Chef's Table (2015–…): Season 6, Episode 3 - Episode #6.3 - full transcript

[Asma Khan] I have a memory as a child

of a steam train, the Darjeeling Express,

that runs through the foothills
of the Himalayas.

It makes all this
huffing and puffing noise.

[train chugging]

[Khan] As it went up 
higher into the mountains,

you leave the heat
and absolute crazy humidity of Calcutta.

The relief of the air being so cool...

Absolutely spectacular.

I remember, as a child,
putting my head out of the window.

I would call my name out,

and the entire mountain
would echo my name back to me.

That was my moment of freedom,
of liberation.

I controlled where my life was going.

I knew, one day,
everybody would know my name.

[theme music playing]

[Vivek Singh]
The Indian dining scene in London

is like no other anywhere else
in the world.

The British have this incredible
and insatiable affection for Indian food.

As a result, there are thousands
of Indian restaurants

at all different levels.

But that doesn't mean
there isn't space for anything new.

[indistinct chatter]

Darjeeling Express challenges pretty much
every preconceived notion

that people have
of traditional Indian restaurants.

[Khan] Are we ready to serve?

[woman] Unh huh. The rice is hot.

[Khan] Okay, fine, yeah.

[bell dings]

[Singh] Asma explores the entire gamut
of various different influences.

Her cuisine ranges
from Calcutta street food

to the royal court influence
that comes from her family.

What's really beautiful is that
it is not put together in a formulaic way.

It is about saying,
"This is the stuff that I really love.

These are the dishes and this is the menu
that I want everybody to try."

And I think that is a beautiful thing.

[Khan] Most paneers
are made with lots of cream,

but my mother used to always
make it like this, so...

In Bengal, we use tons and tons
of kalonji, so it's a bit unusual.

[Pascal Gerard-Barker]
When you go to Darjeeling Express,

Asma will tell you
the history of every dish

and how it relates to perhaps her family
or the historical side of India,

but also the emotional connection

that she and the people
who cook in her kitchen

have with the food that she makes.

[Holly O'Neill]
Asma Khan assembled this amazing kitchen,

a kitchen entirely staffed by women.

Women who had,
previous to working with her,

never worked
in a professional kitchen before.

I don't know who would do that,
but then I met Asma,

and I realized who would do that.

[Khan] Two brown rice?
Isn't that a bit boring?

[woman laughs]

I'm not saying anything, but just...


[man] We're pretending
to try to be healthy, though.

-This you should have with white rice.
-[woman] Okay.

Enjoy life, my dear.

-[Khan] Yeah.

[O'Neill] She's incredibly passionate,
inspired and inspirational.

Asma could tell me trees were pink
and planted upside down,

and I'd probably believe
anything Asma told me,

because she is so charming.

Please don't be polite.
Don't wait for everyone else to eat.

And why are you waiting?

-For me to come and pass the plate?
-[women laughing]

I'll get you your chutney.

[Asha singing in Hindi]

-[Asma singing in Hindi]
-[Asha laughing]

[Asha singing in Hindi]

[both laughing]

[Khan in English] I think the world
is big enough for everybody.

People are people.

There are no divisions in my kitchen
or in my restaurant.

We always say,
"The guest is an incarnation of God."

I want people to feel
that they are valued.

They will be looked after
as if they've gone to a relative's house.

I'm cooking food from my home,
from meals I've had in my family.

I tell them the stories of the dishes.

I'm taking their hand
and taking them along.

My aim is for you to leave
feeling like someone had embraced you.

That's how food should be.

I get happiness from seeing people's eyes
when they eat the food I've cooked.

That feeling, when you can
light up someone's soul

with something you prepared,

that is a privilege and an honor.

When I started cooking,

I wanted people to have something
that reminded them

of really, really exciting, happy times.

Big celebrations, big family weddings.

You never forget your first biryani.

The biryani that I make
is called the dum biryani,

and dum is basically steam.

The whole process is layering.

At the very bottom, the meat,

spices, saffron-infused milk.

Potatoes go on top.

The rice goes above the potatoes.

And we seal it with dough.

And it's gone. You cannot see it.

You don't know what's happening.

