Asma Khan FKC
Renowned chef and diversity champion
Dr Asma Khan FKC (Law 1999; PhD Law 2013) is a renowned chef and the founder-owner of the award-winning restaurant Darjeeling Express, which started in 2012 as a supper club in her home. Since then, Asma’s culinary career has gone from strength to strength. She now serves as the UN World Food Programme’s Chef Advocate and is a distinguished presence on the Mayor of London’s Business Advisory Board.
One of the UK’s most prominent female chefs, Asma relentlessly pushes the boundaries as an advocate for social change. She was the first British chef to feature on Netflix’s Emmy-nominated Chef’s Table and has also appeared on the BBC’s Saturday Kitchen as well as Celebrity MasterChef, setting the stars a culinary challenge. Herself a star of London’s restaurant scene, Asma has featured in campaigns for several global brands – including WhatsApp, Levi’s and National Geographic. In 2019 the Evening Standard listed her as one of the capital’s most influential people, while Business Insider put her in the top spot on their list of the 100 coolest people in food and drink. In 2020, Asma was the first chef to feature on Vogue’s list of 25 most influential women of the year, and she has appeared in the GG2 Power List, profiling Britain’s 101 most influential Asians.
Born in India, Asma moved from Kolkata (then Calcutta) to Cambridge in 1991 at the age of 22, then to London with her husband Mushtaq, an academic, and their two sons. Both Asma’s parents come from royal families. Her father is a Rajput (descended from a warrior tribe), while her mother is Bengali. This blend of cultures inspired Asma’s approach to cooking. She explained: ‘It’s rare in India for people to marry outside of their own region, but it has been a huge, huge benefit to me, because I inherited the culture and tradition of two powerful styles of cuisine.’
Asma was the first woman in her family to attend university, and, having studied law at King’s and qualified as a lawyer, she went on to complete a doctorate in British Constitutional Law. She also earned an Honorary Doctorate and Fellowship from SOAS University and Queen’s College, Oxford University.
Despite studying hard for her PhD, Asma knew her future was in food – her mother ran a food business and, while growing up, Asma would help out in the kitchen, so cooking was a passion. From dinner parties came supper clubs, with Asma’s homemade Mughlai cuisine taking on legendary status; guest and acclaimed chef Vivek Singh subsequently invited her to host a lunch at his Westminster restaurant The Cinnamon Club. Asma’s work was also recognised by the British royal family, who invited her to Buckingham Palace to thank her for her remarkable contributions to humanitarian work.
A three-month pop-up at Soho pub, The Sun and 13 Cantons, in 2014 garnered much praise and was followed with an eight-month residency in summer 2015. Darjeeling Express the restaurant opened its doors in nearby Kingly Court in June 2017, moved to Garrick Street in Covent Garden, then took over the kitchen at The Pembroke in Kensington as a pop-up. The restaurant then returned to the West End’s Kingly Court, with an open kitchen to make her staff more visible.
An inspirational figure in a male-dominated world, Asma’s brigade consists of all women, and she says Darjeeling Express is ‘the only restaurant in the world with a female founder and all-female kitchen of housewives’. In fact, her staff consists entirely of South Asian women, many of whom, like Asma, are second daughters, often overlooked by Indian society. This is something Asma also strives to raise awareness about through her support of the ‘Second Daughters’ fund, a charity which encourages families in India to celebrate the births of second daughters, by sharing sweet treats. Her award-winning book Asma’s Indian Kitchen brings together her immigrant stories with authentic family recipes that go back generations. Her second book, Ammu: Indian Home Cooking To Nourish Your Soul, was Book of the Year with The Times in 2022.