A shortage of chefs threatens our Indian restaurants. Can Brits and eastern Europeans be trained to fill the gap? Jonathan Brown reports

The British curry industry may be facing a crisis, but there is a reassuring sense of calm from Kaushy Patel as she takes students through the correct way to make a chick-pea chole. "When I cook I like to have happy, positive thinking and before I start I always pray," she tells us as we watch her expertly fold in the freshly ground spices to the popular vegetable side dish. "When you are cooking, there must not be too much in your mind. You must just concentrate on one thing – the cooking. If there is any mistake, you don't shout."

Kaushy, 61, who learned to cook while watching her mother cater for the workforce on the family's farm in the village of Pardi, near Surat, in Gujarat, has already won the admiration of Gordon Ramsay, a man not known for his insouciant kitchen philosophy but who chose her engagingly simple Bradford eatery for his Ramsay's Best Restaurants series.

Today she is passing on her expertise to a new generation of wannabe curry cooks in the city that has been her home for the past four decades.

The inability of Britain's 12,000 curry restaurants to find enough qualified chefs has become a major threat to the future of the industry, not just in West Yorkshire but across the country, from Birmingham's Balti Triangle to London's Brick Lane. With 80,000 workers satisfying the nation's demand for the food, the cuisine is worth £3.5bn to the UK economy.

But one in four jobs for chefs is vacant, a result of tightened immigration rules that means it is harder to bring in skilled cooks from the Indian subcontinent. Changing social values within the Asian communities already here also mean aspirational young people often no longer choose to follow their parents into the family catering business. Front-of-house positions are proving even harder to fill.

This red-hot issue has been the subject of debate in Parliament, but ministers have repeatedly declined to make the curry cooks a special case. The recent wave of Eastern European immigrants, which has plugged labour gaps in other essential trades, has failed to fill the empty positions in this sector. The result is that one of the great culinary and economic success stories of the past 50 years of immigration could be set to falter.

In Bradford, which lays justifiable claim to being Britain's curry capital, the situation has become so severe that local restaurateurs have teamed up with the city's college to create the new International Food Academy, imparting the secrets of delicious dansaks, brilliant bhunas and perfect pakoras to eager students willing to learn the subtleties of Asian cuisine. Chefs looking to specialise can now study up to degree level while finessing their skills in Indian, Bangladeshi, Thai and even Chinese professional cooking.

Graham Fleming, a programme manager at Bradford College, said he had been overwhelmed with the interest in the course. He has 120 students studying hospitality and 50 on the professional cookery strand working towards their City & Guilds level two, with the option to continue to a degree level. "It was something that was very obvious but was just not developed yet by anyone else," he says. "We hope this will be rolled out in the rest of the country."

The idea for an international cooking course was conceived when it became clear that restaurants in Bradford were closing because of the chef shortage. Mr Fleming has enrolled staff from some of the city's top curry houses – including Omar Khan's, Akbars, Nawaab, Mumtaz, Aagrah and Kaushy Patel's Prashad – to offer masterclasses and kitchen time to students.

A former chef who likes to make curries at the weekend, Fleming believes the traditional chef techniques – understanding flavours, hard work and the ability to withstand pressure – are transferable to the training of a prospective curry master. The important thing is building up knowledge of how the various spices combine and affect each ingredient.

Jemma Robinson, 20, is frying some pakoras but admits the idea of working in one of the local curry houses had never occurred to her – until now. "It was my mum who really pushed me to do it, but I am really glad because I am really enjoying it," she says. "It wouldn't bother me working in a curry house. When I told my friends what I was doing, they all said: 'Well, you can make me something to eat then.'"

Joining me over the pot of sizzling cumin seeds are students Lavdije Shala, 23, from Kosovo, and Only Senga, 30, from Zimbabwe. They hope to open restaurants of their own. Neither of them has cooked curries before and the spicy dishes are unknown in the national cuisines of their respective lands, yet both are learning rapidly and enjoying the experience.