What holds that biryani together is faith.

[Singh] So many things can go wrong
with your biryani.

Changes with the quality of rice,
the age of rice,

the amount of time it's had
in the spicing.

Even with 25 years
of cooking professionally,

I get butterflies in my stomach.

[Khan] When we're ready to serve,

we mix it.

That's when this amazing,
beautiful aroma comes up.

You smell the history, the spice trade.

And when the rice is served,
every grain is perfect.

[Singh] A lot of things that Asma does
is about feeding people lots of food,

and a biryani is that ultimate dish.

It is an expression of her generosity.

That is what makes Asma's biryani
quite special.

If you had to eat one thing
at Darjeeling Express,

in my mind, it's got to be the biryani.

-[father] A desi mango--
-[Khan] Is a generic mango?

Or is it actually a variety?

[father] It is the original mango
of this area,

but, you see,
Dasheri is not very popular.

-It doesn't travel well.

[Khan] Centuries ago, my father's family
were nomadic warriors.

We would go in and fight
with whoever could afford us.

Eventually, we left the desert
and settled down in India.

We acquired orchards, we grew roots.

[father] I remember you, as a child,
you used to be put on the floor,

-and you were just given the seed.
-[laughs] I've heard this story.

[father] And chomp, chomp, chomp,
you used to eat it.

[Khan] And you used to sit
and watch me eat it, yeah.

When I was very young,
the mango orchard was always the place

we would go to with my father.

My father loves to talk
about the fact that, in the 19th century,

at the Great British Exhibition,

the family mangoes were declared
as the best mango in the world.

The same soil
has three varieties of mangos.

[father] Yeah, the Langra
and the Dasheri and the Chaunsa.

-Langra is the best.
-I disagree. I prefer the Chaunsa.

On this, we'll forever, forever disagree.

[Khan] We used to have 
these long conversations.

He would cut open three or four varieties.

"What do you taste?"

He wanted to explain to us

the differences of flavors, acidity,
sweetness, texture.

Each mango is individually unique.

I think his thing was
that we must understand

this gift from the soil.

One day, he took me
to my family ancestral fortress,

and he took me up to one of the towers,

and he pointed out
the slums that were below.

He said, "It's an accident of birth.

You could have been there,
or you could have been here."

And he told me, "Use your life
to make a difference...

because being in a position of privilege,
you have a duty

to lift others up."

That kind of education,
it left a deep impact on me.

In India, when a girl is born,

there's no celebration and no fireworks.

It's that moment of darkness in a family.

And when you're unlucky enough
to have another girl,

it is not like a life,
but almost like a death.

My mother cried at my birth.

I was born a second daughter.

We have an archaic tradition of dowry.

Families have to have
this grand Indian wedding.

They gift jewelry.
They buy a flat for the husband.

It can wipe them out financially.

A girl is a burden.

Before I was born,
my mother would constantly be told,

"I hope this one is going to be a boy."

And no, lo and behold, it was me.

I remember so well, people pointing
to me and saying, "That's it?"

I saw that disappointment in their eyes.

I used to feel sad for my mother.

And I used to feel angry.

Why am I just "it"?

I want to erase that moment
when they told her it was a girl.

I can't wipe those tears,
but what I can do

is bring pride into my mother's eyes,

become this amazing thing,

leave a mark,

a mark so deep that no one cares
that I was a second daughter.

-I think you're putting too much.
-[Amna] No, Asma, I'm telling you...

I promise you, you're gonna love
what I'm doing.

-Show me and explain everything to me.
-My favorite blush-on in the world.

Oh, this is very pink.
I'm not gonna put it.

No, Asma, it's gonna blend into your face.

Amna, nothing will blend in.

-I promise you, two dots.
-I'll look like a joker.

-One, two, okay?
-Two dots on both sides.

You remember getting dressed up
when we were little?

-Yeah, I hated it.
-I know.

-And you tortured me.
-I know, but it was all for a good reason.

-Don't make me nervous, okay?
-I'm... If you're nervous, I'll do it.

-Okay, then, do it.
-Okay, tell me, no?

-I'll do myself.

As a child, I was a real tomboy,

running wild, climbing trees, falling off.

