Meet V-Symposium Guest Chef Asma Khan

Symposium Chair Elisabeth Luard talks about life, liberty and food with this year’s guest chef Asma Khan

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Asma Khan is a powerhouse for change in the restaurant world. Radical by conviction, royal by descent, Asma’s Darjeeling Express – the title of her book as well as her woman-powered eatery modestly perched on a second-floor balcony overlooking a glittering multi-cultural food-court just off London’s Carnaby Street.

Asma does what she does because she’s educated, entrepreneurial and, most important of all, a woman. That London is the city she lives and works is a tribute to a city she finds extraordinary – tolerant, welcoming, equal and free. No small compliment from a woman whose life’s work is empowering women, particularly those displaced by the wars raging throughout the Middle East.

I first met Asma in person, although I’d long known her by repute, a couple of years ago, when she was hosting a Chanukka supper-club to which I had been invited as a journalist and guest. And found myself – a stroke of luck – opposite the chef-proprietor, unmistakably elegant in her beautiful sari. My notes on the evening say little about the meal – very delicious, it goes without saying – but much about Asma herself. Which is as it should be, considering how influential she is in the world of food.

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I was the first girl in my family to go to university. It was thought I wasn’t pretty enough to find a husband. But after university they arranged for me to meet a young man, a lecturer in London, nine years older than me, with a view to marriage. He didn’t know we were being set up and when I told him, he ran away. Immediately. I had to pay the bill. But the next day he came to find me in the office where I worked, and the supervisor came to tell me I had a visitor. I was wearing my work-clothes, terrible shoes. So I went to the balcony and looked over and there he was.

So when we met and could talk properly, it seemed to me that he respected women and would let me do what I wanted without interference. And that’s been so. We have two teenage sons one of whom eats everything and the other won’t eat anything he doesn’t like. My husband’s an academic, so he works through most of the night on his books. Of course he thinks what I do is crazy but he’s proud of me and it works.

Refugee women who come into our kitchen and cook feel empowered – I can see the looks on their faces, the pleasure they take in the memories the women have created together, the happiness on the faces of the people who recognise their mother’s cooking.

I’ve just filmed Chef’s Table for Netflix, and when they wanted the beauty-shots, to show the food all tarted up with foam and flowers, I told them we don’t do that. And so what happened was that all the women who’d cooked with me stood up in a line against a blue wall with their names written beside them. It was wonderful, magnificent. We all felt so proud.

Food is all about power, so of course it’s political. In India, women do all the cooking in the home, clean, care for the children and do all the work that keeps the family together. And yet they’re nameless, thousands of generations of women whose work is unknown, never acknowledged.

Politics in India is divided in just the same way as the social divisions that keep women and men in their place – and as a Muslim in India today, I’d be worried. These days it’s not the maharajahs – Muslim descendants of Muglai dynasties – that hold the power, but the Hindu middle-class, the bureaucrats and businessmen who run the country, supported politically by the rural poor who believe a demagogue will give them what they want. They won’t get it, of course, but that’s not what matters.

The clan is what matters in India – first the family, then the village, then the nation. Women are supposed to be invisible, chattels, brought up to serve the father, then the husband, then the sons.

This is what everywhere needs to change. And I’ve no doubt it will.

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Battle has already been joined. In an article by Jonathan Nunn in the Guardian in March this year on the reopening of the restaurant trade after the corona-virus lockdown, Asma is quoted as of the opinion that the biggest issue is the need for unionisation. “After this,” she says, “our priority should be to create a powerful union that is the voice of the workers, not the owners and investors.”

Fighting talk. And as you’d expect, Asma’s food is just as delicious and no-nonsense as the woman herself. For recipes and Asma in person, you’ll have to wait for the v-Symposium.

