Metro: The Curry House in Crisis

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November 23, 2013

‘Chicken tikka masala is a true British national dish,’ declared then foreign secretary Robin Cook in April 2001.

However, restaurateur Enam Ali MBE, founder of the British Curry Awards, vividly recalls when curry was met with scepticism and suspicion on Britain’s high streets, 30 years ago.

‘The way we got people into our restaurants was by saying come after the pub closes, have a few pints, eat tasty food you can’t eat at home and stay until 2am or 3am – that was our USP,’ he said. ‘It didn’t take off until we served curry with chips.’

Today, curry houses – or ‘spice restaurants’ as they’re known in the trade – serving Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Nepali and Sri Lankan-inspired food are part of the fabric of modern Britain. They make up a thriving industry with more than 10,000 restaurants and takeaways employing 80,000 people and turning over £3.6bn annually.

Tonight’s ninth British Curry Awards, or ‘Curry Oscars’ as prime minister David Cameron describes them, held in Battersea, London, is an opportunity to mark the contribution of the humble curry house and its owners, waiters and chefs, past and present.

‘I started the awards to salute the hard work of the first generation who opened restaurants in the 1960s,  1970s and 1980s and had to deal with racist insults – they had no celebrity chefs or mentors to guide them and they put in so much,’ said Ali, who founded the award-winning Le Raj restaurant 24 years ago and has worked in the industry for more than 35 years.

‘They laid the foundation for today’s spice restaurants that have made Britain the best place in the world for curry. We have Michelin-starred restaurants and you will find naan bread, samosas and curries in every supermarket – none of this would have happened without the restaurants and curry houses started by the Asian community – Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis – this makes me proud.’

Bob Walton OBE, chairman of the Restaurant Association, feels curry houses have been integral in the transformation of Britain’s food culture. ‘Thirty years ago, Indian and Chinese restaurants brought the British out of their homes to eat,’ he said. ‘As a result, dining out wasn’t only for an occasion but something you could do midweek because it was affordable, and that’s one of the big reasons the culture of food has changed so dramatically in Britain in the last 20 years.

‘Restaurants became a leisure activity rather than only for celebration, which is what restaurants were largely used for in this country. So curry houses started the tradition of going out for food as part of your week’s entertainment, which we now accept as normal.’

However, the curry industry is facing a variety of challenges, such as stiff competition thanks to the rising popularity of street food, pop-up restaurants, dinner clubs and food markets.

Walton asked: ‘My son, who’s 20, will he be going for curries all the time? Historically, that was the norm after the pub, now the choice is vast. Some restaurants need to be careful of being stuck in the past and think forward by using social media, improving wine lists, and dessert lists – for example, it’s a worry when you’re presented with a menu with pictures of desserts. Across the board, restaurant standards are getting higher and higher.’

The industry’s biggest challenge is overcoming a shortage of skilled chefs, as a result of strict immigration rules. ‘Since the introduction of a points based visa system in 2005, restaurants have been unable to recruit talented, experienced chefs from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh and more than 100 restaurants have closed because of this – we are suffering,’ said Ali.

‘The chef is the key man, you can spend £1m on designing a fabulous restaurant but without a good chef it won’t work. Restaurants have not been able to expand and open more branches because we can’t find British and European people to train as spice chefs – it’s a serious profession that requires cultural knowledge.

‘I gave Gordon Ramsay the challenge of making a naan in a tandoori oven – he couldn’t do it and he burnt his hand, it’s not easy. To be a chef you need drive and determination, skill and often the language spoken in kitchens and between staff is Bengali, Hindi and Urdu, so that’s another problem with chefs from Britain and within the EU – they find it too tough and leave after a few weeks.’

Alongside the Restaurant Association, Ali is lobbying the government about the issue. Walton said: ‘It seems unfair that Indian and Chinese restaurants can’t recruit trained chefs, who are integral to their business, from outside the EU, whereas Italian and French restaurants can – competition amongst restaurants is so fierce at the moment, it’s a real disadvantage.’

Despite the challenges, Ali remains upbeat. ‘I’m optimistic we can find a solution, the curry industry is very resilient and has come a long way from curry and chips,’ he said. ‘Forty years ago, no one would have believed we would have Michelin-starred restaurants and chicken tikka masala would be considered the national dish of Britain – it’s an enormous, immigrant success story.’