Sunday, 15 September 2013

As UK’s Curry Crisis Heats Up, Window of Opportunity for Indian Chefs

By Sourish Bhattacharyya
Sake Dean Mahomed, who migrated from Patna,
opened Britain's first Indian restaurant when he
welcomed guests in 1809 to the Hindustanee
Coffee House at Portman Square, London

BRITAIN is in the thick of what the media there colourfully describes as the “curry crisis”, which is back to making headlines because of the media blitz launched this past week by the owners of Gloucester curry restaurants to highlight their troubles. The country’s new immigration rules make it mandatory for all chefs hired from the sub-continent to have a minimum of five years of experience and clear an English language test. The changes in the law make it impossible for Britain’s ‘curry houses’ to continue with their scraping-the-bottom hiring policies.
The curry houses would traditionally hire Indians, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis as kitchen porters on very low salaries, teach them cooking on the job, and eventually turn them into low-paid chefs whenever vacancies would arise. The new regulations forbid such practices.
What’s happening now, as a result, is that the ‘curry houses’ are confronting a severe shortage of cooking staff. The better chefs are being lured by hotels with higher salaries, even as the curry houses are being forced to raise wages to hold on to their kitchen staff. There’s also pressure on them to hire British nationals (who could be of sub-continental origin), who, naturally, will come on significantly higher wages. Cheap curry houses, unsurprisingly, face a serious existential crisis, which has not spared even the Chinese restaurants in Britain.
Numbers cranked up by The Federation of Specialist Restaurants, which was formed in 2007 as an umbrella organisation of mainly ethnic eateries in the U.K., show that Britain’s 9,400 ‘curry houses’ did business worth £3 billion and employed over 60,000 people in 2011. If you add Indian takeaways to this number, it goes up to 32,000, according to some estimates. And though the growth rate of Indian restaurants has dropped to a negligible 2%, their number of covers has risen by 10%. If the ‘curry houses’ are adding more seats, it means they are doing good business. But their party may just be getting over.
Some 65% of Indian restaurants, according to The Federation of Speciality Restaurants, are actually owned and run by Bangladeshis, most of them in the south of the Midlands. The ‘curry houses’ in other cities such as Bradford, Manchester and Glasgow are run mainly by Pakistani, Kashmiri or Punjabi entrepreneurs, lending themselves to variations in style.
Abdul Mannan, Chief Executive of the Brasserie Group, which owns seven restaurants in Cheltenham, including the Indian Brasserie, called for Whitehall to relax its immigration policy for skilled workers in an interview with “It’s very difficult to find qualified staff in this country and, when you do, demand for them is so high,” Mannan said, reflecting the dominant view of curry house owners. Immediately, a number of curry houses are reducing opening hours to cope with the staffing crisis.
My take on the curry crisis is that it will lead to a possible (and much-needed) extinction of the bottom rung of Britain’s Indian restaurants, most of which serve a bastardised cuisine that does disservice to the sub-continent’s rich gastronomic tradition. The staffing crisis will lead to an across-the-industry rise in wages and the migration of talented chefs to the better-run establishments. It may also spur some of the more progressive curry houses to try and upgrade their offerings so as to be able to employ more qualified chefs and charge higher prices.
For talented chefs in India, UK’s new immigration rules present a golden opportunity. The better-managed curry houses will soon be scouting around for better-qualified chefs who can clear the English language test and the other new requirements. These chefs will be much better paid than their predecessors and won’t regret relocating to England. I can already foresee Britain becoming the new magnet for talented young chefs in this country.