My father would find me
on the street playing cricket.

I used to be dragged home.

I think I was trying to be
a boy for my mother.

And I had this awesome reputation
of being the wild child,

you know, really out of control.

They couldn't find a boy to marry me,

'cause whoever they approached,
they were like, "Oh, no, no, not her."

[Khan] Ow, ow, ow.

-I'm taking this off. I wanna--
-It's beautiful. It's regal.

-Doesn't matter.
-It makes you look like a princess.

[Khan] I am a princess. I don't have to
wear all this to show I'm a princess.

[groans] It's stuck in my hair.

[Khan] So, my parents had to let me go
to college.

That is when everything changed.

I met the most suitable boy
I could have married.

An academic, a gold medalist
from Oxford University.

An innocent man who walked in
having no idea what I was.

I really liked him,
and I wanted to marry someone

who respected me for my intellect.

And we got married and I moved to London.

It was a big deal.
My parents, they were very proud.

My father really liked Mushtaq.

Everyone thought
this was just ideal for me.

I was ready to go
and live this beautiful life.

[church bell tolls]

Living in England,
I wanted to do something useful.

I always just wanted
to be taken seriously.

I have always done things
that would make my parents proud of me.

So I decided to study law.

I did the law degree, and I went
straight into the PhD program.

My father loved calling me Dr. Asma.

This is how it's supposed to be.

You're supposed to have this great life,

and you're in this foreign land,
which is very exciting.

But over time, I had this kind of constant
feeling of "something's not right."

[indistinct speech on loud speaker]

My husband was teaching all the time,
and I had no friends.

There was this kind of
vast emptiness in me.

I felt that all the time.

I spoke to my parents once a week
on a three-minute call.

I spent most of my time
telling my parents I'm okay,

and I put the phone down,

and it was a lump so big
for all the things I couldn't say.

I was very lonely.

Okay, so just do one.

[Khan] I had left my home, my family.

I saw so many people
who would smile at me,

but I couldn't relate to anything
or to anyone.

It was a kind of strange,
isolated existence.

One day, when I was cycling,

I went a little further
than I normally do,

and I passed this house.

I could smell someone was making paratha.

That smell that you get
when you burn butter,

that beautiful smell,

that was the smell from home.

It was my entire childhood.

I wanted to have the courage
to ring the bell,

but, instead, I cried.

I felt so helpless

and so angry with myself.

I didn't know how to make paratha.
I didn't know how to make anything.

I knew I had to go home.

[distant traffic noise]

[traffic noise continues]

-[bell rings]
-[crowd chatter]

[Khan] When I came back to India,

I had to tell my mother
that I am just dying.

I was deeply unhappy.

I was just drifting.

My mother said,
"You're crying because you're hungry.

Hungry for food that tasted like home."

She said,
"I'm going to teach you how to cook."

In the Indian tradition,
there are these iconic dishes

that people have carried
through generations.

For so many South-Asian women,

their signature dishes
means honor and respect.

Women in my family built up
these reputations for certain dishes.

And that recipe, they never part with,
not even to their own daughter.

[Asma speaking indistinctly in Hindi]

[in English] My mom and all my aunts
and my grandmother,

they must have seen
the huge emptiness in my soul.

Everybody understood.
Everybody rallied around me.

"Let's get the lists out.
Let's start teaching you."

I stood next to them.

I watched.
I listened to what they were telling me,

and I absorbed everything.

Give me that.

[Khan] The smells and the aromas
and the actions,

there's a rhythm to it.

It's that beat that hits you here,
and you hear it again and again.

And then in the end, it all becomes
this beautiful, almost magical song.

So, I inherited this fabulous legacy
of guarded signature dishes.

It is embedded in my soul.

[indistinct chatter]

[men singing indistinctly]

[singing qawwali]

[Khan] I went back home to the UK
a different person.

I started cooking.

Oh, my God, my husband was
flat on the ground, he was so shocked.

I love this.
You can try every kind of vinegar.

At that time, there was a school
opposite my house.

I saw some South-Asian women.

Many of them were working as nannies,
as housekeepers,

with families that were European.

Strangers in a foreign land.

They were in the same position as me.

