On Thursday 26 November at 11:30am, whoops and cheers echoed down Garrick street in Covent Garden, London, where chef Asma Khan’s restaurant, Darjeeling Express, now sits. In the kitchen, tears were shed. For the team of 10 women who cook alongside Khan, the Prime Minister's announcement that the capital will fall into Tier 2 on Wednesday means that they not only have their jobs back, but their lives, too.
“Julian, take my card and go buy us some glassware!” Khan says with a laugh as she thrusts a credit card into the hands of Julian Angot, her new general manager. There is still a lot to do before the restaurant’s grand opening on December 5 – but Khan is relieved to be opening at all.
The story of Darjeeling Express has been well documented, not least by the cult Netflix series Chef's Table on which Khan was the first British chef to feature, in spring last year. Having turned a successful supper club (hosted by Khan in her dining room at home), into a pop-up residency at The Sun and 13 Cantons pub in Soho, she established a permanent restaurant in Kingly Court in 2017. Small but hugely popular, she would serve close to 200 covers in the 55-seat space – until the pandemic struck and lockdown was imposed (a time away from the restaurant that Khan described as "like a bereavement"), rendering its return impossible.
“Things are very different to our old site,” Khan explains over a cup of chai in her newly refurbished dining room. “We need a different kind of training for the new menu [which is a biryani tasting menu rather than a la carte], and we haven’t done much so far as we were waiting for the announcement.”
She has clearly been busy, however. The dining room (which can hold 40 more covers than the original site) is an oasis of terracotta and azure, lush with greenery and vibrant fabrics. “I want the room to reflect the earthiness of the food,” explains Khan. And while it might not have quite the living-room ambience of Kingly Court, there are many of the same personal touches; on the walls are framed photographs of her family and home in Calcutta where she grew up.
Moving Darjeeling Express to a larger site had been on Khan’s mind long before Covid. “I was looking for a bigger place back in 2019 as our current venue was too small. It was frantic. At times we had to stop between services as we had such little space for storage," she says. "But no one would show me a venue." It was only when the pandemic hit that opportunity arose in the form of the former Carluccio’s site in Covent Garden, where one of its main draws is the space for a deli and takeaway, which sits alongside the main dining room and opened on November 18.
Since then queues of Khan’s acolytes have been accumulating daily, hungry for a keema toastie or Calcutta chicken roll. “The deli is saving us,” Khan says. “It’s not about making money – it doesn’t make us much – it’s about knowing that we’ve opened. We feel liberated. Importantly, it’s allowed me to take most of the women off furlough.”
At the heart of Khan’s restaurant is her all-female team of cooks, every one of them a housewife with family living either in the UK or in their home country. “The pandemic has been very hard on them,” Khan says.
“When we opened the deli I couldn’t bring everyone back at once as there wasn’t enough demand, so the furloughed women came to watch us. We have a word in our culture, kalapani, which means ‘black water’. It was used when Indians left as labourers, building bridges in Malaysia and Jamaica; the ‘black water’ was separating them from going home. To some of the women, the pandemic is their black water, forcing them into exile from the kitchen and from me. It’s a very strong, very emotive word, and it says a lot about their mental state.”
With many of her team living in shared accommodation, separated from loved ones, Khan thought carefully about who to bring back first, choosing those who she felt were most vulnerable. “This is home for many of the women,” she says.
At Kingly Court they cooked elbow-to-elbow on a single kitchen pass, a space no larger than 15 square feet. On Garrick Street, they each have their own section. “We’ve never seen kitchens like this!” Khan says with a laugh. “When we found the walk-in fridge we all had to take a selfie inside it – and the ice machine! It feels like walking into a palace. We can do anything here.”
The style of food, though delivered in the new-format menu, will remain the same; homely, unpretentious dishes cooked on a small scale, and cooked to order – right down to the chai tea. “We make our chai as they do on the streets of India, slowly, using very little spices. We layer in crushed ginger and use our eyes to know when to sieve it out. It’s a process that takes two hours, and many different pots on the go at once. When you take a sip, you taste the streets,” Khan says.
“We have one person manning the chai pots, Rashmi. We call her 'The Gangster'. She’s tiny, and about 60, but she hates to admit it – and she lifts all these heavy pots, all day – she refuses to let us help! Every day, she moves the pots around, adjusts the temperature, watches them boil. It’s like watching a game of chess. Many people would take our food without understanding the patience, the skill and love that goes into it, but we must honour the hands that cooked it. This is her pride, and my pride, and now we can finally share it once more.”