Indian eateries big draw in Britain, but suffer chef shortage

By Prasun Sonwalkar, IANS

London : There is nary a British town or village that does not an Indian restaurant have. But thousands of such eateries are struggling to staff kitchens because young British Asians are not interested in the job and immigration rules make hiring chefs from South Asia difficult.

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The result is that the one billion-pound Indian food industry is showing signs of decline, even though over the years Indian food has proved to be the greatest influence of the Indian sub-continent over British life.

In several towns, increasing competition and staff shortage have forced Indian restaurants to close down. The chicken tikka masala, now adjudged Britain’s national dish, may soon be out of reach for many Britons.

Says Eman Ali, a restaurateur and publisher of specialist trade journal Spice Business: “I have children of my own and I know how difficult it is to persuade them that there’s a good future for them in the restaurant business. They have so many more options open to them.

“It’s important that we do something to reverse the trend, otherwise we’re not going to have the people to take this industry to its next level. Already there are signs that the explosive growth of the last 20 years has petered out. Now we have to avoid going backwards.”

Restaurants in places with large minorities of Asian origin such as Bradford, Leicester, Birmingham and Manchester have been hit by staff shortage. New immigration rules make hiring chefs from the Indian sub-continent more difficult, while children of first generation restaurant owners prefer to take up professions other than that of their parents.

In 2005, the government ended a short-term visa scheme for people working in Indian restaurants in the wake of an illegal immigration scam involving Bangladeshis. There are suggestions that Indian restaurants here should recruit from within the Asian community or from the large number of east Europeans who migrated to Britain following their accession to the European Union and who do not need work permits.

Indian restaurant owners believe that cooking Indian dishes is a cultural thing, which cannot be carried out by people of east European origin. But workers groups from Poland – whose citizens do not need work permits in Britain – claim that with proper training, Polish chefs could easily do the same jobs in Indian restaurants.

Mumtaz and Zouk, two of the finest Indian restaurants in Bradford, have been hit by staff shortage. They are among the top 100 Indian restaurants short-listed for this year’s British Curry Awards to be held in London Oct 21.

As Zouk owner Amjad Bashir says: “We are finding it very difficult to recruit good chefs, as well as people who want to make a career out of it. I don’t think it is unique to the Asian population; a lot of youngsters now want to go into IT and office jobs.

“Although people like Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsey have made it a very glamorous profession, I think this is yet to filter through to the Asian community.”

Mumtaz owner Mumtaz Khan told the media in Bradford: “I appreciate being recognised for the awards, and I totally agree that it is very, very difficult to bring in good quality chefs, even if you want to bring them from Pakistan and India.

“I haven’t come across any youngster from any background who wants to be a chef. They all want to pursue a profession and it is worrying for the future of the industry.”

Quasim Abbasali, who runs Aakash restaurant in Cleckheaton, said: “It is very difficult to bring chefs over from India because it takes so long to obtain a work permit. The industry needs a charismatic Asian chef to burst onto the scene as a celebrity to act as a role model for youngsters.

“Most Asian families prefer their sons and daughters to become doctors; working as a chef is seen as a down-market profession.”

Also in the top 100 short-list are Leicester-based Ashoka and Chamelee, which too are struggling to recruit quality chefs locally. Leicester is the ‘Curry Capital of Britain’ for 2007, but suffers from the drought of new talent as much as anywhere else.

Said Chamelee owner Shelu Miah: “These days you can only recruit from overseas – and obviously that presents some difficulties. I don’t know why more people don’t come into the industry but it is a real problem.

“It’s an issue for everyone and people know that if they have a good curry chef, like we do, it’s important to keep them. You can have a long search to find someone who can cook proper Indian food. Sadly, not many people are starting out in this profession.”

Jaffer Kapasi, director of Leicester Asian Business Association, told the media that money was the main problem. He said: “I have heard a lot about this problem from association members. There has even been talk of setting up an agency to train new chefs, but people born in Britain are not interested.

“They don’t think the earnings are enough, so restaurants have to hire people on short-term work permits from India, Pakistan or Bangladesh.”