Asma Khan talks about being the first UK chef on Netflix’s ‘Chef’s Table’

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 2nd November 2018

COMPETITION NOW CLOSED.

Asma Khan is the chef-owner of Darjeeling Express in London.

She has been named as the first UK chef for the forthcoming, series 6 of Netflix’s ‘Chef’s Table’ which will air in 2019 and is the chef at the Supper Club turned acclaimed restaurant - Darjeeling Express.

The Staff Canteen spoke to Asma about why she wanted to take part in the show, how it felt to travel to her hometown of Chhatari and why she considers herself an ‘accidental chef’.

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After receiving an email to take part in Netflix’s ‘Chef’s Table’, chef Asma Khan  initially thought that this was a dodgy ‘phishing email’. She admits that she was not wearing her glasses when she opened the email from Brian McGinn, the executive producer and director. It took her a few re-reads to convince her that this was indeed ‘the real deal’. 

Chapter Opener1
Food that is made by home cooks
at Asma's restaurant


She said: “After the first lines, where he said they loved my story and wanted to feature me in the series, I didn’t continue reading the email as I was scared I’d got it wrong – thinking it was just one of those 'dearly beloved you have won the lottery and I need your bank account details to transfer you the money', with a new style of writing!

"It took me a while to go back to reading the email again- and I was so thrilled that it was real (I googled the person who had written to me!) I called Brian McGinn from a car park as I had no network where I was, and he was absolutely wonderful and had done his research as he knew everything about me!”

It still didn’t feel real to Asma until filming began and she was hosting the Chef’s Table crew in her restaurant who were ‘changing all the light bulbs and moving all the restaurant furniture to the roof!’.

Each series of Chef’s Table has a theme and the theme for this series is ‘Journey Home’. 

“In my cookbook, I explain why cooking the food of my family made me complete," explained Asma. "My first winter in Cambridge I was so cold (I had never seen a tree where the leaves had fallen!) and I was constantly hungry. I felt hollow, rootless and very lonely. I knew the only way this new land I was living in would become a home for me was if I could cook the dishes my mother made for me.

Macher Malaikari
Macher Malaikari

"I needed my kitchen and home to be infused with the aromas of spices. I cannot give the details of what we filmed – we did one-week filming in London, at the restaurant and in the city and one week in India including my parents’ home in Aligarh and my ancestral fortress in Chhatari.”

Filming in Chhatari was an emotional experience and Asma admits that she wept when her great aunt said 'you have put Chhatari on the map and bought honour to your clan'. This was particularly significant for Asma as it demonstrated that there has been a shift from a traditional patriarchal focus. 

She explained: “Bringing honour” is a term that is usually used for boys. My entire clan gathered around me for the filming and were so thrilled for me – my sibling flew down for the filming and that made the entire episode complete for me; having my brother and sister with me in India.”

Talking of gender shifts, Chef’s Table has historically been very male-dominated, Asma explains 'it is significant that season 5 and 6 finally has a gender balance and has women of colour'.

She said: "It is important to have a balance – especially for us in hospitality where we are struggling for staff."

She added: "Chef’s Table has a big following and I am hoping young women who may have been put off from applying to restaurants for a job will see these women-focused episodes and see women they can relate to and know that the restaurant kitchen is where they can belong, thrive and flourish. I hope we can see more women – not just chefs in white coats but home cooks cooking on television.”

Darjeeling Express is renowned for having an all-female staff although Asma admits that 'it just happened that way'. Her staff have worked with her in some way, shape or form over the last 10 years. From helping at her supper-clubs at home to pop-ups in the pub and now in the restaurant. 

Chukander Raita
Chukander Raita

“We are all untrained home cooks," said Asma. "We have our own rhythm. Since opening the restaurant, we have had to recruit more people. We cook as families do for a big festival or a wedding – there is no hierarchy in the kitchen. The women start work and do what they know is their speciality – it is all unspoken."

Asma’s restaurant Darjeeling Express emerged from a supper club and she says the transition from a supper club to a restaurant was 'not too traumatic'. She admits she is ‘learning every day’ but this is one of the most exciting parts of being a restauranteur. 

She said: “Just when you 'fix' one thing, something else starts to wobble! I am loving the challenges and the triumphs. My favourite moment was seating my parents in my restaurant and taking their lunch order. I saw the tears of joy in their eyes – my best moment.”

Moving to England proved to be pivotal for Asma who admits that she wanted to learn to cook to start friendships. She particularly takes pride in cooking 1930s Royal Nawabi and Mughal cuisine.

She said: “Inviting someone to eat at your home, was the first step to starting a friendship, in my family tradition.

"So, I initially cooked for myself and to make new friends and I do not think I ever wanted to become a chef – I am an accidental chef!”

By Emma Harrison

@canteenemma  

Extract credit to Asma’s Indian Kitchen: Home-cooked food brought to you by Darjeeling Express by Asma Khan, published by Pavilion Books. Recipe image credit to Kim Lightbody.

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 2nd November 2018

Asma Khan talks about being the first UK chef on Netflix’s ‘Chef’s Table’