[woman] Cheers! Thank you.

[Khan] I told them,
"Come and have tea with me."

I had learned how to make
seriously good chai.

When they came to my house,
we made friends.

I started cooking for them.

It felt so wonderful.

We felt like we were back in India.

[women exclaiming]

[Khan] And then slowly,
they started coming more often.

Everything changed.

I ended up with a group
who I would consider now my sisters.

This was the best part of my life.

[women laughing]

Having the ability to cook was,
for me, the huge transformation.

How I felt about life,
where I lived, myself...

Now, this feels like home.

[indistinct chatter]

[Khan] I had a neighbor who told me
that he went to a supper club.

He described an underground restaurant.

I thought that was so cool.

My whole life, I've wanted
to do something illegal.

So, he was like, "No, it's not illegal.

It's just that you call people
to your house,

and you feed them, and they pay you."

And I thought,
"This sounds like something I can do."

When I talked about my supper club
to my friends,

they were like,
"We'd like to help prepare the meal."

There were three,
four of us in the kitchen.

They did all the prep. I cooked the food.

It was very small in the beginning.

My children would wander off
into their rooms.

And luckily my husband
was traveling a lot.

He was not really aware at that time
that I was doing it.

Maybe I lied a bit and didn't tell him.

I started getting a lot of pressure
from people.

Like, "I'd really like to bring my boss,"
and, "I wanna bring my partner."

And it grew in number.

People would put stuff up on social media.

People wrote blogs about it.
Strangers would write to me saying,

"I've seen these pictures.
I'd really like to come."

And slowly, I had a following of people.

I was basically having huge parties.

Twenty-five to thirty people,
grand banquet.

Random strangers are sitting around
and eating the food,

and then in the end everyone was friends.

I always saw supper clubs

as a bridge between my culture and me
and someone else.

And feeding them was that bridge
to get to them.

[all chattering and laughing]

[Khan] Yeah.
Make sure that it's round, yeah.

That will be fine.

-[man] Okay...
-[Khan] That had too many cracks.

Don't try and force those issues,
because you can't.

Very good. Just like... Yeah, yeah.

Now, turn it.

I continued doing supper clubs at my home.

Those were brilliant cooking days.

I cooked all night, I cooked all day,

and I loved it. This was my calling.

The supper clubs became an issue
when my children got a little older.

They didn't complain to me,
they complained to my dad.

My father,
who's a really mild-tempered person,

just said, "This is unacceptable."

My parents were not impressed.

I had not even considered
the kids' feelings.

He said,
"You've gotta shut the supper clubs."

I was quite stunned.

I asked my family how they felt.

My husband tolerated it.
Angry, but silent.

But my kids hated it.

They told me this was horrible
that there were people in the house,

and it was so chaotic,
and it was not a nice way to live.

I was ashamed.

I had not seen things
from their perspective.

In my own excitement and joy of cooking,

I had forgotten that my children
also have equal rights in that house.

This was something that I felt
was so wrong,

that had been done to girls
in our families.

That girls were not asked their opinion.

No pleasure I was getting
was worth making my kids unhappy.

And I promised them that I will stop.

And I stopped.

It was painful to stop something
that had given me a direction.

[women speaking in Hindi]

[Khan] When I first told my family

that this was what I really wanted to do,

the common response was silence.

The silence says everything.

The silence was major disapproval.

I was the first female PhD in my family.

Most of my cousins
never even went to college.

They thought, "You're in London.
You have a law degree. You wanna cook?"

I think that everyone was just like,
you know, "Why?"

Because it made me happy.

And now, I wasn't alone.

In my community, South-Asian women,
we are hidden behind a wall.

It is an anonymous, faceless,
nameless existence.

I saw in these women...

that fire, the desire...

the joy.

We all were on that same journey together.

I knew I just had to find a way.

[Asma speaking indistinctly in Hindi]

[in English] I had to find an alternative.

I ventured at a couple of people

and I unexpectedly met someone
who told me, "Your food is really good.

Why don't you go to Soho and do a pop-up
in my husband's pub?"

I decided to go.

We were doing a series of food pop-ups
with kitchen residencies.

