Asma Khan almost didn’t make it to her talk at the Santa Fe Literary Festival. The decorated chef and cookbook author set up a café in a Yazidi refugee camp in Iraq in 2019, offering training to girls who had been sold into slavery by Isis. It was an audacious thing to attempt, unusual for a chef who had only recently starred in the Netflix series Chef’s Table and set up her own restaurant in central London. “I asked for volunteers for chefs and the only girl who put her hand up was a girl who stammered a lot,” Khan says during a tea-and-conversation event in New Mexico. “She was 19 years old, and later on I discovered that she could speak, but because she was the only virgin in her village, she was passed around by [Isis members] — and she lost her ability to speak.” That teenage girl, who Khan summarily trained and who found meaning through working at the café, has never left her mind.
How does such worthy work lead to an immigration nightmare? Khan was surprised to be initially told that she wouldn’t be granted entry to the United States when she prepared to depart for the festival in Santa Fe. Because she’d travelled to Iraq, she’d been automatically denied, with no room for nuance or discussion. “I thought that after Trump, the rules would have changed,” she said, “but no.” It was only through the hard work of a number of festival representatives — and the willingness to jump on whichever flight she could — that she ended up in New Mexico this week. Although it was an ordeal, she says, it wasn’t entirely a surprise: “With a name like mine, immigration is always challenging. Even with a British passport, in England.”
A proud Muslim woman who was born in India before moving to the UK in 1991, Khan now heads up the only female-founded, all-female kitchen in the world. She’s frank about what that actually means. When she scouted out bigger locations for her already wildly successful restaurant, she was asked repeatedly: “Do you have a business adviser? Who’s the man with the money?” And ultimately it was only the pandemic — and the subsequent failure of a number of male-owned businesses — that allowed her to move into a prestigious spot in Covent Garden. Now she’s again on the market for a space, and “because the pandemic is over, I’m suddenly finding people are more hesitant” again, she says.
Nevertheless, Khan believes there are some clear advantages to her outsider status. “I don’t get invited to the iftar at Downing Street, I don’t get invited to events with the sophisticated and the elite, but I rattle every cage I can,” she says, “…In that boys’ club of hospitality where everyone knows everyone, I don’t owe anything to anyone. I’m free.”
She revels in that freedom, unafraid to talk about the difficult issues. “I’m very political,” she says, without apology. “As an immigrant, I want everyone to know you cannot take my clothes, you cannot eat my food, you cannot have my culture if you don’t also take me. British people who tell people who look like me to ‘go home’ — what were you doing in my country for 200 years? And here [in the US], they want to keep the Mexicans out, but everyone wants to eat tacos!”
Khan doesn’t like the term “cultural appropriation,” because she thinks there is great power and connection in sharing cultural outputs — but she has little respect for people who refuse to acknowledge colonialism or welcome immigrants while still professing to enjoy a biryani or a cup of chai tea. “As a Muslim immigrant, this [cookbook] is my conversation with my first country,” she says. “This is the bridge I’m building.” She hopes that people can enjoy her food and have nuanced conversations about its historical context at the same time.
Khan deconstructs her own past with the same verbal scalpel that she uses for political commentary. She is the first college-educated woman in her royal Indian family, where the expectation was that you’d be “married at 18 and a grandmother at 32,” just like her grandmother. “But I didn’t look pretty,” she said. “I was the fat, ugly one — I wasn’t going to be married off at 18 — so my family had to send me to college. I didn’t fit into the image of the ‘good princess’.” She graduated with a PhD in law, and pivoted into cooking after marrying and moving to England (“It’s an arranged marriage, which is different from a forced marriage — it’s more like speed-dating.”)
Though people tried to tell her that cooking wouldn’t lead her anywhere, Khan never doubted the inevitability of her own success. “I never was afraid that I would not succeed,” she says, detailing how she said affirmations in front of the mirror regularly. Now, she is hyper-aware of her own privileges and determined to send the elevator back down. “I want to be on the right side of history,” she says. “I won’t be silent, because silence helps the oppressor.” She is comfortable being who she is — “I am Muslim, I don’t drink alcohol, I dress in my traditional outfits” — in a world where she often looks like the odd one out. “I need you to hear me say this in my accented voice,” she says as she details her business acumen, demonstrating that sometimes simply speaking at all is its own form of rebellion.
Khan wrote her cookbook “as a salaam to my grandmothers and great-grandmothers before me” but most of all for her mother, she says. Her mother was a deeply traditional woman, who “never told me she loved me, she never told me she thought I was anything special, but she would feed me and watch me eat, and now I understand that kind of love.” When she got in trouble unfairly at school, or when her brother lost a football match, their mother would go to the kitchen and make a biryani — “‘and that was her way of telling us it was okay.” Khan describes the moment that she presented a copy of the cookbook to her mother, where something completely unexpected happened: “She took this book and she bowed. Now, as Muslims, we’re taught you don’t bow to anyone — the idea is that you only bow down to Allah. But my mother bowed down to me and she said, ‘You brought honour to this family.’”
These days, Khan is an undeniable success: “Today, you cannot ignore me.” Her restaurant, Darjeeling Express, is on almost every Londoner’s must-go list, with tables almost impossible to come by, and Danny DeVito is a well-known fan. A photo of Dan Levy and Paul Rudd at the restaurant went viral last year. But Khan never sits on her laurels. When Darjeeling Express is closed on Sundays, she offers free use of the premises to aspiring female chefs. And she’s keen to underline that success didn’t come overnight: “I have lost more times than you can even imagine. But none of you saw me when I failed — the door closed behind me”.
Nowadays, Khan considers she is “there to remind you: Do not other people who look different to you.” She leaves the room in Santa Fe with a final thought: In whatever area of your life you succeed in, “recognise your privilege and then reach out to those who are as yet unable to be what you are.”
The Independent, as the event’s international media partner, with coverage across each day of the festival from exclusive interviews with some of the headline authors. For more on the festival visit our Santa Fe Literary Festival section or visit the festival’s website.