Photo credit Ming Tang-Evans

Cooking for the Symposium

Tim Kelsey, Head Chef at St Catz, talks about the experience of cooking for 250 Symposiasts for the last fourteen years
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Tim Kelsey with Fergus Henderson

This year, with the Symposium going virtual, lock-down seems like the right time to look back over the years. It was in 2006, when the Oxford Food Symposium’s Trustees decided to bring the conference here to St Catz, that I first attended a meeting with the organisers. They were interested, they told me, in the food that would be served during the weekend, and would like to link it to the year’s theme. The aim being that the lunches and dinners served at communal tables in our college dining hall should be not only reflect but increase understanding of the chosen topic. The first year's subject was Eggs. This sounded like something different, so I thought “why not? It could be fun!!”

That year, 2006, there were 180 guests and the catering was in-house. Fourteen years later the numbers have increased to 280 and we have guest chefs coming into the St. Catz kitchen to cook featured meals, or we work with food writers to create their suggested menus. There are four meals to be prepared over the weekend: Friday dinner, Saturday lunch, Saturday dinner and Sunday lunch. I estimate that so far we have prepared more than fifty different menus. Chefs and cookery writers we have worked with include Raymond Blanc, Fergus Henderson, Shaun Hill, Stevie Parle, Henry Harris, Claudia Roden, Elisabeth Luard, Olia Hercules and Fuchsia Dunlop.

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Tim Kelsey with Moshe Bason

Another feature of our annual kitchen-action is the result of the Symposium’s Young Chef Award, competitively selected among many applicants. The Award includes residential weekend at the Symposium and the chance to work on Friday’s gala dinner with one of our invited chefs. When Naomi, my daughter, won one of the Awards in 2016, she took the opportunity to attend the lectures and meet people. The result was that long-time Symposiast Cherry Ripe, discovering that Naomi wanted to cook in Australia, offered to host her so she could experience restaurant work in Sydney. Naomi enjoyed Australia so much she stayed and is now living in Melbourne!

Over the years, I have met inspirational people who taught the team at St Catz new ways of looking at cooking. Sometimes we, the Catz team, were able to use our experience to advise our guest chefs on the best way to achieve their vision of their dishes, particularly scaling-up and serving to deadline. Sometimes it’s the other way round. As in 2009, when Raymond Blanc’s Head Chef Gary Jones arrived at 5.00pm on Saturday with his team, after doing a wedding. A whirlwind entered the kitchen, all very professional and focused on preparing dinner. I remember Gary’s reply to my comments was “…next time”, a gentle way of saying ‘no thanks – we’ll do it our way!’ Gary offered work-experience at the Manoir: I have yet to take it up, but hopefully the offer’s still open!

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From left to right: Gary Jones, Raymond Blanc, Tim Kelsey and Benoit Blin

There have been entertaining times: hours preparing baby artichokes for presentation in leaf, then seeing them diced finely for a risotto. Scary times too – not many, but once when our heavy-duty bratt pan was set alight, we had to deal with a full-fledged fire! Fun times – well – for me, highlights include the opportunity to visit restaurants such as Masala Zone, St. Johns, Bar Shu, a chance to join Sri Owen in her kitchen and visit Dublin for a meal at Boxty House with Symposiast Máirtín Mac Coniomaire and Pádriac Og – in 2017, I think they took the record for greatest amount of Irish coffee served in any one night!

Most memorable dishes? Some of these we continue to use in the kitchen. Suitable for this year’s theme would be Sri Owen’s Indonesian Peanut Sauce, Stevie Parle’s lamb with seven spices and pomegranite molasses, Olia Hercules’; lamb cooked with tarragon, dill and coriander. Most surprising? Well – chef Batti from Masala Zone strained a great deal of yoghourt through muslin overnight, sweetened and infused it with saffron and – oh yes!- finished it off with gold leaf.

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After Sunday lunch when it’s all over for another year and everyone has said good-bye, the fridges are emptied and the floor mopped and surfaces wiped down, by about 4.00 pm we are tidy again. A feeling of calm comes over the kitchen before we turn back to real life -preparing dinner for another two hundred people.

