The Great British Curry Crisis

By Abigail Gilson

Chicken tikka masala has earned its way next to fish ‘n’ chips as the nation’s favourite dish- but there is a shortage of qualified chefs from overseas caused by non-EU immigration caps which is threatening the industry. Can the tikka be saved?

It’s 7pm on a Friday night, walking down the East End’s Brick Lane the exotic scents of simmering spices and caramelised onions fill the air. Lines of neon lights are flashing, advertising the ‘Best Indian food in town’, accompanied by promoters with a thick Bengali accent offering the ‘cheapest deals’ to passer bys. For years this has been the bustling heart of London for Anglo-Indian cuisine but at tonight’s peak dinner hour, barely half of the thirty-three renowned curry houses have filled their seats.

Kez Ahmed is stood in the doorway of Clipper, one of his two curry houses. With a white smile he gestures towards his menu trying to catch the attention of anybody near. His Bangladeshi cuisine is rooted from his home region of Sylhet, which offers a variety of Shatkora and Hiryali dishes alongside the traditional British favourites. During his five years at the restaurant he has noticed a shift in business: ‘Right now everybody in the industry is having a hard time. Just recently I had to sell on my Harrow restaurant because I could not afford to hire new staff. As the owner, with my expertise, I didn’t want to have to be working as a kitchen porter- I had no choice’.

Ahmed is just one of the thousands in Britain affected by what is described as the curry crisis. As a direct result of the recent recession and the conservative immigration policies, up to two Indian restaurants are facing closure every week. The crisis is hitting the mega £3bn industry- composed of mostly independent and family-run businesses- as employers are unable to recruit the qualified chefs they need from South-Asia.

The figures released by Spice Magazine put into perspective the growing impact: in the UK 2.5 million customers  eat in 1 of the 12,000 Asian restaurants and takeaways at least once per week. Ahmed says there is still a growing demand for his food but figures suggest that more people are choosing to eat at home rather than dining out.  The Indian supermarket sector is worth £600m alone- 80% of which are home ready-meals.

‘Beforehand locals would come here after work for their curry and their beer, but now it seems to be more tourists and less locals,” Ahmed says. Although Clipper has not changed, Ahmed has noticed a transformative change in the surrounding area which has impacted business.  “Ever since they closed down the night club,Vibe Bar, youngsters don’t want to hang around as much so there is an older crowd here now. We don’t have regulars anymore. People just aren’t spending as much”.

Britain has had the hots for curry since the early 19th century due to the connections with the British Raj. The term ‘curry’ of course used to refer to Indian food of any kind but now it is known as a blanket term for South-Asian meat or vegetable dish in a spiced gravy- according to Lizzie Collingham in her book Curry: A tale of Cooks and Conquerors.. To a public used to bland meat, potatoes & vegetables- the introduction to exotic spices was an instant hit combining flavours to create the Balti, and the Korma. Curry houses were not introduced until the immigration wave of Bangladeshi’s post World War-II where they adapted their home cuisine to appeal to the white working class. Soon the cuisine came to symbolise the success of integration which was demonstrated in a ‘masala speech’ celebrating Britain’s diversity given by the then foreign secretary Robin Cooke.

The British public have always cherished the curry to be a cheap dinner option, although the price of the tikka has stayed much the same, rising costs of production are pushing curry houses to their brink. “I am not alone in this industry when I say we have suffered from the recession. We used to turn over a 20 percent profit but now I turn over half of that,” Ahmed says. From the confrontational promoters on the street of Brick Lane it is clear there is competition- and it is not surprising when the family-run Bangladeshi restaurants are up against franchise giants such as J.D Wetherspoon, who was voted the nation’s largest seller of curries.

“Some people [pointing across the street] have closed their restaurants and opened kebab shops because there is a quicker turnover but even they struggle to find the staff and cover their costs,” Ahmed explains.

Under the conservative government immigration caps have restricted the recruitment of international chefs. The policy puts a cap on the skilled migrants arriving from outside of the EU  which means only the world’s top 5% chefs are able to enter the UK. The cap is what is known as a Tier 2 limit. The chefs must have a minimum of five years of experience and are required to be paid a salary of at least £29,570- more than £5000 the average salary of anybody within the Asian cuisine industry.

Oli Khan, an award winning celebrity curry chef and the Vice President of the Bangladeshi Caterers Association, believes that the government has made it almost impossible for the average curry house to survive with these new constraints. “The caps have created a very limiting environment for the industry to grow. Right now is probably the worst it has been in a very long time. The government have implemented these policies but they don’t realise that they are actually causing damage to a culture that has been a part of Britain for almost two hundred years”.

