Are British curry restaurants in a soup?
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Are British curry restaurants in a soup?

London : United Kingdom | Apr 25, 2012 at 1:50 PM PDT
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James Pants - Curry King

Despite generating billions of pounds annually the prospect for a large number of curry restaurants is not encouraging. Has the business reached a blind alley explores Syed Neaz Ahmad.

The British love affair with curry is some 400 years old. It is claimed that it goes back to the 16th century when the Dutch dominated the pepper trade and hiked up the price of all spices. To counter the Dutch, London decided to set up East India Company through a royal charter. The main idea was to secure a better price for the pepper. In the end, the company won more than what it had hoped for: The spice war and an empire.

Today with over 12,000 restaurants and despite generating billions of pounds annually, the prospect for a large number of curry restaurants is not encouraging. Has the business reached the dead end? Have the owners lost faith in their trade, have they run out of new ideas or is it simply the lack of staff that has caused closure of some 150 restaurants last year?

Shamsuddin Khan, father of a civil servant, pilot and a respected figure in the curry trade, said the shortage of trained staff is a great problem in every service industry, and the curry business is no exception. With recent changes by the UK government to the rules for migrant workers, especially chefs from the subcontinent, it is making it difficult for the restaurant owners to find suitably qualified staff to fill these positions.

Government ministers have come up with statements such as “more South Asian women residents in the UK should be used for the role,” which have not amused the owners of the curry industry. “The impact of this change is now hitting the businesses hard”, said Khan.

Every year, the curry industry recruits several thousand staff members to work in the kitchens. Until recently, the process was to get village friends or someone from the extended family from back home. Only few of those who came this way were trained chefs and most had to start as kitchen porters and learn the rope the hard way.

Experienced restaurateurs say we owe it to our customers to offer them “consistent quality” and the “full cultural experience.” While the restaurateurs appreciate that the barriers to mass immigration from non-EU countries have to be erected somewhere, they are not prepared to accept the idea of East European chefs churning out Lassi, Roghan Josh and Chicken Tikka Masala.

The owners of the curry houses, which include Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and Indians, said that in their kitchens, cooking skills and the knowledge of spices and culture is more important than mere fluency in English.

A spokesman for the Border and Immigration Service said changes had been made to the immigration system, but there was no reason why Indian restaurants could not train and use local workers, rather than recruit from the subcontinent. The curry restaurant trade has traditionally employed workers of Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani extraction. There appears to be no reason why it should not recruit workers from other backgrounds, particularly for lower-skilled positions that do not require specialist skills. “To date, the sector has not provided evidence to show that it cannot recruit and train workers from the resident workforce to fill lower-skilled positions.”

Curry restaurateurs suggest more centers on the pattern of the Academy of Asian Culinary Arts of Thames Valley University in Ealing. However, prospective young men eager to start a career in the restaurant business want well-paid and prestigious jobs that provide career development facilities with flexible hours.

They say the days of treating kitchens as sweatshops are over, so are the British Bangladeshi restaurateurs ready for an all-change? (first published daily arabnews)

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neazahmad is based in London, England, United Kingdom, and is an Anchor on Allvoices.
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