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From left to right Ursula Heinzelmann, Gamze Ineceli, Moshe Bason, Claudia Roden and Tim Kelsey

All about the V-Symposium’s Visit to Istanbul’s Spice Bazaar

Symposium Trustee Gamze İneceli takes us on a journey of the senses to Istanbul’s Spice Bazaar
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Imagine, if you will, the waters of the Bosphorus at your back. Inhale the fresh breeze from the sea and follow the fragrances wafting from a nearby flower market. Now close your eyes. In a minute you’re enveloped in the aroma of freshly roasted Turkish coffee. Open your eyes and find yourself standing at the gates of the Spice Bazaar. Get ready to immerse yourself in fragrances both familiar and unfamiliar, awakening memories through your senses. Some of the scents and tastes you already know, others you have yet to experience. You are here! You are there! We are here together, somewhere between past and future.

Perhaps it’s time to introduce myself to those who don’t yet know me. I’m an Istanbul-based food-culture researcher, a Trustee of the Oxford Symposium and a member of the organizational committee working to deliver the atmosphere as well as the practicality of this year’s virtual Symposium. The subject, happily for me, is Herbs and Spices.

As a specialist in the culinary traditions of Anatolia, the western region of Turkey that includes Istanbul, the opportunity to offer a virtual tour of my beloved city’s Spice Bazaar seemed the perfect way of integrating into our v-programme the human energy as well as the scents, colours and sounds of this magical place. And as a member of the project team of the Turkish Food Guide, ‘İncili Gastronomi Rehberi’, I have already had the opportunity to include my favourite spice-shops.

The building itself – Mısır Çarşısı as it’s known to my fellow citizens who thronged the aisles before the lock-down – was completed in 1664 under the direction of a woman, Queen Mother Haseki Sultan, Regent of the Ottoman Empire during the minority of her young son. I think you will agree its colonnades and over-arching roof-spaces are a magnificent tribute to what has always been a trading-post between East and West since the beginning of recorded time.

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Our virtual tour of the Bazaar will be delivered virtually by anthropologist and cookbook author Dr. Ümit Hamlacıbaşı, drawing on her experience of conducting sensory tours of the Bazaar in less constricted times and her extensive knowledge of the uses of spices and herbs in Turkish kitchens.

We will explore the secret corners of one of the Bazaar’s most popular spice-emporiums, Hayfene, whose trading history can be traced to the 16th century, when the Ottoman Empire ruled over the southern shores of the Mediterranean as far as Egypt. The current owner, 33-year-old Ahmet Kadioglu, explains the origin of the shop’s name: “If our business is a gift from our grandfathers, the name is a gift from our grandmothers. Hayfene is a kid’s game from Malatya region of eastern Anatolia when children collect certain foodstuffs from their neighbours to provide them with a delicious picnic. At Hayfene, the aim is to gather people around good food, just as happens in the game, so as to recreate the spirit of unity and joy our name represents.”

 alt= All this will be made possible with the collaboration of Istanbul-based production company NNACO, who have taken the decision to work on films, video-art, commercials and other undertakings with people and projects that take a positive view of life. Just what’s needed, under the circumstances.

Meanwhile my main interest – I’ll come clean! – is in connecting today’s young chefs working in professional kitchens to the realities of food-production – soil, seed, harvest – through an understanding of agricultural traditions and their anthropological background. As a restaurateur in an earlier career, I consult and curate international food projects and symposiums around the globe.

Which accounts for the strength of my enthusiasm for this year’s theme, Herbs and Spices, as the perfect opportunity to show Istanbul’s beloved Spice Bazaar as a feast for all the senses. At this time – more than ever – we need to awaken the memories we share. And by so doing, remind ourselves that this time of physical deprivation – hard to think of it in any other way – will not last for ever.

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