It`s tougher for women of colour: Chef Asma Khan on sexism in culinary industry

It`s tougher for women of colour: Chef Asma Khan on sexism in culinary industry
© Provided by Mid-Day

You can almost smell the biryani, taste the phuchka, and hear the crackle of the luchis being fried, when you watch Asma Khan’s — chef and owner of the London-based Darjeeling Express — journey on the Netflix show Chef’s Table. But what also stays with you, is the chirpy camaraderie the Kolkata-born chef shares with her all-women team — mostly South Asian migrants — as they hum ’90s Bollywood songs and cater to the Biryani Supper Club. It’s like any desi kitchen, always bustling with aunts, mothers and grandmothers, chopping, cooking, chit-chatting, and currying lives with flavour. 

Since 2012, Darjeeling Express has grown from serving an intimate, home-based supper club to occupying the heart of London at Soho, and more recently, to a new address at Covent Garden. However, Khan reveals that despite her success, she struggled to move to a bigger site, thanks to sexism. Edited excerpts from an email interview:

What ordeal did you face while looking for a larger restaurant space?

For the last two years, I’d been trying to move to a bigger site. The Soho restaurant wasn’t made for 200 covers, which was what we were doing. I was unable to get any landlords to show me a site and the first time I was shown something was in early March [2020], just before the pandemic. 

Darjeeling Express, Covent Garden in London

Incredibly, while I’d already paid for a designer to work on the layout, I discovered from a third party that the neighbouring restaurant had asked the landlord to not give me the space. Nobody had told me. I realised then it wasn’t bad luck. When I was told that the site was not suitable for me, what they really meant was that I didn’t have a suitable boy with me, possibly a venture capitalist investor or a business partner. As a sole female founder, landlords weren’t willing to give me prime restaurant property.

I realised I had to be brave. I saw an opportunity when so many big restaurants were closing during the lockdown. It was unfortunate that it had to take a global pandemic, and for mostly male chefs to fail, for me to have an opportunity to get the place I did. I would’ve preferred to compete in an even race, but when you’re a female founder and a woman of colour, you’re not running the same race as others. Your path has hurdles that nobody else even sees.

Khan with members of her all-women team

What are some of the challenges that women chefs and entrepreneurs face?

There is an ‘all boys’ club’ network that operates in hospitality. This is an unspo-ken club, where you can visit but you can never become a member if you don’t fit into the image of the majority who tend to be white and male. The few Michelin-star women who make it — it seems as if they value the chef aspect, rather than the female aspect. It’s rare for them to speak up when there are allegations of sexism and bullying against females. This undermines the confidence of women who may want to raise allegations of abuse. I speak up so that women who’re going through difficulties know that at least there’s a voice who will speak up for them. This isn’t about ‘us and them’. It’s important to have powerful and empathetic male allies. For any change, there needs to be collaboration in the entire industry, at every level.

Are there women in your family who left an impression on you and your culinary and entrepreneurial vision?

The person who’s inspired me to be what I am today is my mother. In the ’80s, she ran a successful catering business in Calcutta. She was the first food entrepreneur; in fact, the first entrepreneur, in her family. She made it look so effortless; she shook the world gently around her. I learnt a lot from her and later, she taught me how to cook, too.

Tell us what it’s like to work with an all-women team.

Working with a group of women who cook with patience, love and respect is very inspiring, as they’re not trying to impress. They’re cooking to heal and nourish. I never began with the intention to have an all-female team. I needed people who could cook like me, by oral instruction and ‘andaaz’. This comes from learning to cook by watching mothers and grandmothers. I couldn’t work with someone who was trained in culinary school — the route most male chefs have taken in the Indian food industry.

What’s next for you — will you be travelling to India any time soon?

I’m travelling to Calcutta very soon, and will be returning in January for some filming. I hope to travel to Mumbai next year, and I know this may sound so predictable, but I would love to eat chaat. I was in the city for a day before the pandemic and I spent two hours eating at Swati Snacks.

What’s your advice to young women chefs and culinary entrepreneurs?

It’s important to understand that every individual is unique. The food or drink that you produce has to be meaningful. On dark days, you need to have that core belief in what you’re doing.

Women who inspire Asma Khan

I’m inspired by Maya Angelou who was able to use words to express her entire heritage, and Abida Parveen who dominated a field where traditionally, it was men who sang Sufi qawwali.

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