From street survivor to culinary star: Lilyma Khan's journey to head chef at 'Dear Donna'

We spoke to Lilyma Khan–whose journey from foraging food in dustbins to becoming a fine dining restaurant's head chef.
Head chef Lilyma Khan (Photo | Express)
Head chef Lilyma Khan (Photo | Express)

When Lilyma Khan, the head chef at Dear Donna restaurant in Delhi’s Qutab Institutional Area, starts her 2 pm shift, she takes a moment to assess the kitchen, check the pantry, and address customer complaints. Khan, 29, leads a 40-member team and has been with the restaurant since its opening in February 2019. Dear Donna, known for its romantic dinner dates and family brunches, celebrates its fifth anniversary this month. To mark the occasion, Khan has used her culinary skills to create a special dessert, the Strawberry Bombe Alaska, and it will be available to order throughout the month.

“The celebration also includes a specially curated cocktail menu, and guests will enjoy champagne showers during Sunday brunches,” she says. Despite challenges, including the impact of COVID-19 and competition from neighbouring restaurants and food outlets such as Haldiram’s and Taste of Slice, Dear Donna continues to hold its own, a quality embodied by its head chef. Khan is now riding at the top of her culinary career, even though she has encountered her fair share of trials.

In a recent conversation with TMS, she candidly shared her experiences, reflecting on the highs, the lows, and the hope that kept her going.

Lone warrior

Born into a humble family in Delhi’s Taimur Nagar, Khan’s parents worked hard to support their family of six, including her three siblings. The family faced a devastating loss when in 2001, the father passed away. Just six months later, her mother, who was battling tuberculosis, also succumbed to the illness. Amidst the grief, tragedy struck once again as Khan’s older sister, grappling with marital issues, took her own life. This series of losses profoundly affected Khan’s older brother, who turned to substance abuse, relying on drugs and alcohol. Impulsively, he even sold their house to a neighbour for Rs 10,000.

Subsequently, he found himself jailed on theft charges. “After my older brother was put behind bars, my aunt took away my younger sibling, leaving me behind,” Khan adds. The seven-year-old was left alone to navigate life in the slums of Taimur Nagar. “Initially, a woman in the slums sheltered me. There were other children in her care as well. She used to wake us up at 4 am and send us off to pick up waste from the streets of Friends Colony. In exchange for this labour, we were given a meal,” she recalls. However, the sexual advances of her husband and sons prompted Khan to run away and take shelter under the Okhla Flyover.

“As I recall those days, I feel numb and overwhelmed. With fellow street children, I used to go looking for food. Right in front of the flyover was a bunch of dhabhas and a McDonald’s outlet. So, we used to forage through their dustbins, looking for chicken and mutton bones and eat half-eaten burgers on some lucky days,” Khan says.

“At that time, you cannot differentiate between good and bad food. You want to fill your tummy.” Life took a positive turn when Pramod from Chetna NGO, which works for the rights of street children, came across Khan.

Ray of hope

With Pramod’s help, Khan got into an orphanage, Udayan Care, in Chittaranjan Park, where she received an education for the first time. Just as things seemed to be going well, a call from her aunt sent her life down another spiral.

Assuming that she would finally have a family, Khan ran away from the orphanage to her aunt’s place only to face more abuse and exploitation. Khan was 13 when her aunt got her a job in a shoe factory for Rs 2,000 a month. “Whenever the salary got delayed, they used to beat me up. I couldn’t reach the NGO for help because I was embarrassed to have run away. I lived with my aunt for two years until my older brother showed up and rescued me. But he was still neck deep in drugs, and I knew I couldn’t rely on him,” she says.

Khan contacted activist Harsh Mander, whom she encountered while shooting a short film, Patri Par Bachpan, under the Okhla flyover. Mander facilitated her enrollment at Kilkari Rainbow Home, an orphanage for girls in Kashmiri Gate. “For the first time in many years, I felt at home,” she recalls. At Kilkari Rainbow Home, Khan discovered her passion for cooking.

Dear Donna restaurant (Photo | Express)
Dear Donna restaurant (Photo | Express)

The culinary journey

In 2015, Anand Kapoor, a regular visitor to the orphanage who gave women job opportunities, noted her cooking skills and passion for excelling. He connected Khan with a friend owning Tres & Bar, a fine dining global contemporary cuisine restaurant, in Jorbagh. And that’s how Khan entered the culinary world.

Her role initially involved preparing meals for the staff and her starting salary was Rs 7,000. Eager to broaden her culinary skills, Khan approached the head chef, who taught her the basics: making silky smooth mashed potatoes and assembling burgers and salads.

Following Tres & Bar’s closure, Khan worked at Bohca restaurant and Lee Canteen in DLF Promenade for a year each.

In 2019, she joined Dear Donna as a Chef de Partie, progressing to Sous Chef after a year of dedicated effort. Last year, Khan, who specialises in European, Italian and Asian cuisine, became the head chef at the restaurant. Her statement dishes include risotto, ravioli, salmon gravlax, roulade and beef wellington. Khan’s story is a testament to the transformative power of passion, resilience and the unwavering belief in one’s capabilities.

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