Asma Khan | The 2021 MAKERS Conference

Asma Khan, Chef and Owner, Darjeeling Express, and the first British chef featured on Netflix’s Chef’s Table, talks about working with an all-female kitchen staff and about how equal pay can lead to equity and better outcomes in all industries. Khan wants to teach women how to lead, not just how to cook — and when she shatters the food industry's glass ceiling, she doesn't want to do it alone.

Video Transcript

ASMA KHAN: I have the blood of warrior women. It's in my DNA. We lead battles not from the back. We take responsibility for mistakes. The glory should be everybody's, never yours alone.

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I grew up in Kolkata. My father and mother are both from royal families. But in India, which is a very deeply feudal and patriarchal society, the preferred child is a male. It was always there, this kind of tag of being a second daughter. So it really was quite painful at times. You were a burden. You were unwanted.

My sister, who was beautiful and glamorous, absolutely adored me and was very supportive. And at a very young age, I realized that the solidarity of other women can make you feel very powerful when the world is trying to knock you down.

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It was very, very lonely. It was like a bereavement. I felt I had lost everything. I have never been in a cold place before. I almost collapsed. What I remember is the cold and isolation.

And the one thing that could kind of take me home was cooking. Because in the aromas of the spices and the sounds and the smells and the beat and the rhythm in the kitchen, I could almost feel the presence of my mother. So I had to cook.

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Initially, I met them all because they were nannies in the school where my children went. I lived opposite the schools. I told them, why don't you come, come to my house? I'll give you [? gai ?] and samosa. In India, I would never have people just come to my home and sit in my dining table. It's a very hierarchical, stratified society.

But here in London, we sat around my dining table. And there we were all equal. It is as if this is the family we had to create when we lost our own, when we left home.

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There was no intention to ever open a restaurant. But when I walked in, something hit me really hard. I imagined the place full of people. But I imagined the aromas of my mother's cooking in that space. And I thought, let's go for it.

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So the women I met as nannies in my children's school, they're still here today. And they're an essential part of Darjeeling Express. When you come to eat with us, I want you to put your burden outside. Because when you come here, this is a homecoming, the familiarity of the fact that food that was cooked with patience and love.

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I once said this to my father-- very me, very close to the road when I die-- because I want women to come to my grave and tell me that they succeeded. It's a very lonely place to be if you break a glass ceiling, and you're standing somewhere alone with glass around you. I want to bring the entire edifice down. I want to level the entire playing field. I want to open every door that women find they couldn't get through.

Hello. This is Asma Khan. And hello to all the MAKERS audience. And welcome to Darjeeling Express. This is my deli in Covent Garden. This is my new restaurant. And I'm very excited because I'm going to be also cooking after a while, so you're going to see my kitchen of my lovely restaurant. I had already decided when I finally was going to open my restaurant that I was going to make sure everybody got paid equally.

I think it's very important. It's not good enough for you, in a board meeting, to turn around and point to your female employee and say, she's the heart of the office. We all depend on her. But you know you're paying her 30% less than her male colleague sitting next to her who does the same job. Unequal pay is deeply, deeply humiliating. And I wasn't going to do that.

And I decided that when I worked in the kitchen, I should get the same hourly rate as the kitchen porter who's washing the pots, because I don't think in any way can I justify saying his job is less worthy than my one hour in the kitchen. It basically says, I am superior to this person. And this is so wrong because it is really harmful if people in your team-- some feel more valued than others. This is really, really wrong.

And I wanted to create a space where people were all treated equally, seen as equal. And people have-- get that feeling that they are valued because their opinion matters. And I remember once the kitchen porter laughing at me because my koftas kept opening up. And she said, mama, come on. Squeeze it. Squeeze it. You know?

And I was like-- she's a really super fit Ghanian woman. I said, you come and do it. Let's see. Mama, mama, squeeze it. And yeah, the koftas that she was squeezing really tight, didn't open. She told me, you go wash the pot. But she could do that because she knew while we were working, we were equal. She didn't see me as the owner or the boss. It was about the collective and the greater good.

This comes from people being paid the same, being made to feel that opinion matters the same. No one is above anyone else. Try it. Try it in your workplace. It is a game changer because suddenly, people feel that they can actually give everything, that they matter, and they can actually contribute to the collective. And I always felt that it is really about the collective being strong and the group getting together. No one advances faster than the others.

And I think this comes from being a second daughter and understanding that when you are dismissed and you are othered, you do feel that you don't count that much. And it was that experience of being a second daughter-- I have decided that in this space when we reopen, I'm going to set up a mentoring school, set up a leadership program where I want to help the future leaders of hospitality. I don't want to teach them how to cook. I don't want to teach them how to bake.

I want to show them how to lead, because it is then that we can actually change everything. It is when we are in positions of power, when we can recruit, when we can stand up to bullying, to misogyny, to racism, and you have the authority in your workplace, then the change will happen. We need to have women in positions of power. And I want to teach more women how to lead in hospitality because this is the only way that we can really make a difference.

And I have spent my entire life trying to fight inequality. So for me, having an all-female kitchen, having women who are like housewives, who have the same experience as me, is really, really important. And I can see my-- they're gonna be here-- my two women from my team. So that's [? Bimala ?] and [? Rashmi. ?] And they've been part of my journey from the very beginning. And it's been very humbling because all of us have learned from each other. And it's not that-- we've actually grown this whole business organically together.

So yes, you see the face of me. But I am just-- I stand on the shoulders of the giants of the women in my team. I am not the face of Darjeeling Express. They are. And I just happen to be the face that people identify with the restaurant. But we see ourselves as a collective, and we all work together.

And I am going to be cooking things in my very, very fancy kitchen downstairs. And I hope you will enjoy the dishes that I cook for you. Thank you very much.

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I'm making the base of something, a very traditional street food. It's called vada pav. It is classic carbs on carbs. It's what the poor eat. And I really wanted the restaurant to reflect not just what is eaten in the palace or by royalty, but also what is eaten on the streets. So we start off with the mustard seeds. And you have to wait because you need them to pop.

It's always about patience because it's the enthusiastic ones who are popping. And you want all of them to do it. You give each ingredient the space to shine. I also think it's also how you treat human beings. Don't just-- this person is useful for this. I'm going to just use this. Give them space.

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As you can see, I'm not measuring anything. So that's the ginger. It's all about oral history. And this is why I have an all-female kitchen-- because all of us learned to cook this way. We stood near our mothers and grandmothers, and we heard the sound. It is the rhythm of our cooking. It's our traditional Indian cooking, South Asia. It is cooking by what we call [NON-ENGLISH], estimate.

Now goes in the [INAUDIBLE] which is the [? chilliest. ?] [INAUDIBLE] Coriander.

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And then again, I cannot give you a time of when it's the right time to put the potatoes in. There's no sound that can give you the thing. Now it's aroma. So now in goes the potatoes, which is a lot. Oh, I forgot this one. I am not the perfect cook.

[LAUGHS]

You live to fight another day. I'm going to let you off.

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The layering that goes into Indian street food is really unique. So this is Haldi, the tumeric. And this will now give a really beautiful color to the dish. This is the other cumin, coriander. Salt I need to put on my hand because I need to feel it go, the grains go through, so I know this is the right amount. And we are done.

OK. So I'm going to take the paratha, and put it in and wrap it and then eat it. So before I finish off my paratha, I just want to thank you for coming into my kitchen. I know it's virtually. There's no magic formula to becoming a successful Indian cook or Indian chef. The biggest thing is you need to cook from here. Because cooking is really the ability to gift someone something so beautiful and so intimate. As unique as fingerprints, that dish carries part of me.

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