Two of the richest men in the world persuaded her to switch careers. Now Saima Khan feeds film stars and dotcom billionaires
As anecdotes go, Saima Khan’s are impressive. There was the time that Brad Pitt made her scrambled eggs after she had cooked dinner for him, Angelina Jolie and their family at their London home.
“He just asked me, ‘When was the last time someone made you eggs?’ ” says Khan. “I couldn’t remember, so he made them for me, which was quite sweet. We do these private dinners in the top hotels in London. So I drove over [the Syrian sharing banquet that had been requested] and we were greeted by Angelina and her lovely family. [Then] they requested our services at their home in London when they were next in town.”
Bill Gates called Khan’s food “phenomenal” and insisted she set up her own business
There was also the time she made dinner for Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg in Los Angeles. Jolie had organised the meal to raise funds for the projects she supports in Syria (separate to her work for Unicef) and, knowing Khan’s approach to sharing food, asked if she would be interested in cooking. “It’s a cause that is close to the business’s heart and I did it all free of charge; they just paid for the food and my flights. This was all for people’s private funds, not well-known charities. It was very casual.”
Add to that list a makeshift kitchen Khan set up inside a bedouin tent in the desert for a Middle Eastern royal family, as well as a “casual charity dinner” for a group of billionaires, hosted by the business magnate Warren Buffett at his house.
Khan, 44, is the founder of the private catering business the Hampstead Kitchen, which she set up in north London in 2012, having left a “really high-powered job” in credit and market risk for Buffett’s company, Berkshire Hathaway, where she had worked for more than 20 years. “After all that travelling in first class, working at one of the best companies in the world, you have a personal trainer, amazing shoes and handbags,” she says, “when all that goes you’re just left with yourself, and you think to yourself, ‘Oh, what am I made of?’ ”
Khan liquidated her assets, put them into shares, “and secured my future. Then I literally set this up on £2,000, and . . . kept my overheads really low. I started cooking in my own kitchen, and then started getting other people in. I don’t like to waste money, or food, and I make it work, and it works really well.”
Khan has a handpicked team of 170 freelance staff who prepare food for up to eight events a night.
Khan is underplaying things, of course. She is good company, howling with laughter during much of the conversation we have at her kitchen table in her Hampstead flat, and is also an intriguing blend of being utterly fearless — a practised after-dinner speaker, she is ready for any question I ask — and low on self-esteem.
“Making it work” involves renting two kitchens, in which she and her team of handpicked freelance staff — she has 170, from bar people to chefs — prepare food for up to eight events a night “for regular private clients [often in their homes in Hampstead], royalty, celebs, politicians, and billionaires,” who all heard about her through word of mouth.
She refuses to pigeonhole her food, but it is a colourful and beautifully presented melange of eastern Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Pakistani dishes, from smoked aubergine caviar tarts to lemon za’atar chicken and crumbling towers of freekeh, studded with nuts, dried fruits and petals. According to Jolie, having Khan cook for her family “was like a really good friend coming and making a spectacular dinner, and it just makes you smile”.
“She emailed me to say that, when I asked if I could mention her,” says Khan. “I think when her family are together, they want something homely, but sort of big on flavour and beautifully presented.”
I bumped into Warren and he asked me, ‘When was the last time you were excited?’
As Khan says these words, we are both blissfully unaware of the story that is about to break concerning Jolie and Pitt and their impending divorce. It is news, she later tells me, that she would prefer not to comment upon. “They are clients of mine, and Angelina and I are friends,” she writes in an email. “Angelina is focused on her humanitarian work and that’s what I am involved with, which is all that matters. It’s a cause dear to her heart regardless of her personal situation.”
Back at her kitchen table, I ask her if she ever feels the pressure, creating menus for such high-calibre clients. “A little bit,” she admits. “In my head I’m like, ‘Why the hell? I’m not a trained chef!’ It’s only now that I’m beginning to feel confident about it . . . I think [the kind of people I cook for] are so used to having three-course dinners on white plates with tons of forks, and when [they see] the casualness of it all, I think it makes them think and focus on the food a bit more, rather than be like, ‘this is just another dinner’.”
At the start of every event, Khan does what she calls “a caveat conversation — so that they know what I’m hoping to get out of it. I’ll say: ‘Look, this is how the food is, this is how it’s [meant to be] enjoyed, and it encourages people into sharing and talking, and I want you to enjoy that. I did a dinner once where an airline flew 20 heads of state out and converted the first class section into a huge dining table. It was challenging in the sense that the kitchen was very tiny, but it was a beautiful experience. I brought lots of colour and ceramics. I wanted to shock their system.”
Were they suitably shocked? “I think that with my personality — I’m quite jovial — and me being there in my Converse and my bright jeans, I kind of take the edge off a bit and they brighten up.”
Born in London to Pakistani parents, Khan only really began cooking while at university. Having travelled extensively, she now calls her cooking “food without borders. I’m getting a tattoo on my right forearm soon that says ‘food has no race, creed or religion’. My dad made sure that if you have got good ethics, whatever is owed to you will come back.”