Asma presented me with a puchka,
which I've never had before,

a little Calcuttan street snack.

I was immediately taken by it,
and I knew that there's something there.

[Khan] I really had doubts.

The first time I saw the pub kitchen,
I was so shocked,

because I didn't even know
what half the things were.

I'd never seen a big fryer like that.
I could fry myself in it.

It was all a bit scary.
Everything was intimidating.

[women speaking Hindi]

[Pascal] The first few days,
it was chaotic.

I went into the kitchen and it was...

it was like an explosion
had gone in there.

It was a bit of a disaster.

She was used to making
a family-style supper club.

So it was a big change for them.

[Khan] All of us were home cooks.

We had absolutely no clue,
were scrambling around like mad.

Sometimes we ran out of food.

The guests were really genuinely angry.

It was very embarrassing.

I felt that I was letting everyone down.

A lot of people said
I should get a professional chef.

I couldn't do it.

I didn't want these women to feel

that their effort
had been taken for granted.

If you stand at the edge of the mountain

and you think you're going to fly,
you will.

You will only fall if you think
you're going to fall.

Losing was not an option.

I go into every battle to win.

I didn't know how I was gonna do it,
so I winged it.

I started talking to customers.

I spent a lot of time apologizing.

And when food ran out, I used to write
"I owe you" vouchers.

"Free Tangra prawn for next time.
I owe you."

We all learned at the same time.

We learned how to multitask
and get the food out.

This was a different kind of training.

People were starting
to take notice of her food.

We were starting to get busier.

You could see them grow as a team.

The bond within that kitchen
was very strong.

Then we get Fay Maschler
from the Evening Standard.

She'd come in on her 70th birthday.

I mentioned to Asma,
"Look, Fay's here. This is a big thing."

Asma, in her usual way, went straight up
to Fay and started talking.

I was a little concerned
this could be a bit too much.

A week later, Fay's article came out.

It was... spectacular.

From there, it exploded.

[Khan] There were queues of people.

It changed everything.

One night, we had a very,
very busy service.

We managed to feed a lot of people.

One of my women turned around and told me,

"We're just like professional chefs.

We're doing the same thing."

There was just silence in the group.

We all realized,
"Yes, we're just like them."

People were watching us...

and we were in control.

So, I closed my eyes
and I imagined myself flying.

I am very, very lucky.

The meal on my table is not dependent
on my income alone.

But all these women,
they're supporting families back home.

So, when I opened Darjeeling Express,

I didn't let any of them
resign from their positions.

The first few months were hard.

Everybody was still working
somewhere else.

Over time, one by one,

they started cutting back
on their nanny shifts,

giving their notices.

When the last person quit their job
and joined us full-time,

that was my moment
when I put the flag in the sand.

The people who were working
so hard in the restaurant,

they had come home.

When the restaurant happened,
I selected everything.

From the color of the tile
to the blue on the walls, even the plants.

I wanted to have an open kitchen
because I wanted people to see

the hands that cooked the food,

just celebrate the soul of my kitchen.

Now, people are walking
up to my women, ignoring me,

and saying, "Thank you very much.
That was a great meal."

I was watching these women, so blasé...

"You're very welcome.
So glad you liked the meal."

They've taken ownership of the kitchen.

This restaurant is theirs,
as much as mine.

The Darjeeling Express is an oasis
for women.

I've watched these women grow...

...stand tall... proud...

This is what happens to women
when other women stand by them.

Okay, and put the yellow one here also.

Okay, and the other yellow one
over there in the joint.

[mother] Yeah.

[women speaing Hindi]

[Khan] My mother stood by me.

She taught me how to cook.

I wanted to do things that would
make her hold her head up high.

Because I know that it was hard for her
when I was born.

And now she's very, very proud of me.

She tells the whole world,
the whole world...

Yet, I still feel I want to do
something more.

[indistinct chatter]

[Khan] I've had a chance
to start a charity.

The aim of this charity is to celebrate
the birth of second daughters.

We pay for a party.

We pay for sweets...

and fireworks.

It's a loud proclamation.

It says something.

If you think that you are unwanted,
that you are not equal...

that you won't be allowed.

You can do anything.

[dramatic music playing]