LONDON: It’s Monday lunchtime on Brick Lane, east London, and Mohammad Salim’s curry house is empty, save for a single waiter and pair of diners in the corner.
“Everyone is suffering for staff,” he says, pointing to the restaurants on either side of his. “Everyone.”
Salim’s restaurant, which he has owned for 15 years, is one of thousands comprising the £3.6bn Indian restaurant industry in Britain. It is a quirk of colonialism, globalisation, and modernisation that a curry has become as synonymous with British culinary culture as fish and chips. But in Conservative Britain – where the attitude toward migrants is becoming increasingly and explicitly hostile – this culinary mainstay is in sharp decline not due to lack of demand, but to a lack of skilled chefs.
Enam Ali MBE, a Bangladeshi businessman, award-winning restaurant owner and founder of the British Curry Awards, says several factors are contributing to the crisis. Attitudes towards restaurant work have shifted among second-generation Indians and Bangladeshis, who are enjoying the social mobility and opportunity their parents worked hard to provide. Meanwhile, immigration policy changes have made it more difficult to source skilled workers from abroad, resulting in a paucity of chefs with the culinary skills to run an Indian-style kitchen.
“Almost all Indian restaurant owners across the country will tell you they are doing their hard work so their children can be graduates; our new generation are not interested in working in restaurants because they are going to be barristers, lawyers, and professionals,” Ali says. “Before 2012, we were able to bring new chefs from India, but now most of the good chefs here are already hired, potential is used up, and lots of restaurants are closing because they cannot continue without new hires.”
The situation has worsened recently, thanks to a yearly salary minimum of £35,000 applied to tier 2 migrants, or skilled workers with a job offer in the UK, coming into effect April 2016. Ali said that even though the occupation of chef falls under the government’s “shortage occupation list” – giving it a slightly lower minimum salary threshold of £29,570 – further stipulations state that if a restaurant offers any takeaway service whatsoever, the exemption is nullified.
“At my restaurant, we are a sit-down establishment plus a takeaway,” Ali says. “And 99% of all Indian restaurants have a takeaway facility – it’s the business model that has been used for 50 to 60 years. Our restaurants can’t sustain themselves financially without that.”
Salim adds that increasingly frequent immigration raids looking for illegal workers in Indian restaurants scare off customers and hurt business, even if an establishment has complied with all hiring laws.
So if restaurant-owners can’t bring workers over from Asia, and their children don’t want to work in these establishments, why don’t they just hire from within UK? Not possible, says Salim, who struggles even to find workers from the local job centre to fill entry-level service positions, let alone those with the detailed knowledge of Indian cuisine necessary to fill a chef’s role.
“You can’t find a English person willing to work in an Indian restaurant. It doesn’t suit. They have to start from kitchen porter, stage one, so English people don’t come knocking on our door for a job,” he says. “The language and cultural norms would be difficult too, as some of our chefs don’t speak English. Only eastern Europeans are interested.”
The situation Salim describes reflects one of the great paradoxes of the immigration debate in the UK. Despite the perception that foreigners are taking jobs from British-born citizens, the roles migrants fill are often unwanted by British nationals. A 2014 report from the Home Office’s Migration Advisory Committee, (which was not available for comment) – states that “most studies find no association between migration and unemployment”. In addition, employers polled by the committee reported that “many migrants have a superior work ethic to British workers” and “are more flexible than UK-born workers, eg much more likely to do shift work” – something synonymous with restaurant jobs.
Alun Sperring is a British chef and owner of the award-winning Chilli Pickle in Brighton. Passionate about Indian food after travelling and cooking in the subcontinent earlier in his career, Sperring says that as an Englishman running an Indian restaurant, he is a glaring anomaly. He blames the perception of Indian cooking in the UK as a stumbling block to getting more chefs like him.
“Indian cuisine has always been perceived as a very different style of cuisine,” Sperring says. “You have a lot of western chefs that dabble in south-east Asian, Japanese, or Thai food; there’s a lot of skill crossover there. But with Indian food – the tandoori oven, the curries etc – it’s a totally different style of cooking, so it’s back to basis for a lot of [British] chefs who want to get into it.”
Though the government has invested in schemes to train new hires in both Bristol and London, both Sperring and Ali say they have yet to see any of these candidates working in a Indian restaurant. Ali warns that the government’s harsh and targeted polices are threatening to upend an industry that is not only part of British culture, but ultimately very good for Britain’s economy.
“Imagine how much this country has benefited from this sector. A £4bn industry is going to die, 100,000 people will be jobseekers,” Ali says. “It’s all about the policy and that policy needs to be reformed, otherwise the industry is going to go down.”