Indeed when I ask her whether she wants to open a restaurant, she says: “A deli on Hampstead High Street would be a dream but the numbers don’t add up.” Not only because “it would all be wrapped up in rent, but a large percentage of my earnings go to the refugees [Khan spent some of this summer visiting camps in Calais and in Syria, but finds the experience difficult to discuss] and the homeless, and also to charities back home, and I can’t afford to throw that money away. So I’d rather work a bit harder doing what I’m doing, and making sure that my money goes a bit further. Also my clients would be so upset if I wasn’t there!”
Incredibly, none of this might have happened had Buffett not asked Khan where she was heading with her life, a few years earlier. “I bumped into Warren in an airport lounge in Omaha, and he asked me, ‘When was the last time you were excited?’ ” The moment that sprung to mind for Khan was when she had stepped in to do a private dinner in Hampstead at the last minute years before, after another chef had pulled out. “It was the only thing I could remember. And he said: ‘Why don’t you go back and revisit that?’ Then we started talking about food, and curries, and my eyes were lighting up.”
Then Buffett asked her the best place he could go to get a curry. “I said, ‘My kitchen!’ And he said, ‘I have to test this.’ So he came round for dinner.”
Khan was living in a building on the Lower East Side of New York “where two of my managers lived too. They were like, ‘Someone’s just come on to your floor and it looks like Warren Buffett,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, it is him!’ and they were like, ‘Far out!’ ”
Buffett loved the dinner so much that he asked if he could bring a friend over another time for seconds. The friend turned out to be Bill Gates, which caused Khan to get “really tongue-tied and really nervous”. Gates said her food was “phenomenal”, and insisted she set up her own food business.
I’ve put on eight kilos since I left banking but I feel like I belong
Today, she and Buffett are in regular email contact. “I probably hear from Warren once every three to four months. So I’ll email him and tell him what I’m thinking of doing for the business, and see what he thinks. I’ll get personal advice as well. He now says to me: ‘Right it’s time for you to focus on your personal life. Enough is enough now. Business is pretty much going well, but think about everything else.’ He and I first connected via a personal conversation, so it has that spirit.”
Buffett’s advice must have stuck because having originally thought she would scale up, Khan now thinks that the business “is in a really good place and it will be nice to take my foot off the gas”. She may do up a property “and socialise more — get involved with more collaborations, and see what’s happening in the community. And I’m really excited about a Cook For Syria fundraising initiative that is happening throughout October in London. I’m going to do a recipe for it and get more involved, which normally I wouldn’t have had time to do.”
Does she ever miss the perks of the old job? “I was never a materialistic person, but obviously when you’re in finance you’re earning a certain amount. But you’re very misunderstood. You’re a very polished person, with manicured nails and blow dries. I’ve put on eight kilos since I left banking, my jeans are always filthy with food, my nails are stained from saffron. I feel like I belong in this body now, and my clothes are more an expression of who I am. And I love that I did that job. Without it, I wouldn’t have half [these] connections. People find it all fascinating. But it’s just my story — I don’t know what the big deal is about.”
Freekeh salad with pomegranate seeds and smoked almonds
KATIE WILSON FOR THE TIMES
“This recipe is close to my heart, as I cooked this in the Syrian refugee camp and in Calais camps, and this got a lot of refugees emotional. The grain we buy supports a baker in Aleppo who spends all the funds baking fresh bread every day for displaced people in the city.”
- 500g freekeh
- 1 bunch flat-leaf parsley
- ½ bunch chopped fresh mint
- ½ bunch dill
- 1 bunch spring onions, finely chopped
- 1 can chickpeas, drained and tossed in a pan with smoked cumin and paprika
- Juice of 1 lemon, plus more to taste
- 1 pinch cumin seeds, toasted and ground
- 1 garlic clove, minced or puréed (optional)
- 1 glug pomegranate molasses
- 1 glug date vinegar or apple cider vinegar
- 1 pinch sea salt
- 6 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- Seeds of 1 pomegranate
- 1 handful smoked almonds, coarsely cut
- Scattering of pumpkin seeds
- Heat a medium-size heavy saucepan over medium-high heat and add the freekeh. Toast in the dry pan, shaking or stirring, for 2-3 min until the freekeh becomes fragrant.
- Add the toasted freekeh to a pan of boiling water, and boil roughly for 15-20 min. The grain is ready when it is soft when pressed between your fingers.
- Drain the freekeh and run under a cold tap to stop it cooking further and becoming mushy.
- In a large bowl combine the freekeh, chopped herbs, spring onions and chickpeas.
- In another bowl lightly whisk together a dressing of lemon juice, cumin, garlic, pomegranate molasses, vinegar, salt and olive oil. Toss with the freekeh salad.
- Scatter the pomegranate seeds, almonds and pumpkin seeds on the top and give it one last toss. You can either serve it immediately or let it sit for up to 1 hour. Serve with chicken, lamb or fresh bread, or on its own as a salad. It will keep for 3 or 4 days in the fridge.