News / City Life

Meet the London chef using food to fight for women’s rights

Asma Khan at Darjeeling Express
Andy Parsons

Chef and entrepreneur Asma Khan wanted to fight the cause of India’s neglected ‘second women’ – so she set up a central London restaurant…

‘I come from a royal family in India, but my father always said to me: “You were born in privilege: you must lift up those who are underprivileged.” In traditional Indian families, when a second girl is born, there is much sadness because she’s not the boy everyone wanted. She must justify her place in the family, because her birth was a disappointment. I’m a second daughter myself, so I know that “second women” are givers: they’re team players. That’s why, when I opened my restaurant in central London earlier this year, I jumped at the chance of employing “second women” to run my kitchen.

I had been running supper clubs in London since 2012. One man kept coming down and telling me I should find a permanent place. It turned out he worked for Shaftesbury, a company that owns lots of land in central London. He led me to Kingly Court, and I instantly fell in love. It reminded me of my family home in India – there’s something about it that doesn’t feel like London.

Someone wrote me a business plan so I could pitch for the Kingly Court plot, but I didn’t understand it. So the night before my presentation, I told the landlords that I’d rather serve them lunch instead. What will some graph say about who I am? Numbers are so boring, but my food is me.

‘Some of my women have been through terrible things’

I won the pitch and opened my restaurant in June, with an all-women team in the kitchen. Some of my women have been through terrible things and their situations are very unfortunate. In fact, I first came across them because they came to me for help. I studied law at university, so I used to advise them with their legal issues.

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.

Now one of my passions in life is to let second daughters in India know that somebody cares for them. We may never meet, but someone cares. Alongside the restaurant, I’ve set up a charity called Second Daughters. It throws parties to celebrate their births, so no one can ever tell a ‘second woman’ they were sad she was born, and it also supports them throughout their education.

I think London needed a place like Darjeeling Express, because the capital is full of people who are immigrants. Not everybody is born in the city, but we are all Londoners. Having pictures of my family’s palace near Delhi on the walls of the restaurant reminds me of home, and of the home truths my father taught me. Ultimately, I don’t know what the point in being privileged is if you cannot help someone. It’s useless. I want to go to my grave having transformed lives.’

Interview by Adam Bloodworth.

Find out more about Darjeeling Express and support the Second Daughters charity.

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