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    The chef and restaurateur on the socio-cultural impact of food and being a judge for the Fortnum’s Food & Drink Awards 2021


    How would you describe your relationship with food and cooking?

    It is a very emotional connection. I cook not to feed myself but to feed others. It is also my way home; by cooking the food of my family in India I feel less disconnected from them. For me, food has always been about nourishing the soul.

    When did you first realise you wanted a career in food?

    It wasn’t a Eureka moment. For a long time, I was feeling I didn’t want to have a career as a lawyer as it did not give me pleasure. Cooking on the other hand gave me so much joy, and feeding others made me feel very fulfilled. By the time I was approaching the end of my PhD in 2011, I had already decided that I was not going to go on to teach or research in law, but I was definitely going to cook.

    Has turning food and cooking into a career changed your relationship with it? And, if so, how?

    It hasn’t changed my relationship, it has actually enforced my belief that food and culture should not be separated, and I’m using the restaurant and other platforms to talk about culture and the legacy of women cooking in South Asia.

    As a society, why do you think we place such a big emphasis on food and drink – and in particular on eating out?

    I think there is something healing in breaking bread with others and shared moments where people eat around the table. This may go deep down in our psyche to early man and the entire community eating around the fire. When we dine out, even though we are not eating at our own table, it is this sense of communal eating, which has very ancient roots.


    At Asma Khan’s restaurant, Darjeeling Express, she serves ‘home-style food cooked with passion’ inspired by the dishes she grew up with in Calcutta, India


    What role do you think food and drink play in the culture of London? 

    I’ve always described London as the food capital of the world. The variety and quality of cuisines available in the city are very impressive. London is also a city with a long history of migration of different people and ethnic cuisine is one of the strengths of the city. All of which adds to making London a city where you can get anything from fine dining to a very ‘homestyle’ mums and pops restaurant, and everything in between.

    What is the philosophy behind your restaurant Darjeeling Express?

    The philosophy behind my restaurant is to take my customers on a journey of flavours and spices, which is deeply personal and connected to the food of my home. Everything on my menu is connected to the city or region where I grew up and all the dishes I learned as I craved them when I left India. I am not cooking to impress. I am cooking to heal and embrace through food the customers who come to my place.

    Why is it important to you that the kitchen at your restaurant Darjeeling Express is run by an all-woman team?

    I needed to work with people who cooked like me – through oral instructions and intuitively. All the women in my kitchen learned to cook from their mothers and family, and even though they cooked different food from me, it was exactly the same way in which I was taught. This made it so much easier ­– to work with a group of women who understood what I was doing and could learn without written instructions, weights and measures.

    As an advocate for social change, how do you think the food and drink industry is doing in terms of diversity and equal opportunities?

    Not very well is the short answer. There’s a lot left to be done but sadly there is a collusion of silence, from the powerful and the privileged in the industry, whenever issues of bullying or misogyny occur. Until there is proper communication, between the victims and the rest of hospitality in trying to redress the wrongs and to put better practice into place, change cannot happen.


    Asma Khan (fourth from left) and her all-female kitchen team


    How did it feel to be asked to be a judge for this year’s Fortnum & Mason Food and Drink Awards?

    It was very humbling as I was extremely excited when my first cookbook was shortlisted for the Fortnum’s award. I understood how thorough the entire process was, as potentially an entire year of food and drink books would have to be looked at in order to decide on the eventual winner. I also felt very proud that the organisers of the award felt they could trust me to make these difficult decisions.

    What aspects of the food and drink industry do the awards celebrate and why do you think it’s important to acknowledge them?

    The awards shine a light on creativity in the food and drink world – from photographers to writers to broadcasters. Being a judge is quite a task as you have to study the hundreds of books and articles that are submitted, as well as watch and listen to TV programmes, radio and podcasts.

    The highlight of the awards for me is the book categories. The awards have a reputation for shortlisting books that are different and unique, and are not necessarily swayed by who has written the book. This allows books that may not have had the marketing or PR when they were released to receive the recognition and appreciation they deserve. I have always looked at Fortnum’s shortlist of books to see what is new and interesting in food and drink writing. This is what makes these awards so important.

    What is your favourite category in the Fortnum’s food & drink awards?

    The debut cookbook.

    How do you think the London bar and restaurant scene will change as a result of the pandemic? 

    I hope hospitality will be more humble and the staff better treated – and not just by management and owners but by customers as well. I also hope that there will be greater appreciation of those who serve and cook, as so many people over lockdown had to cook and clean for themselves.

    Asma Khan is an Indian-born British chef, restaurateur and cookbook author. She is the owner of the Darjeeling Express restaurant in London and has appeared on the TV documentary
    Chef’s Table, broadcast on Netflix. Asma is one of the judges for the 2021 Fortnum & Mason Food and Drink Awards;

    The annual Fortnum & Mason Food and Drink Awards celebrate the achievements of the UK’s best writers, editors, publishers, photographers, personalities and broadcasters working in food and drink. Each year, an independent panel of expert judges come together to select the winners in 15 categories where the criteria of inspiration, education and entertainment are of equal value. The 2021 awards will be hosted at The Fortnum’s Bar & Restaurant at The Royal Exchange on Thursday 9 September. Follow @Fortnums and #FandMawards on social media to see who this year’s nominees and winners will be.

    A conversation with… is a monthly series that invites today’s leading minds to discuss current topics, exchange points of view and explore new ideas with The Royal Exchange.

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