I’m back! This is your companion to Episode 3 of Volume 6 of Chef’s Table, the trailblazing Netflix show. If you missed my companion to Volume 6 Episode 2, check it out here. This episode follows Asma Khan, who grew up in Calcutta, India.
In India, the birth of a daughter — especially a second daughter — isn’t cause for celebration. Asma Khan, a second daughter herself, recalls her mother crying because she hadn’t been born a boy. As a child, she gained a reputation for wildness. Looking back, she thinks she was trying to be a boy for her mother.
When it came time for her to marry, no one wanted her, although she was from a wealthy family — during the 1900s, the mangoes grown on her family’s farm had been proclaimed the finest India had to offer. As a result, her parents sent her to college, during which she met her husband. After marrying him, the two set off to London together. The move was, as Asma put it, viewed as a very good thing for her. She was on her way to this golden life, and her family was very proud. Feeling the need to distinguish herself, she entered law school, obtained a degree, and went straight onto a doctorate track, all the while struggling with feelings of isolation and deep sadness and homesickness. After smelling paratha cooking and realizing that she didn’t know how to cook anything, Asma returned home. She spent some months with her mother and aunts, learning to cook, before returning to England and her husband with a changed view of life and the world.
Going behind her husband’s back, she began throwing house parties for friends and friends of friends — and eventually for complete strangers. She worked in conjunction with her closest friends, a group of other South Asian women, some from India and others from Nepal. Together, they brought together the recipes that had been handed down by their families over generations, and their dinner parties became famous.
All this ground to a sudden halt, however, when Asma’s children complained to her father, their grandfather, about the disruption the frequent parties were causing in their house and in their lives. Ashamed, Asma decided to end the parties, putting her children’s well-being over what had been a large part of her life.
A few months after she shuttered her setup, she and her team were invited to cook pop-up meals at a local bar. The experience posed the women with a new set of challenges: they had to learn to function as professional chefs, not home cooks, in an unfamiliar kitchen. Over time, Asma realized that her place was as much outside the kitchen as in — her congenial nature and charm began to win her fans as she interacted with guests more and more, leaving much of the cooking to her team of friends. Her reputation as a culinary great was sealed when Fay Maschler, the renowned food critic, wrote a wonderful review of her cooking after attending one of her popups. Not long after, Asma opened her own restaurant, Darjeeling Express. Her team, most of whom held jobs as nannies for wealthy Londoners, gradually quit their jobs to work full time in the kitchen.
What propelled Asma to do all this? She has a deep love of food and cooking, and an extremely generous and open-hearted nature. Through all of her work, she has also strove to make her parents proud — especially her mother, to whom she still feels she owes a debt. But her journey is also a credit to her outlook as an individual and her commitment to personal growth and to making a positive impact in the world. Through her ambition and her unwavering courage, she has begun to leave a deep mark on every person and every place she reaches.
She’s also had the chance to start a charity. The direction of her philanthropic efforts? To celebrate the births of second daughters. This might seem like a small drop in the ocean, but it’s a wonderful step for all women — especially those belonging to South Asian cultures — who feel or have felt undervalued at any point in their lives.