENT OF YOUR CAREER?
Photography by Ming Tang Evans: @mintangevans
I realised after Chef's Table on Netflix came out, that I have the power to inspire women to make change happen.
I can inspire women to speak up and fight against injustices in their lives. I’ve seen it for the last 4 years since the episode came out. I get stories every day from women from every culture, from Columbia all the way to Australia, who I have inspired and who have fought for change in their lives. Women were seeing themselves in me, that was huge. And I realised when I speak, I speak for all of us. That really was an incredible moment, to know people see themselves in me.
I could have gone for the glitz and glamour after Chef’s Table, it's not that I wasn’t offered all that like the other Chefs, but to fulfil the purpose I know I can - to inspire women to fight for change in their own lives - I need to be where the battle is and that’s in the kitchen.
WHERE DO YOU LOOK FOR INSPIRATION?
My deep inspiration is my mother, who broke a lot of stereotypes. She shook the world gently, she shook the patriarchy and made it look effortless. She wasn’t driven by profit or fame, she was driven by the notion of getting people to understand our culture and our food. Most of the chefs at home were male but she hired a lot of women.
She worked, she hired women, she didn’t face opposition, and she was really brave. So she’s really been my inspiration, especially when I faced a lot of opposition. I have a PhD, I was supposedly the smart one, and no one in my family could understand why I wanted to cook.
You have to break the barriers in front of you and I realised in our culture and here back in the 1990s, there was a complete lack of respect for women, and in the UK there was also a complete lack of respect and understanding of South Asian food. And I thought instead of criticising, let's do something about it.
I didn’t feel our food, cooked at home, by women, was represented, and I wanted to change the narrative of what our food is. It was political and societal. That’s also what keeps me going.
WHAT'S YOUR WEIRDEST OBSESSION?
[laughs] Poetry. Recently I’ve been trying to understand more complex Urdu poetry. When I should have learnt Urdu properly I didn't, sadly, I left home. But now, I am increasingly understanding the inadequacy of the English language [said with a wry smile]. South Asian languages; Punjabi, Bengali, Urdu; the layers in which you can speak, the tones are so beautiful.
Poetry is the best way to experience the nuances of a language, so I spend a lot of time reading poetry. I write a lot of poetry which will never see the light of day because I’ll never publish it, but I am obsessed with it.
Poetry, Ghazals, Qawwalii, they’re all linked, so this is an area I’m really obsessed with. I spend a lot of time and am so grateful for platforms like Spotify that let you experiment with all different kinds of music. I choose the playlist in the restaurant every day, I change it every day and it's very personal to me.
So, I'm obsessed with music & poetry I guess.
Photography by Ming Tang Evans: @mintangevans
WHAT'S ONE PIECE OF ADVICE YOU LIVE BY?
Anything you do should be meaningful, it should have purpose. It can’t be the payslip at the end of the month. The driving force should always be about something more. For me, I don’t treat my business as a business, it's a revolution. We’re trying to drive change at every level.
I don’t want to talk about smashing the glass ceiling, there should be no ceiling; those in power have a responsibility to help the next generation. If you are powerful, if you have a roof over your head and food on your table and some level of security, you have an obligation to help others. I have a really dynamic group of women who came from very tough backgrounds, struggling for very basic things. They cook at different levels but together they are very powerful. Change is very important, when it comes to South Asian women, you need a change from the top down and that’s what I am, along with the women I employ who want to do it from the bottom up.
I’m driven by flattening the plane for women who look like me; there are too many doors and windows that keep women who look like me out. And my purpose is to change that, even when I’m gone. Social change will not end with my life. I want people to be able to use my name.
And, actually, a really important piece of advice, to the younger girls, especially of our community: do not live a life where you are looking at your dress size or your Instagram followers or who your boyfriend or father is.
Your glory has to come from you. Embrace the leader inside you, the rebel inside you. Set the world on fire. And don’t be obsessed with the notion of body shapes and the colour of your skin and hair. Be real, don’t get bogged down with a fake existence. Dream big, and inspire others to do the same.
AND WHAT DO YOU THINK THE KEY TO UNDERSTANDING PEOPLE IS?
I’m going to take from Atticus in To Kill A Mockingbird - ‘you have to climb into their skin and walk in it’. You need to see things from people’s perspectives to understand their motivations and insecurities, hopes and wishes.
Putting your own ego down really helps too. If you look through your own lens, you’ll not understand someone else’s journey.
Darjeeling Express is on the Top Floor of Kingly Court, Carnaby Street, frequented by the likes of Dan Levy & Paul Rudd, and well worth a visit (if you can get a table, that is).
Join us next month as we sit down with Caroline Rush CBE, Chief Executive of the British Fashion Council, to discuss nurturing creativity, the future of British fashion, and the lightbulb moment that shaped her career.