Meanwhile, in the kitchen – which is soon to take delivery of its own tandoor oven – students are busy working away to produce a mouth-watering array of dishes under the watchful eye of the head chef, Colin Burt. On the menu today is a delicious-looking Bengali mackerel curry, samosas and roti breads. Despite 36 years of experience in the industry, Burt admits he has acquired a lot of skills while helping out in the kitchens of a leading local curry house to prepare for the course. As we watch Kaushy prepare her chick-pea dish, he says: "If it is good enough for Gordon Ramsay, then it is certainly good enough for me."

The restaurant business has come a long way in Bradford. The first curry houses were literally that – front rooms with a few tables and chairs to cater for the late-night mill workers and taxi drivers who couldn't stomach works canteens or whose colleagues didn't like the smell of the food they brought with them to their shifts.

Late-night drinkers from the pub soon got a whiff of what they were missing and from humble origins in the 1960s, the restaurants have developed into national chains. With his diamond earrings and Union Jack cufflinks, Bobby Patel, the operations director of Prashad, is typical of the modern breed of young British-Asian entrepreneur.

He admits that curry houses were closed to people outside the communities, with owners often willing to hire staff only from similar backgrounds to their own. But that is changing, he says. While there are people like his mother still willing to pass on their knowledge acquired in India, Pakistan or Bangladesh, the authentic skills will not be lost, he says. But new ideas are also needed. "We need to change the expectations and get unemployed white kids as well as Asian kids into the restaurants," he says. "Often it is an opportunity they have not thought about before. Of course the question is: 'How well will they be able to cook the cuisine?' But working with the college means we can impart these skills at a very early stage. The industry is changing really quickly and that change is being driven by what customers what."

One of the developments new entrants will have to take on board is the growing demand for locally sourced produce. "We don't want to buy okra that has travelled 3,000 miles if we can do something with locally grown asparagus that tastes even better," Patel says. "We want to get to the stage where we can go to the garden and pick what we need and cook it right there and then for the customer. That is how it is done in India and that is how we would like to do it here."

Patel says it has become too expensive and time-consuming to bring in trained chefs from the Indian subcontinent and restaurateurs must work with the skills they have on their doorsteps. Besides, the weight of expectation can prove too much for some new arrivals, who may also struggle to adapt to life in Britain, he says.

Fleming says this is good news for British chefs, who can expect to start their careers earning around £16,000 in the simplest establishments, but progressing to between £30,000 and £45,000 for head-chef posts in the best restaurants. Those who make the Michelin-star grade for their food can earn £200,000.

"In the past they were sometimes seen as cheap labour, but this is changing fast," he says.

"There are good opportunities to earn a decent living as a curry chef and an even greater opportunity to start a business in the UK."

How curries caught on

The merchants of the East India Company sparked Britain's love affair with the curry. Bengali seamen serving aboard the ships established the first permanent Asian populations in London. The commercial production of curry powder in the late 18th century made their favourite cuisine more readily available and it soon began to crop up on the menus of the capital's eateries.

The Hindustanee Coffee House on Portman Square, established in 1809, enjoys the distinction of being the first recorded exclusive curry restaurant. During the Victorian period the food fell out of fashion, only to begin its long march to culinary acceptance in 1927 with the opening of Veeraswamy's, one of Winston Churchill's favourites, in London's Mayfair. The restaurant was bought in 1935 by "curry king" the MP Sir William Steward, who ran the establishment for 40 years.

After the the Second World War, curry houses began to appear in big cities and ports, where they were mostly staffed by ex-sailors who were trained on the job. The influx of Punjab and Pakistani immigrants in the 1950s and 1960s saw a rapid expansion in the restaurants, although most catered for members of their own communities recruited to work in the textile industries.

Birmingham's first recorded Indian restaurant was The Darjeeling, a café that opened in 1945, giving birth to the Midlands' Balti-house culture. The first Indian restaurant in Glasgow was the Taj Mahal in 1954, where menus were basic and service fast. But the Shish Mahal then opened, providing a higher-class service and décor. This style soon became a common theme everywhere, with a shift from cafés to chains.

Jaymi McCann