Britain's beloved curry under threat because of chef shortage

Curry is one of Britain's best-loved dishes, but industry insiders say there is a shortage of chefs making the Indian speciality in the U.K., a shortage they argue has pushed at least a third of Britain's curry restaurants to the brink of closure.

Restaurateurs blame visa restrictions, 2nd-generation immigrants not taking up family business

Salim Ahmed has been a curry chef for the last 15 years. He describes it as more than a profession, saying it's his passion to make curry. (Ellen Mauro/CBC )

My first time coming to England was to visit a good friend I hadn't seen in years. As my tour guide, she felt a great deal of responsibility to show me the "best of British" during my trip and so she canvassed opinions on the must-dos to give me a taste of the local culture.

The first suggestion she received was to take me to an Indian restaurant for curry. Not a pub for fish and chips or a Sunday roast complete with mushy peas. An Indian restaurant for curry.

As an outsider, with only stereotypical knowledge of the British food scene at that point, I was surprised. Little did I know how telling that experience would be.

Britain's relationship with curry dates back hundreds of years to the country's time as India's colonial ruler, and in that period, curry has become a national institution — so much so that there is a parliamentary committee dedicated to it. 

The tie between curry and the U.K. dates back hundreds of years to Britain's time as India's colonial ruler. Today, there are more than 12,500 curry houses across the country. (Ellen Mauro/CBC )

There was a boom in the U.K. curry industry during the 1960s and 70s that saw a wave of immigrants from what is now Bangladesh open restaurants across the country, said Lizzie Collingham, author of Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors.

Since then, Collingham says, "curry" has become somewhat of a blanket term British people use to describe food from the Indian subcontinent. It's also become a main fixture for the British palate. 

"Curry is seen by British people as part of their repertoire of food," said Collingham. "It's absolutely ingrained." 

Curry crisis

But those who make their living satisfying Britons' curry cravings say there is a crisis brewing — specifically, that there aren't enough qualified curry chefs in Britain.  

It's a threat I haven't seen for the last 27 years of my life [working] in the curry industry.- Oli Khan, Bangladeshi Caterers Association 

They blame British visa rules that they say make it difficult to hire chefs directly from South Asia.

At the same time, the children of immigrants, whose parents made their livelihoods in the restaurant industry, are increasingly turning their backs on the family business.

"It's a threat I haven't seen for the last 27 years of my life [working] in the curry industry," said Oli Khan, vice-president of the Bangladesh Caterers Association (BCA), which represents more than 12,000 of Britain's roughly 12,500 curry restaurants.

According to Khan, a third of those restaurants are on the brink of closure, with an average of two curry houses closing down each week.

"I'm very worried that if the situation is like this continuously for two years down the line, what will happen? Because we are not creating any chefs," Khan said.

Immigration restrictions damaging economy 

The BCA is lobbying Britain's Conservative government, which has said it wants to cut back on the number of immigrants entering the country, to ease its entry requirements when it comes to chefs.

Under the current visa rules, a chef seeking entry to the U.K. from outside of the European Union must earn a salary of £29,570, or roughly $60,000.

It's far too much for most Indian restaurateurs to pay, says Lord Karan Bilimoria, a member of Britain's upper house of Parliament and the creator of Cobra beer, a popular lager sold in most curry restaurants.

He argues that Indian restaurants and other food establishments that can't afford to pay high wages are unfairly becoming the victims of the government's efforts to rein in immigration.

The Bangladeshi Caterers Association, which represents curry restaurants across the U.K., has criticized British government officials, like Home Secretary Theresa May, for being too tough on immigration and contributing to the shortage of curry chefs. (Phil Noble/Reuters )

"The government ... is economically illiterate when it comes to immigration because it is absolutely damaging our economy," he said.

According to data compiled by the BCA, the Indian restaurant industry is worth more than $9.3 billion to the British economy and employs more than 100,000 people.

Impact on taste, cost  

A spokesperson from the Home Office, the agency that oversees entry requirements, said the restrictions and salary requirements are aimed at encouraging restaurants to hire people already in the U.K. rather than recruit from outside the country.

It's a goal favoured by the general public, but both Khan and Bilimoria say it's a rare thing for a British-born citizen to go looking for work at an Indian restaurant — often a small, family-run establishment where the primary language spoken by staff is Bengali, which presents a language barrier that makes life difficult on busy nights in the kitchen.

Some experts argue that the visa restrictions don't just create problems with staffing but that they could also impact the quality of curry available in the U.K.

"It will just make their (restaurateurs) ability to employ regional chefs who really know what they're doing and have had proper training in the techniques and different types of regional cooking that much harder," said Collingham.

Azmal Hussein opened his first restaurant on Brick Lane in 1999. He now owns several establishments but had to close one recently because of difficulties finding staff. (Ellen Mauro/CBC )

And if the restrictions aren't eased, restaurants will likely be forced to raise their prices in order to offer chefs the salaries the government requires.

Khan says there is a great deal of apprehension among restaurateurs over how their clientele would respond to a price hike.

"The British people love curry," he said. "But we're not sure they will want to pay higher prices for it."

Community pride 

For some, fears run deeper than just the closing down of restaurants or the deterioration of the taste of one of Britain's best-loved dishes.

Azmal Hussein, a Bangladeshi immigrant who opened his first curry house 16 years ago on London's iconic Brick Lane, an avenue in the city's east end known for its bustling curry restaurants, is no stranger to the impact of staff shortages.

If the curry industry dies, what happens? A lot of people will suffer.- Azmal Hussein, restaurant owner 

It's the reason he recently had to close down one of his restaurants.

But he worries just as much about what a decline in the curry industry could mean for the community that is its backbone — a community so entrenched in Britain's past and present.

"If the curry industry dies, what happens?" he asked. "A lot of people will suffer and the pride of our Bengali community will go."

About the Author

Ellen Mauro

Ellen Mauro is a multi-platform reporter covering U.S. politics from the CBC News Washington bureau. She was previously based in London and has reported from the front lines of some of the top international news stories in recent memory.


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