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The big heat: crisis in the UK curry industry

Britain's Asian restaurants are feeling the pinch as never before, because of an eye-watering combination of new immigration rules and soaring rice prices. By Jerome Taylor

Enam Ali can hardly remember a time when business was this tricky. Ever since they first arrived in the UK from the Sylhet region of Bangladesh in 1958, the Ali family have done what so many Asian immigrants did during the mass post-war migrations to Britain: they cooked.

His grandfather headed to the suburbia of south London and set up his first "Indian restaurant" in the Surrey town of Cheam. Later, as the British public became addicted to the piquant dishes of its former South Asian colonies, the Ali business went from strength to strength. The family now own restaurants all over the country.

Such success stories have been repeated by thousands of families across UK. It is often said that the nation's favourite dish is Chicken Tikka Masala. That may not be strictly true, but the British have certainly embraced what we like to call "Indian cuisine" with more enthusiasm than any other modern culinary import.

Today, however, Indian restaurants in the UK are in crisis: not because we have fallen out of love with their food but because restaurant owners have been hit by a double blow that they say threatens to ruin the £3.5bn industry. Because of a recent government crackdown on short-term visa schemes for foreign workers from outside the EU restaurateurs cannot find enough skilled chefs in an industry that has normally expanded year on year. And now, to compound the problem, dramatic increases in world rice prices have hit owners in the pocket.

"I've worked in the Asian restaurant trade for 30 years and I've never seen the industry in such difficulty," says Mr Ali, who chairs the Bangladeshi Guild of Restaurateurs and owns the Le Raj restaurant in Epsom. "Unless something is done to alleviate our staff shortages, don't be surprised to see restaurants going under, particularly those in rural areas that rely on local regulars."

After more than six decades of expansion and overwhelming cultural acceptance, the Asian restaurant trade is going through one of the most critical periods in its history. Over the past two years, restaurant owners have been lobbying the Government to listen to their concerns, but they say they have been ignored. Meanwhile, a third problem has become apparent: businesses are finding it increasingly difficult to persuade their sons and daughters to follow them into the trade.

Owners say that the Government has failed to take note of the crisis this vibrant sector of the catering industry, which provides more than 100,000 jobs.

"The industry risks being destroyed," says Rajesh Suri, owner of Tamarind in Mayfair, the first British Asian restaurant to be awarded the prestigious Michelin Star award. "No one is going to invest thousands of pounds in a restaurant if there's no guarantee they'll find chefs. I know of at least 15 restaurants in the past year that have had their openings delayed because they couldn't find the chefs. Top end restaurants like us are not going to have so much of a problem but the Government risks killing off the local curry house industry."

To compound their concerns, Asian restaurant owners have also been hit by the worldwide rise in food prices and rice. Big rice producers such as India and China have imposed severe restrictions on exports in order to retain supplies for domestic consumption, while others, such as Vietnam and Egypt, have banned exports. Official figures say the price of food has risen by 6.6 per cent over the past year, but rice is now 60 per cent more expensive than it was last year and Basmati rice at least double the price.

Imam Ahmed, who owns The Lodge restaurant in Sutton Coldfield and two others nearby, is concerned that many businesses will have to pass on the price increase to customers. "The average grocery bill is up by 40 per cent over the past 12 months, whilst the price of vegetable oil has gone from £6.50 for 20 litres to £15," he said. "At the moment the restaurants are absorbing the price increase because you simply cannot put your prices up by 40 per cent in one go."

This week the Immigration Advisory Service added their voice to accusations against the Government, saying rest-rictions on lower-skilled workers from outside the EU could cause "irreparable damage" to the industry.

Part of the reason for the Government decision in 2005 to increase restrictions on short term visa schemes (which allowed owners to bring over tandoor chefs from the sub-continent) was the arrival of hundreds of thousands of eastern European workers in the hospitality sector. The Home Office said the increased availability of workers and evidence that these workers were taking employment in the catering industry suggested that the short-term visa scheme was no longer needed.

But Asian restaurant owners say expecting Eastern European workers to know how to cook curries is unrealistic. They believe that the Government is failing to listen to the Asian business community's concerns or to offer sensible immigration rules that would allow skilled workers temporary visas without penalising them for poor language skills.

"Front of house work we can teach easily," says Mr Suri, "but curry and tandoor chefs need a huge amount of training. I'm not in favour of any type of illegal immigration whatsoever, and, yes, chefs should learn English. But why not test them after a year?"

The issue of chefs being able to speak English is one that vexes many Asian restaurant owners who say it is unrealistic to expect chefs from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh to have a decent command of the language .

"If somebody wants to bring over a footballer from Brazil they don't have to speak English, so why should they expect Asian chefs to do so?" says Mr Ali. "The problem we have is that the Home Office says we have to hire people who speak English but a Bangladeshi who knows English is hardly going to be applying for a job in the restaurant trade is he? That would be like bringing a Manchester United footballer over to play for the fourth division – he wouldn't exactly hang around long would he?"

That's not to say that Asian workers shouldn't learn English while they work. "I hired two guys recently who knew no English when they arrived in the UK but they knew exactly what they were doing in the kitchen," says Mr Ali. "Within a year, they were speaking perfectly good English."

Yesterday, a spokesperson from the Border and Immigration Agency (BIA) disputed the suggestion that the Government has ignored the Asian community's concerns. The spokesperson said: "Our objective is to manage migration in the national interest, striking the right balance between safeguarding the interests of the UK resident work force and enabling UK employers to recruit or transfer skilled people from abroad in order to help them compete effectively in an international market."

The BIA also said that the Immigration Minister Liam Byrne had asked the Migration Advisory Council to advise him on whether there is a skill shortage in the ethnic cuisine sector and whether any changes in the visa laws should be made.

The Government has also suggested that Asian restaurateurs should try to hire chefs from within the British Asian community. But many owners say that the younger generations have higher aspirations.

"Thanks to their parents' hard work our kids have degrees and qualifications. They have aspirations and expectations and want to work in the City or for successful firms. And why shouldn't they?" said one businessman who owns three restaurants in London.

Imam Ahmed said his son was preparing to be a lawyer. "He's seen me at work and he knows how hard the job is so it's not really surprising that he wants to do something different."

Restaurant owners in Birmingham have come up with a novel way to attract the children of Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani immigrants into the cooking trade. A new £20m plan to open the world's first "Balti Academy" has been launched by business leaders desperate to arrest the crippling shortage of chefs. Building on the ambitious project, already dubbed Balti Village by locals, is expected to begin next year and will centre around the "Balti Triangle" area of Sparkbrook, where the famous curry style was first invented by Pakistani immigrants. The centrepiece of the new development will be an international academy where trainee chefs can study for a one-year diploma on multiple styles of Asian cuisine.

Mohammed Nazeer, one of the businessmen behind the scheme, said: "In this area there is very high unemployment among the local population, both adults and the young. Hopefully a scheme like this will encourage more young people back into the trade but we have to improve the industry's image if we want the young to sign up."

He added: "Until more British people join the trade, however, we have to accept that many of the chefs that the industry needs will have to come from abroad."