Curry may have become Britain’s national dish, but the industry is feeling the pressure as it struggles with a recruitment crisis. Sarah Freeman reports.
The recent British Curry Awards were a typically glittering affair.
Among the 1,500 guests were Mayor of London Boris Johnson, Baroness Warsi, Charlie Brooker and Konnie Huq. Even Max Clifford put in an appearance.
However, if the industry ever needed a public relations offensive it’s now. While curry may have been embraced by Britons, favoured even over fish and chips, away from the back-slapping and hand-shaking the founder of the awards Enam Ali admits the industry is facing its most difficult time since the country’s first Indian restaurant opened its doors in 1812.
The recession hit the restaurant trade hard, but it’s the impact of tighter immigration regulations which could prove the undoing of many curry houses. New restrictions on overseas workers were introduced in 2008, but last March the Government announced further regulations which means only the top five per cent of skilled chefs, who must be paid more than £28,260 a year, will now be allowed into the country.
The news sent panic through much of the industry, which has traditionally recruited from overseas, in particular Bangladesh, and with one in four chefs vacancies now unfilled there are fears of widespread closures.
“Curry may have been born in India, but it was made in Britain,” says Ali, owner of the magazine Spice Business. “You don’t get chicken tikka masala or tandoori flavoured crisps anywhere else, but Britain. Curry has become part of the fabric of this country and we need to protect it.
“Many restaurants were started with nothing, they are family run and play an active part in the community. It is a wonderful business model, but if our hands continue to be tied by these regulations there is no doubt that many will go out of business.
“The main key player in any restaurant is the chef. A few years ago many operated with just a single chef, but the industry has grown so much that they now need three or four to meet customer demand and it’s not a job for novices.
“This is my country, I don’t want to bring people in who are a drain on society or who will be in competition with my own children for jobs, but the reality is we have a skills shortage and the immigration requirements are doing more harm than good.”
The lack of trained chefs has been particularly keenly felt in Bradford. However, the city which was last year crowned the Curry Capital of Britain may also have found the solution to the current crisis.
Last May, Bradford College opened its International Food Academy. This year 100 students are expected to pass through the kitchens and having secured apprenticeships with a number of local restaurants it could prove key in filling the industry void.
“Bradford is blessed not just with great restaurants, but with a large number of food related industries,” says the academy’s director Graham Fleming. “It’s something to be proud off, so when the college was made aware of the grotesque recruitment problem it was natural that we should try to help.
“It’s not purely altruistic. Bradford, like a lot of inner cities has high unemployment and a large number of youngsters who left school with few qualifications and little prospect of finding work. Yes, the academy is a recruitment resource for restaurants, but it’s also an opportunity for us to give people who have experienced years of rejection a break.”
Many traditional restaurants have been sceptical about the quality of recruits graduating from academies like the one in Bradford, which every week day runs a full lunchtime service. Indian cooking, even the Anglicised version served up by many restaurants, they say, is not something that can be taught, but is passed down through families and learned almost through osmosis.
“I hear the objections, but I don’t buy them,” says Graham, who before joining the college was a trained chef, specialising in French and European food. “The reason why the academy works is that right from the start, as well as coming into college, the students work as apprentices in local restaurants. No one is saying that when they finish the course, they will be fully fledged headchefs, but they will have is a foundation on which to build.
“Michelin star chefs aren’t made overnight and neither is a top curry chef. It takes years of dedication, but both have to start somewhere and an academy like this is as good as anywhere.”
However, time may be the one thing Britain’s curry industry may not have. While latest figures show that even through the recession 2.5m of us were eating in one of the country’s 10,000 Asian restaurants each week, even an industry worth an estimated £3.6bn is not immune from a reversal of fortune.
While Ali welcomes the idea of establishing a network of curry academies, stretching from Bradford to Birmingham, he believes by the time the benefits of the training have been realised in four or five years time, the industry may already have been decimated.
For now at least, he hasn’t given up hope of persuading the Government to relax the laws, but back in Bradford, many believe the time for talking is over.
After a career in sales, Bobby Patel, returned to the city to run Prashad, the restaurant set up by his parents 20 years ago. His wife, Minal is head chef and while he doesn’t deny there is a recruitment problem, he doesn’t believe reinstating overseas chefs is the best solution.
“I was lucky in that my wife shares my passion for working in this business, but I know that’s not true for a lot of family-run restaurants,” he says. “Many of those who set up businesses 20 or 30 years ago wanted their own children to have professional careers like doctors and engineers. That’s as it should be, but the problem we face now is a lot of those who founded restaurants are now looking towards retirement and there is no one to replace them.
“As an industry, we are up against it, but you can either ignore what is happening or be part of the change. We have no choice. The economic outlook is bleak and rather than becoming preoccupied with changing the law, I honestly think we have to accept where we are now and every business has to build its own success.”
Fifteen years ago, curry houses were where people went after last orders, but the last decade and a half has seen the industry transformed. While there is still room on Bradford’s curry mile for restaurants serving up relatively cheap popular dishes, they have also been joined by others offering more contemporary cuisine - Prashad’s Christmas menu, for example, featured a yami kebab with cauliflower purée and chilli jam.
“We have to move forward and the Bradford academy is something we should all support,” says Bobby, who has just been announced as one of its patrons. “Minal teaches there and we both know that it’s as close as it gets to working in an actual restaurant. It’s a place where we can spot the rising stars and where we can pass on our skills to those who have a real passion and desire to be part of this industry.”
With Patel’s mother, Kaushy working on another cookery book and his younger brother looking at the possibility of launching a lunchtime range, the future, at least for Prashad, looks bright.
“There’s one thing I can guarantee,” he says. “There will never be a for sale sign outside of Prashad.”