Sunday, 23 August 2015

Authenticity and the British curry house - the case for immigrant chefs


I am, as you all know, not particularly bothered by migration. If I wish to be free to travel where ever, I guess I should allow that same freedom for others. So what follows isn't about the immigration but rather an attempt to get under the existential angst of the British curry house. It seems they might be dying out:

It's often been said that Tikka Masala is the British national dish.

But it might not be for much longer, as figures show two curry houses are closing in Britain each week due to a shortage of chefs.

This crisis is due in part to the retirement of the original wave of immigrants in the 1970s who set up curry houses.

The problem is that the children of South Asian immigrants - perhaps especially the children of those running the takeaways and curry restaurants - really have little interest in working very long hours serving cheap curries to often ungrateful (indeed regularly drunk) customers. They've watched as the older generation worked itself into an early grave, putting up with racism, ignorance and aggression so as to make a half decent living.

The same story went for the traditional (if that's the right word) Chinese takeaway - every town had one but the sons and daughters of the Hong Kong immigrants were just as uninterested in working a 60 hours week of late nights as the sons and daughters of Bangladeshi or Pakistani curry house proprietors. The way in which the business - along with a new generation of Chinese food sellers - has been sustained has been through immigration.

And this is precisely how the Bangladesh Caterers Association frame the problem - they can't recruit people to train here in the UK so need to go to Bangladesh to find the chefs needed to keep the restaurants and takeaways going. All this is happening in a fast food and restaurant market that is changing rapidly - not just with the success of new franchise chains like Nandos but with a new bunch of immigrants from the middle east, from Poland, from Africa and from Southern Europe. Where curry and Chinese had the world to themselves they now compete with Kurds running cafes, polish takeaways and Moroccan/Spanish fusion. Add in Vietnamese, Korean and Greek and there's a real pressure on those existing takeaways and curry houses.

Regardless of the immigration question (and I'd let the chefs in), it strikes me that relying on a stream of new chefs from the other side of the world isn't the most sustainable business model - the Bangladesh Caterers Association might be right about the difficulties in recruiting and training curry chefs here in the UK but this could say more about the job and the conditions than it does about the supply of potential chefs. Indeed, while I'm sure that the mainstream catering business has a good number of immigrant chefs, it's still the case that plenty of British-born people enter into the cheffing business. A business model based on selling cheap takeaway food will struggle where there's upward pressure on wages.

The truth is that, given the proliferation of other takeaways and cheap restaurants (not to mention the street food explosion), there perhaps needs to be a shakeout in the curry house business. The best probably have little to worry about but if a third of the UK's 12,000 or so curry houses closed would it really be a cultural disaster? I can't speak for anywhere other than Bradford but my observation is that, while the 'curry after a night on the lash' market is still there it's far less important than a more regular market including an important market for family dining. And this changes the sort of restaurants - we're less keen on tatty flock wallpaper and cheap photos of the Taj Mahal preferring places that meet the clean, sharp and smart image of other restaurants. But one thing we still demand is authenticity.

Staffing has always been a dilemma for restaurants offering culturally-specific cuisine. It's not that only a Bangladeshi can cook a biryani but that the customer is looking for authenticity - eating a curry cooked by a Polish woman and served by a Latvian waiter feels wrong even if the food is great. And this means that, if we want our rogan josh served by a slightly surly young Asian and our pasta carbonara from a tight-trousered Italian holding an outsized pepper pot, we have a allow people to come to Britain to meet this need (given we know that there aren't enough British-born Asians or Italians to satisfy our demand for authenticity).



Chef wood said...

Great article simon next time time I see you I would love to discuss this a bit further to put my thoughts to you

Curmudgeon said...

Surely there are plenty of young Bangladeshi people already in the UK in not hugely gainful employment who could turn their hand to cheffing?

And maybe they could look at utilising the talents of the female half of the community.

I don't go to Pizza Express expecting my meal to be cooked or served by an Italian. "Indian" restaurants will have to go the same way or eventually die out.

Interestingly, a few years ago I had an excellent Indian meal in Belfast which was brought to my table by a charming young Polish lady.

Anonymous said...

So, foolowing your thread, it should be compulsory always to have your Yorkshire Pudding prepared and served by one native-born of God's Own County ? What utter rot.

If you've ever been in a curry-house kitchen, you'll have seen how simple it is - yes it's hot, yes it's busy, yes it's noisy, but rocket-science it ain't. If UK curry restaurants need chefs, they should be training them in-house, use apprenticeships, pick someone who doesn't have the charisma to be a waiter, anything - you don't need a degree in difficult sums to work a tandoor, nor an ethnic heritage thousands of miles away. They just need to learn on the job, as almost all craftsmen always did throughout the ages.

And if they have to pay a bit more to get locals to do the job, then put the prices up 5p a dish, because that's all the difference it would make and that wouldn't sink the ship. It's time they stopped whinging, grew up, recruited locally and put something back by training.