Pioneering women in food: How Asma Khan has raised the profile of women in kitchens

For this year’s International Women’s Day in a new article series, we’re recognising the women in food breaking the moulds in the kitchen, and in the fields and on the fishing boats… 

We spoke to seven trailblazing women – Asma KhanVandana Shiva, Helen Browning, Caroline Bennett, Dee Woods, Alice Robinson and Sarah Grady – who are each pushing sustainability, regeneration and ethics forwards within their industries and making space for other women to do so, too.  

We find out how their work is changing the face of the industry and women’s place in it, the challenges they’ve faced along the way, and what more there is to be done…

Asma Khan’s story

When you walk into Asma Khan’s new restaurant in Kingly court, the first thing you see is the open kitchen, full of women. So highly does Asma regard them, that she eloquently compares them to an Indian goddess.

“They are Shakti – a goddess in our culture – these women have great power and are women of substance,” she says.

Restaurant owner and cookbook author, Asma Khan opened her first restaurant, Darjeeling Express, on Carnaby Street in London back in 2017. What was special here, aside from fact that the entire kitchen workforce was made up of South Asian women, was that they weren’t formally trained. Asma credits Fay Maschler – the then Evening Stanard’s restaurant critic – who gave Darjeeling Express a glowing review, with “changing my life overnight”. 

Asma’s restaurant has been pivotal in raising the profile of women in kitchens, which you could argue has a global effect following her episode in Netflix’s hit show, Chef’s Table. .

She proves that formal training is not a prerequisite to work in a top restaurant and rejects the idea that her team aren’t professional cooks: “What certificate do I have to show? They have life experience”.

Her reason for running her restaurant is a deep rejection of the way women are viewed in society – as home cooks, not professional chefs. It’s also connected with her experience as a second daughter, which in Indian culture can often be seen as a burden rather than a blessing. This is why she founded the Second Daughters charity.

“In every home in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, it’s the matriarch who’s in charge of cooking, who’s feeding the families. So my restaurant is a battle cry against this narrative that we are not professional,” she explains. 

Darjeeling Express is also about empowering women, and providing something for others to look up to.

I strongly believe that you cannot be what you cannot see,” says Asma. “I want to encourage people to feel that they can dream, they can be what they want to be.”

Asma is more than aware “the power in hospitality is not with women”. She wants to see more women as general managers and sommeliers in hospitality, in what she calls “influential positions” where they can impact the ethos of a kitchen.

She has big dreams to “create a kinder, more compassionate space for women to step into”, but she’s not blinkered to the fact there’s still a long way to go. “I don’t want to teach women how to cook. I want to teach them how to lead”, she says.

Although Asma has been extremely successful, her journey has had its challenges. While trying to secure her own restaurant she realised: “This [country] is like India, where you need a ‘suitable boy’ on your side, before anyone takes you seriously,” referring to the fact she was a woman setting up her own business. 

Asma’s also acutely aware that it’s not just issues of gender that have challenged her, as she feels she doesn’t “run the same race as a white man”, nor the “same race as a white woman. It’s not an even ground,” she says.

“Whenever things get really hard, I am inspired by Maya Angelou”. This, she says, is about the ability to keep rising despite what’s going on around you. “I find this inner strength to do this because I want women to know, you do not allow someone else to walk on your dreams. No one walks all over me. I will not allow it.”

Follow Asma Khan: @asmakhanlondon
Follow Darjeeling Express@darjleeingldn

International Women’s Day, marked annually on 8 March, celebrates the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women, across the globe, who are dismantling discrimination, driving equal opportunities and empowering women and girls.

Main image: From left to right, the women in the Darjeeling Express team are: Hina Niraula, Rashmi Raut, Asha Pradhan, Asma Khan, Anita Gurung, Bimla Thapa | Image credit: Ming Tang-Evans

About the author

Emma Henderson

Emma Henderson

Emma Henderson is a freelance writer and editor and has been a journalist for 10 years, where for most of that time she worked at The Independent. She specialises in food and drink, covering everything from plastic free tea to sustainable fishing. She was the Editor of IndyEats, The Independent's digital food magazine. She writes widely about sustainability, ethics and greenwashing in food and beyond.

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