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Asma Khan is Kolkata’s second contribution to global food

It is a funny feeling when a colleague from decades ago becomes a success in a totally different field.

And it feels even stranger when you find yourself writing a profile of somebody you once knew as a sub-editor.

 

In 1990, when I edited Sunday magazine, a young girl came to see me to ask if she could try her hand at journalism. She worked at Lintas, the ad agency, she said, and wanted to do something different but not entirely unrelated.

 

   I hired her on the spot and all of us in the office thought she was very bright and articulate. Then, a few months later, she announced that she was getting married, resigned from her position and went off to live in Cambridge with her new husband.

 

   And that, I thought, was the last I would hear of Asma Khan.

 

   Wrong, very wrong.

 

   A few years ago, she sent me an email. She was now a chef in London, she wrote. Not only did she organise private dinners at home but she was also running a pop-up in a pub in Soho. Why didn’t I drop in and try her food?

 

   I had to search my memory to remember Asma (time to be candid!) and when I asked old colleagues from the Sunday days, they said that they found it hard to believe that she was now a chef.

 

   Then, in 2015, my friend Fay Maschler, London’s most influential critic, wrote about Asma’s pop-up. It was an unqualified rave review and she rated Asma’s little restaurant serving Kosha Mangsho and Kathi rolls ahead of most of London’s fancy Indian places.

 

   The day the review came out, there was a line outside the pub where Asma ran her pop-up. It began raining but the people still continued queuing. Asma and her cooks were stunned. But like good Indians, they felt bad for the crowds. So they made little bowls of rice with dal and distributed them for free to those lining up. The gesture did not go unnoticed and every night after that, the small restaurant was packed. It became the cool place to go for people who wanted real Indian food.

 

   “Fay Maschler changed my life,” says Asma now. And indeed, the changes have been dramatic. A year and a half ago, the owners of Kingly Court, a new development off Carnaby Street in the centre of London, offered her a dream deal on a site for a full-fledged restaurant. The restaurant opened to glowing reviews and became a symbol of the new London. Nigella Lawson came. Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, praised it. And Asma appeared on the list of the 100 most influential people in food in the UK.

 

   But a few months ago, Asma received her biggest accolade yet. The Netflix series Chef’s Table has featured some of the world’s greatest chefs. It has the power to turn a chef’s life around. Gaggan Anand says that even more than all the honours and awards he has earned (two stars from Michelin, number one restaurant in Asia for an unprecedented four years in a row etc.), it is Chef’s Table that made people from all over the world fly in to Bangkok to eat at his restaurant.

 

   There has been much heartburn in the UK that no British chef has ever made it to Chef’s Table.

 

   So when Netflix announced that it had finally selected a British chef, there was much anticipation. To everyone’s surprise, they chose Asma.

 

   The show airs later this month and as I told Asma, her life will never be the same again. She will soon be one of the world’s most celebrated chefs, the best known Indian chef in the UK and perhaps globally, with the exception of Gaggan.

 

"Asma is nothing if not super confident, so she called such famous London chefs as Cyrus Todiwala and Vivek Singh to her house for dinner to try her biryani." 

   As wonderful as all this is, a little voice inside my head kept asking, “How did Asma, the same old Asma from the Sunday desk end up becoming one of the great chefs to be featured on Chef’s Table? Had she been a secret cook all along even as she laboured over copy? Had she worked at some of the world’s best restaurants? Had she reinvented classic Indian dishes?”

 

   The answer: none of the above.

 

   The Asma story is so incredible that if you made a movie with this plot, you would be accused of asking too much of the viewer. Suspension of disbelief is okay, but Asma’s life takes us far beyond that.

 

   She was born in Calcutta to a family with roots in nawabi culture (what we would call landed gentry, I guess). She had a standard middle-class upbringing (La Martiniere and Loreto) before going out to work (Lintas and then Sunday). Her parents introduced her to Mushtaq, a brilliant Bangladeshi economist who was a don at Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge. Asma and Mushtaq had, what was for all practical purposes, an arranged marriage and she moved to Cambridge.

 

   She was miserable. “I thought the Quran had it wrong when it described hell,” she recalls. “Hell was Cambridge.” She hated the cold, the greyness, the drab English environment (especially after the sights, smells and sounds of Calcutta).

 

   Though her mother had run a catering business in Calcutta, Asma did not know how to cook. She could read copy, she could give clever headlines. But she had no kitchen experience. Fortunately Mushtaq had no interest in food.

 

   So she turned to studying. She got a law degree, and then decided to do a PhD in law. By then, Mushtaq had shifted to the School of Oriental and African Studies in London so she applied to King’s College at London University. She talked the dons at King’s into letting her go directly to a doctorate without a Masters.

 

   She chose, for her thesis, a subject that was as far removed from Calcutta as possible: how the UK handles the separation of Church and State. But even as she was discussing whether the British monarch should be ‘defender of the faith’, a hitherto undiscovered cooking gene deep inside her reasserted itself.

 

   She began to make the food of her ancestors, going back to old family recipes. Eventually, cooking became such an obsession that she started hosting pop-up dinners. Her husband disapproved of the idea so she cooked the dinners when he was travelling. (“We cleared up the house so well,” she laughs “that usko pata hi nahi chala!”)

 

   But her two children, who were not happy with having the house taken over by strangers, complained to their father and soon the jig was up.

 

   Asma is nothing if not super confident, so she called such famous London chefs as Cyrus Todiwala and Vivek Singh to her house for dinner to try her biryani. Even though none of them knew her, they came anyway. They were kind and encouraging. Vivek Singh was so impressed that he offered her a pop-up at his The Cinnamon Club restaurant. She took her all-women team of cooks and won over the all-male Cinnamon Club kitchen team. (“I will always be grateful to Vivek for that,” she says.)

 

   That gave her the credibility to do a full-time pop-up. Word of her skills got out. Fay discovered her. And the rest is the stuff Chef’s Table episodes are made of.

 

   Now, with the success of Darjeeling Express, Asma is well-known in London. People make much of her nearly all-women team. (My wife, who came to lunch at Darjeeling Express with me, loved the female energy; she was sold on the restaurant even before the first dish arrived.) Asma is overtly political, speaking out about sexual harassment in restaurant kitchens, breaking the conspiracy of silence that women in the business have gone along with and has become a symbol of the success that Asian women can find if they overcome prejudice and their own apprehensions.

 

   But ultimately, I judge chefs by their food not by their stories. And Asma’s was terrific. We had puchkas, Bihari phulkis (like pakoras), Kosha Mangsho, a Calcutta mutton chaap, kaala channa, chicken samosas, beetroot chops and so much more. None of it was molecular or clever, clever. It was just excellent.

 

   You will hear more about Asma in the months ahead. After Gaggan, she is Kolkata’s second contribution to the global food world.

 

   And you will hear about her in non-food contexts. She is opening all-women kitchens in conflict zones in Syria. As she says, “I don’t want to be remembered as a great chef. I want women to come to my grave and say ‘she changed my life’; that’s what matters.”

 

   She is not short on confidence and ambition, our Asma. And I have a feeling that she will end up being the most successful person to ever emerge from the offices of Sunday magazine!
 

 

Posted On: 23 Feb 2019 02:10 PM
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