A volunteer’s journey - Asma Khan’s story with Action Against Hunger
From a volunteer to a top chef, Asma’s support at Taste of London has come full circle.
Jun 13 2018
Starting out as a volunteer in Action Against Hunger's restaurant at Taste of London, cooking a menu curated by top chefs, Asma Khan has come full circle. Now a renowned chef and restaurant owner she is one of the five all-female chefs collaborating on the menu, with volunteers in the same kitchen cooking her food.
“I feel deeply humbled to work with the volunteers at Taste,” she smiles. “I would take selfies with the photos of the chefs in the background when I was a volunteer! Now my picture will be at the stand; it is a beautiful feeling knowing that I began as a volunteer for the charity and am now a dish contributor." As the charity partner for Taste of London, Action Against Hunger runs a restaurant in collaboration with 5 top chefs who create the menu. An incredible team of dedicated volunteers cook and serve the food and all funds raised go towards Action Against Hunger’s work worldwide.
Asma, who today runs the hugely successful Darjeeling Express restaurant in London’s Soho, where her critically acclaimed Mughlai cuisine is cooked by an all-female team, came from humble culinary beginnings.
After completing her doctorate in British constitutional law in 2012, she decided instead, at 43, to follow her heart and cook beginning with a small supper club at her home. She was soon running a popular pop-up restaurant at a pub in Soho, supported by her head chef and Indian women friends who came to help out on their days off from working as nannies and home helps.
“I was very inspired by Action Against Hunger as I grew up in India where I had seen severely malnourished children. So, when I decided to host my very first supper club at my home, I offered to host a fundraiser for the charity,” Asma explains.
“I wanted to start my business by feeding the most needy, and I knew that any contribution I made from my supper club to Action Against Hunger would do just that. When I was contacted about Taste I was not aware of the scale of the event or how hard we would have to work to be honest! I volunteered because I really wanted to help raise money.”
Asma started volunteering with Action Against Hunger in 2013, on their burger restaurant, which turned out to be the busiest year to date of the 7 years that they’ve run a restaurant at the festival. The burgers proved to be far more popular than they could have ever imagined, but it was thanks to the fantastic team of dedicated volunteers that they were able to raise over £25,000 from the event.
Asma maintains to this day that her first shift at Action Against Hunger’s 5 Star Burger event at Taste is still on her list of the most difficult kitchen shifts of her career - as well one of the most exhilarating.
“I learnt that you can never truly understand yourself unless you challenge yourself and put yourself outside your comfort zone,” she laughs.
“I arrived in the morning and there were queues for the burgers that you could see already winding around the stall. Burgers were flying out of the kitchen at the speed of light! This was my first time in an environment like this and I stayed till the close of play. I felt really proud that I had coped with the pressure [of the kitchen].
“The second event was at Tobacco Dock with oysters - I had never even held an oyster before but I learnt to shuck them!! The other more experienced volunteers tried to teach and support me - one even gave me her scarf while washing the oysters under cold water.
“Once again, I left having learnt how empathy in a stressful kitchen can be a lifeline for someone new and inexperienced. At my restaurant I try to make sure that we are particularly kind to a new chef as I always remember how it gave me a lot of strength in a new and nerve-wracking environment.”
Asma believes that a the huge advantage of volunteering for a charity like Action Against Hunger is that the volunteer staff are always made to feel appreciated and respected, regardless of experience or confidence level. Our chef volunteers are often students from local catering colleges, giving them a chance to experience a busy restaurant kitchen and learn new skills.
“Over the five years that I have volunteered and interacted with members of the Action Against Hunger team, I have always felt that they did not see volunteers as random people who had just turned up to help for free. The fact that I have stayed connected to Action Against Hunger and helped at their events over many years is the best indication of how their volunteers are made to feel valued. They are given lots of support and requisite training and this is why I always returned to help.”
Fulfilling her wish to run a thriving food business with an all-star, all-female chef team at the helm, Asma is now turning her attention to helping women in poorer countries.
“My dream is to mentor other women and to open all-women kitchens in the developing world,” she smiles.
“Too many women struggle on their own and I would love to find a means to band women together to start small cafes and restaurants to help give them vital income and, more importantly, the friendship and companionship of other women.”