Author: Josh Barrie
Asma Khan will be the first chef from Britain to appear on hit Netflix show Chef’s Table. Khan, 49, the chef/owner of acclaimed London restaurant Darjeeling Express, will star in series six, which has ‘the journey home’ as its theme.
Netflix announced series five and six on Tuesday and Khan’s involvement was first reported by Eater. The Indian chef cooks food from the country’s great royal kitchens in the north, Rajput dishes – typically non-veg and rich with game meat – and Bengali recipes originating in Calcutta.
To date, only a handful of women have been profiled on Chef’s Table. The show has also leaned towards food cooked with Western techniques. Many see Khan’s involvement as significant progress – and a positive reflection of Britain’s diversity.
Khan, a Muslim immigrant to the UK who famously leads a kitchen brigade made up only of women, said to i: “Netflix contacted me in April. I wasn’t wearing my glasses when I read the email, and I didn’t really believe it was real, so I didn’t read it properly until two days later.
“It was quite scary really, but I saw they had properly researched me, they knew all of my dishes and all about my story, so I realised they were genuine. They [production team] were fantastic – they really wanted to highlight my food and my culture, how I got to where I am. It’s very positive and I’m really proud.”
Khan moved to Cambridge with her husband, an academic, in 1991. She was born into a royal family in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh, India, though did a lot of her growing up in Calcutta. Before moving to Britain, she didn’t really do much cooking, having focused primarily on her law degree and PhD.
Supper club beginnings
Khan said: “I always wanted to get into it, so after I finished my studies and had a family, I began. I started with a supper club in 2012. At first I was insecure – I didn’t think anyone would want to pay for my food. People seemed impressed, so I started a business.”
In 2015, Khan moved into the Sun & 13 Cantons pub in Soho, where she said people were first apprehensive about the fact her food wasn’t Thai, but Indian. But Khan’s expertise soon caught on and after a glowing review from Fay Maschler, her curries were suddenly thrust into the spotlight: “We were packed. It was crazy”.
Then, in 2016, Khan opened Darjeeling Express, where you might find ‘slow cooked Bengali goat curry with the occasional potato’, or ‘spiced minced mutton cakes’. Biryanis are perfumed and breads fluffy and mellow.
The restaurant is a boundary-less blend of inspiration, paying homage to the food served in royal palaces in bygone eras, and timeless Indian snacks that fuel city streets.
“We are all women in the kitchen, and usually older – middle aged – too”, Khan told i. “We’re just there having fun. We’re not there to portray a concept, colonial food or anything. It’s just women who want to share their passion and joy.
“It’s still mostly the women I’d cook with at my supper clubs – nannies, nurses and so on. There’s a feeling of being at home in my restaurant. For a lot of us, it’s sort of like our second innings. This is our last chance and we need to have a good game. I think that comes across in Chef’s Table.”
With a theme of travelling home, Khan also visited her family palace in Uttar Pradesh as part of the episode. She said she’s pleased to have captured the full breadth of her journey and not shied away from any aspects of her life.
“I am known for my biryanis, so we filmed the whole cooking process of that. Also, one emotional thing for me is bread. We don’t really eat naan bread in India, but roti and paratha. It’s all important.
Khan added: “I call Britain home now. I’ve lived here for 27 years. I am Indian, but I think it was important to capture everything – my children (two boys), they’re Londoners. They sound nothing like me and it was odd at first.
“I’ve felt embraced by the city and not felt any animosity. I’m very grateful to London and happy to be celebrating the culture as a whole.”
Khan said she believes the unifying qualities of food and restaurants are vital. The mainstream eye of Chef’s Table, she thinks, couldn’t have come soon enough. To her, the context of the time is telling.
“I think it’s important, now more than ever, to show all this,” she said. “Maybe this was a deliberate choice. If you eat my food, if you see me – look at the colour of my skin; hear my accent. I’m an immigrant. In today’s world of Donald Trump, the word ‘immigrant’ is a term of abuse.
“Politicians today are trying to divide people and fan hatred. I come from a country where I’ve seen that happen before. So I like to use my restaurant as a platform to talk about these issues. Today, politics seems to be making the world toxic and hostile. It can be isolating and it’s sad.
“But look – this series is good and more than anything, I think it’s positive. I hope the message is a happy one.” For Khan, curry – one of Britain’s most prized cuisines – is the antidote to Britain’s problems.