Curry falls out of favour
The UK is facing a major shortage of trained and experienced chefs
K.D.L. Khan

The Chor Bizarre in London: Shortage of chefs will impact the growth of curry joints
The Chor Bizarre in London: Shortage of chefs will impact the growth of curry joints

"CURRY" was once a generic name in Britain for any Indian dish. But with nearly 10,000 Indian restaurants serving two million curry meals a week, it has been incorporated into the British tradition with a "curry" meal being a weekly ritual for British families. The industry in Britain is worth more than `A32.5 billion a year.

In the 1960s, Indian restaurants became more popular as they became part of the British pub culture ó once pubs closed, you went to the local Indian curry house to eat a fiery chicken curry along with a few extra pints. By the 1990s, curries were a staple dish in most British diets.

The fact that Birmingham invented the balti curry 20 years ago is testimony to this fact. Further, the curry houses want to cash in on the growing popularity of Bollywood films to cast off the unwanted image of Indian cooking as late-night fast food with lager.

But now, curry houses and restaurants in Britain are facing a major problem which could spell the end of many of them ó labour shortage. Ideally, they should have two chefs to cope with orders and customer demands and each chef should have two assistants. Or the 10,000 curry restaurants in Britain require 20,000 chefs and 40,000 helpers. These minimal requirements are still too much for restaurants that struggle to recruit trained and experienced chefs, let alone assistants.

Thereís also another side to the curry business ó the retail market. The massive growth in the sale of chilled curries from supermarkets means that an increasing number of specialist chefs are needed to develop new recipes for retailers and this adds to the number of curry chefs required.

Earlier, recruitment used to be family employment opportunity, where a simple phone call to relative back home in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh used to provide yet another cousin to assist in the restaurant kitchen. But immigration policies have been toughened up in the last few decades and the terrorist bombings made the immigration authorities reluctant to give out new work permits or renew existing ones.

Labour shortages crippled many restaurants to the point that organisations such as the Guild of Bangladeshi Restaurateurs, which represents 2000 South Asian restaurants, appealed to Home Secretary to relax immigration rules.

Another reason is due to the perception of younger generation from the sub-continent that working in an Asian restaurant is infra dig. Previously, it was normal for Asian youngsters to help out at Indian restaurants during busy times and weekends.

But now, they turn to more glamorous jobs such as IT and business management rather than working in an Indian restaurant, where the job is seen as tough work, unpredictable hours and
low pay.

Some culinary experts believe the shortage of curry chefs has been caused by catering courses failing to emphasise the importance of Asian food. "There has been a snobbery for years about Asian food in teaching circles. Asian food has been treated as "inferior."

Namita Punjabi, owner of the Chelsea-based Chutney Mary Anglo-Indian restaurant, admits, "It is very difficult to get good cooks. We normally just canít find them in this country. And remember that India is the size of Europe. Each area has its own specific types of food. As a company, we canít look for talent in Britain ó it just doesnít exist."

But although training seems to be a good idea, it does not seem to resolve the crisis. Firstly, there arenít enough students enrolling in training academies to save many restaurants from closing.

And even if the limited number of students are enough, there is a high rate of catering students dropping out of college, changing careers at the end of their course or leaving the industry later. Secondly many attempts to recruit from untapped labour resources also fail. For example, there was a drive to recruit Eastern European workers and train them to cook curries. But the would-be chefs seem to prefer their pastas and risottos to the Indian pulaos and curries.

So will curry soon become a dish for the posh and a novelty for the masses? Hopefully, Indian restaurateurs and curry houses should find their chefs early enough. ó MF