Asma Khan

Despite this success, Asma's family struggled to accept that she had abandoned a career in law to be a cook. ‘I used to hold the supper clubs behind my husband’s back,’ she says. ‘He always suspected it. Every time he travelled, I did a supper club.’ Asma could keep the dinners under wraps from her family, but not from her children – ‘they didn’t like strangers being in the house,’ she says. Eventually they blew the whistle and her family put a stop to the supper clubs. With nowhere to go to continue her mission, Asma was offered a residency at the Sun and 13 Cantons in Soho. ‘I couldn't see how my food fitted there, but I had no other options,’ she says. Darjeeling Express – as it was now called – had barely been open a month when Fay Maschler arrived for lunch and wrote a glistening review that launched Asma’s name into the stratosphere.

The restaurant was packed for the next nine months. Many of Asma’s friends – the Indian nannies and housewives that she had invited to her very first supper club – now worked with her in the kitchen. They were the lonely trees, stripped and hollow, that she had seen years before – now they were empowered, recognised for their talents and released from their shackles as second daughters. ‘They're great cooks, but no one ever acknowledged or appreciated that – it’s something that really bothers me,’ says Asma. ‘We dishonour generations of women by making them feel like all they did was cook.’

After Asma's residency was up, she had resigned herself to shutting everything down and returning home to write geography revision notes for her son. That was until one of her regular customers, Simon Quayle, offered her a lifeline. As executive director of Shaftesbury and, in effect, landlord for a huge swathe of Chinatown and Soho, he offered Asma a site on the top floor of Kingly Court. The catch? She would have to compete with fifty-five other prospective businesses to get it. ‘I’d never written a business plan, never given a PowerPoint presentation,’ Asma explains. ‘So, we played to our strengths. The day of our meeting, we made hundreds and hundreds of samosas and we fed the whole building for lunch. And we won the lease.’

The rest, as they say, is history. Darjeeling Express may be bigger and grander than when it was a supper club, but the food and philosophy hasn't changed. Asma’s brigade is still made up entirely of women – many of whom are second daughters and immigrants – who cook and serve Asma’s dishes with warmth and love. ‘We all cook with the desire to embrace someone,’ she says. ‘We’re not cooking to make money. We’re cooking because we all know what it is to be without family, without the comfort of having your own food.’

The dishes of Asma’s royal ancestry are not about lavish ingredients – they are about feeding. The rich melt-in-the-mouth curries – slow-cooked Bengali goat kosha and delicate prawn malaikari – are recipes inherited from her mother. Every dish has a story behind it; one that Asma is more than happy to share when she brings your meal to the table.

As well as creating a place for incredible Indian food, Asma has made Darjeeling Express into much more than a restaurant. It’s a platform for social change – a neon billboard to tell women everywhere that their skills are worth celebrating. Asma is the first British chef to ever be featured on Netflix's Chef's Table, and she used her exposure to the fullest. ‘I want to talk about race and about the absolute imbalance of female representation in kitchens. I want to leave a powerful ripple so people will see that it’s possible for them to succeed too, no matter how inferior they are made to feel.’

Food isn’t the only thing Asma has inherited from her parents – her father’s warrior blood shines through in everything she does. She’s a force of nature – gregarious, sure, but also unstoppable in her mission to lift up women around her. ‘These women are my tribe now,’ she says. ‘I will only win when everybody wins. Don’t put us in boxes. Don’t draw lines around us. Don’t tell us who we are. We will be anything we want to be.’

Three things you should know

Filming for Asma's episode of Chef's Table took twenty days – ten in India, and ten in the UK.

All the food at Darjeeling Express is cooked fresh on the day – the only thing in the freezer at Darjeeling Express is Häagen-Dazs cookies and cream ice cream.

Asma's debut cookbook Asma's Indian Kitchen won the World Gourmand prize for best Indian cookbook in 2018.