The cap does not restrict anybody from applying for an experienced skilled chef from Bangladesh or Pakistan, but, the process for the Tier 2 visa is both time consuming and expensive. According to Khan, the application process may take up to six months: first the employer must receive an authorised license and only then, can the migrant chef apply for his visa. Both the employer and the employee must provide an extensive amount of authorised documentation including: background information, evidence of the relevant english requirements and the chef must show that they have the sufficient maintenance available which is a minimum of £900 in their bank account – often at 9000 miles apart from one another, communication can be arduous.

The most cumbersome hurdle within the process are the costs that must be paid by both parties. “An average application for a license would cost between £4000-6000, and the Home Office would charge another fee of around £800 for the applicant and another £99 for the signing of the license. On top of all of this the employer is expected to pay for both the food and board of the chef. We can see how the process is  beyond the reach of the average curry house,” Khan says.

The Department of Business, Innovation and Skills were not available for comment but they released a statement saying: “It is not true to suggest our policies limit businesses appointing the skilled workers they need. The number of skilled people entering the UK was up 13% at the end of March 2016. We continue to welcome the very top chefs that promote innovative and creative cuisine in the UK with such skilled chefs on the occupation shortage list”.

Khan has over 27 years of experience in the industry after working his way up from a 17 year old dish-washer to an award winning restaurant owner in Hertfordshire he more than understands what kind of employee is needed for a successful business. “I think of cooking curry as an art. There are so many spices, so many layers of flavours that brew. Skilled curry chefs need to have the knowledge of how everything combines…people cook their currys at home but when you do it completely from scratch with the onions and spices there is so much more care involved. South-Asian chefs often have the passion to cook curry and learn. They come to the UK having been brought up with their own regional dishes but having heard of the English Indian foods they want to see it for themselves,”

“There are plenty of Eastern Europeans working as deputy head chefs but they don’t seem to want to learn about the infusions, they don’t wish to expand their curry skills- it’s just work to them.”

As Vice President of the BCA, representing the 12000 UK curry houses, Khan has been lobbying to parliament for  the need to recruit non-EU staff members. There is also a petition in circulation demanding government attention on the recent policies. The immigration minister, James Brokenshire, said in a statement that there were no plans to change the current Tier 2 limit and that the reforms will ensure business can attract the skilled workers that they need. They argue that the cap opens the opportunity for skilled workers  within the EU to secure more training for available vacancies.

So, in the midst of the crisis, what is being done to help the industry? Who else can the curry industry hire?

A series of international cooking schools, known as “curry colleges”, have been introduced by Conservative MP Eric Pickless, in an attempt to help supplement the Asian industry’s cry. The Hospitality Guild was set up with £1.75m in a scheme backed by the Department of Innovation, Business and Skills and created a series of courses in five institutions nationwide. Trainees with a passion for international cooking, including Thai and Chinese, were given the opportunity to spend six weeks in either: University of Westminster Kingsway College, University of West London, Leeds City College, University College Birmingham or Trafford College.

“The purpose of the colleges was to bring a tangible solution to the staff shortages across Britain. …It allowed for hands-on experience, exposing trainees to the realities of the catering industry. It was a chance to cultivate culinary skills from within; anybody with a zeal for developing their cooking was able to flourish by being taught by chefs who had over five years of experience in the industry and with the prospect of an 18-month apprenticeship at an Asian restaurant,” Eric Pickless said.

However, statistics from the Hospitality Guild show that the scheme is failing to attract the applicants it predicted. Of the original 70 apprenticeships available only 25 people signed up, with 9 drop-outs, leaving a mere 16 people in training.

Ahmed blames the lack of enthusiasm on the younger generation of people not wanting to pursue restaurant jobs anymore; “The successes of the curry industry beforehand, the hard work of people’s parents and grandparents, have given the younger generation opportunities to work elsewhere. Now they are becoming doctors not chefs- yet another reason why we under such strain.”

“All we can do is give customers good service, good food and hope times improve. We must now start evolving and try to adapt to the changes happening to us,”Ahmed says.

The deep rooted tradition of the British curry started out from a simple combination of the Asian exotic tastes with our milder tongues- and voila the £8 curry & a pint. But since then, we have become a sophisticated melting pot of a society with a booming food culture from challenging the boundaries of cuisine. Perhaps, the only way left to save our beloved tikka is to leave our faith in the entrepreneurs to spice things up from within the industry.

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