LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – When Asma Khan first arrived in Britain from India to join her husband in 1991, the racism was so bad she had to learn to cycle fast to avoid being hit by the bottles lobbed at her.
Now, the award-winning chef is using her success in London – where her restaurant has a celebrity clientele and a months-long waiting list – to help other immigrant women overcome the twin barriers of racism and sexism.
Most Sundays, she closes her busy Darjeeling Express restaurant and offers her kitchen for free to novice female immigrant chefs to host their own supper clubs.
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“We’re proud to host them here because if you have a space, you need to give a platform to other women,” Khan told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
“You cannot be what you cannot see and I need women to see me and see in me themselves…they just need to take that first step.”
Khan said male chefs commonly trained in expensive culinary schools and 5-star hotels, cooking “production line food”, while women cooked “from the heart”.
The female chefs she works with gain experience of cooking in a professional environment for paying customers as well as financial literacy and publicity, she said.
Yolanda Augustin and her elderly aunt are using Khan’s kitchen to prepare a chilli prawn Malaysian feast for 50.
“A lot of the time women are cooks in the family, especially in Asia, and are very under-recognized,” said Augustin who came to England to study two decades ago.
The 39-year-old said she never dreamt she would cook at a professional London restaurant and felt empowered by the opportunity to showcase her culture and skills.
“This is basically celebrating diversity and essentially empowering and supporting each other across communities,” she said.
FOOD AS BALM
Khan herself started small, hosting supper clubs in her London home with other immigrant women, nannies and cleaners.
When numbers swelled she set up her own restaurant in London’s fashionable Soho – taking the same all-female team with her – and earlier this year, she became the first British chef to feature in the Netflix series “Chef’s Table”.
This year, she spent her 50th birthday setting up a cafe in a refugee camp in northern Iraq that employs Yazidi women recovering from the traumas of life under the Islamic State group.
“I want to make a difference and one way to do this is to go into communities where women are hurting and to use food as a balm,” she said. “This way you break the chains.”
Some proceeds from her restaurant go to India to help second daughters, who are often even more unwelcome than first-born girls in a country where sons are strongly favored.
As a second daughter herself, she said she wanted to raise awareness of the discrimination they face.
“The future for us to get doors opened – which are closed to women – is for us to actually fight together,” said Khan as she chopped mint in her restaurant.
“Where you exclude us, we will come in and push down all of the barriers.”
In Britain too, women face prejudice in kitchens, she said, with top chef Marco Pierre White saying last month that female chefs were more emotional and less able to handle pressure.
Television shows like Gordon Ramsay’s “Hell’s Kitchen,” which features the chef shouting at staff, are also damaging, Khan believes.
“It’s so unhelpful and so wounding … they undermine all of us,” she said.
For now, Khan hopes to keep hosting female chefs in her restaurant and encouraging the multicultural breaking of bread to tackle racism and discrimination.
Although Britain has changed a lot for the better since she was openly targeted in the streets, she said, British society still had a long way to go – and food could help.
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“Immigrant food has been embraced, I want this country to embrace the immigrant too,” she said.
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