'Hospitality seems to have unspoken ways of categorising people', says Asma Khan

06 April 2021 by
'Hospitality seems to have unspoken ways of categorising people', says Asma Khan

When hiring, ‘self selection' seems to sadly be the way most people's instincts lie, says Asma Khan.

"Why did you hire a Black man to be your assistant?"

This was not something I expected any customer to ever ask me. My first reaction was to look back at Eddie, and I saw the look on his face. He had heard her question. It was usually older South Asian women who found his role in my life unusual. One customer even asked that he not walk around during service, as having a Black man close to her made her nervous.

These terrible comments were not what I had expected when I hired Eddie. In the job interview I was intrigued by his military background in the US air force. He told me about the rigorous training he had to undergo and his main role of refuelling fighter jets mid-air.

Four months after the release of my Netflix Chef's Table programme, with a bulging inbox, crushing stress and complex booking requests, I hired him. I loved his openness and his admission that he did not know a lot about South Asian culture, but that he had the desire to learn. I realised you can teach someone about a cuisine and explain cultural nuances, but you cannot teach someone the importance of justice, equality and solidarity who does not welcome these principles.

I did not self-select, which is something that sadly happens too often in our industry. You see very similar faces at receptions when you enter a posh restaurant. When you look at kitchen porters or sommeliers in fine dining restaurants, the faces that occupy these roles consist of a certain similarity. Hospitality seems to have unspoken ways of categorising people.

Hospitality seems to have unspoken ways of categorising people

When I hired Eddie, I never imagined he would face such hostility and prejudice. It was a leap in the dark for me to hire a male assistant. I wanted my team to be more representative, diverse and inclusive. With an all-female kitchen, I wanted to ensure I had a broader mix of people working in front of house and in executive positions. I share those two instances with Eddie with his permission, as we both understand how important representation is – but representation that is beyond a box-ticking exercise. The buck stops with the restaurant owner who strongly upholds a code of conduct. The customer is not always right.

Eddie has come such a long way from the summer of 2019 when he was watching me cook biryani and I said "Bismillah". He nodded very knowledgeably and said, "Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody", to which I replied "No, it's a prayer in Arabic!"

In this very personal piece of a much-loved and valued member of the Darjeeling Express family, I wanted to share how thinking outside the box, rising over your own biases, hiring someone who is different from the team and who comes from a very different work background can be an incredibly fulfilling experience. Broaden your mind and open your heart. Hire people who you know are team players. Everyone wins then.

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