The Sunday Magazine·THE SUNDAY EDITION

How a shortage of British curry chefs helped win the Brexit vote

David Gutnick brings us the story of the looming crisis in the multibillion dollar British curry industry with his documentary, "The Battle of Vindaloo."
A plate of Chicken Tikka Masala is displayed in a curry restaurant in Brick Lane on February 13, 2008 in London. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

In 2001, British foreign secretary Robin Cook said that Chicken Tikka Masala had become a national dish — joining fish and chips and bangers and mash. 

There are more than 10,000 curry restaurants in England. It's a multi-billion dollar industry employing more than 100,000 people. The kitchens are often run by families with roots in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. 

Signs for businesses on Brick Lane, which is synonymous with curry restaurants, in London, England. (Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

But because of generational changes and tight immigration rules, curry chefs are now almost impossible to find. 

Two curry houses a week are shutting down, as chefs in their 60s and 70s retire with no one to replace them.

Industry leaders say half the existing curry restaurants could be closed within a decade.

The "princes" of the British curry industry bought into Brexit, thinking it would solve the chef shortage by limiting immigrants from eastern Europe in favour of those from South Asia.

They're now having second thoughts.

When Sunday Edition producer David Gutnick was in England this spring, he found the curry world in crisis. His documentary is called "The Battle of Vindaloo."

An unexpected campaigner for Brexit

The British Curry Awards are televised live across Britain and the Indian sub-continent.

Enam Ali is the founder of the British Curry Awards. (Provided by the British Curry Awards)

There are red carpets, designer gowns, bands, Bollywood dancers and teary speeches from chefs gripping golden trophies that look like Oscars for "Best Delivery Service" or "Best Casual Dining."

It's a glitzy celebration far from the daily realities of chefs who sweat 10-12 hour days over ovens and vats of boiling sauce for wages just above the poverty line. But they are a must-attend for any British politician — like Prime Minister Theresa May — looking for votes in the huge South Asian community.

Prime Minister David Cameron inspects the kitchen with Enam Ali (2nd left), founder of award-winning restaurant Le Raj, The British Curry Awards and Spice Business Magazine at the British curry awards at Battersea Evolution on November 25, 2013 in London, England. (Alan Davidson - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Curry awards founder Enam Ali saw the curry crisis coming. But in Brexit, Ali sensed an opportunity to staunch the flow of a quarter of a million immigrants from the European Union and make room for more immigrants from the Commonwealth — Bangladesh, India and Pakistan — who, in 2015, numbered fewer than 60,000. He threw his support behind the Leave campaign. 

Being an immigrant, everyone was surprised, everyone was shocked. How can Enam support Brexit?- Enam Ali

Vote Leave leaders welcomed his support. Tory Employment Minister Priti Patel used the hashtag #saveourcurry.

Ali, already close to the Conservative Party, took his pro-Leave message straight into skeptical South Asian communities. 

"I explained why we should support Brexit, because equality has a very strong value in this country ... it is not equal when someone coming from Europe, just because he is European citizen, can walk in, and someone who is a Commonwealth citizen cannot come because their English is not very good, so he is declined," says Ali.

"I am not bringing people here for lecturing, just cooking curry ... so that is why I support Brexit."

'You never know. You can only predict.'

Oli Khan is the senior vice-president of The Bangladesh Caterers' Association UK, which represents more than 10,000 curry restaurant owners. He owns a restaurant and two curry takeaways, and would like to expand. 

Khan pays his chefs the industry standard, which is just above Britain's minimum wage. 

This industry is actually created for the British people's tastebuds. People get addicted. So British people [have] got to save this industry.- Oli Khan

But in 2012 the government announced that only the most highly skilled chefs would qualify for admission to the UK.

The new rules stipulated that any chef brought in from overseas must be paid almost double the industry standard and provided with an accommodation allowance. Restaurants with take-out services — which most curry restaurants are — would not be allowed to import a chef at all.

"We used to pay a skilled chef from South Asia 18,600, and then all of a sudden it was increased to 29,500. If you don't pay accommodation, you have to pay them 35,000 pounds, which is very difficult for a small business to pay," says Khan.

Khan says higher costs for owners would mean higher prices. People would eat elsewhere, and even more restaurants would go under.

Oli Khan joined the pro-Brexit camp with Enam Ali, and many of the other worried members of the Bangladesh Caterers Association UK.

"We might get a chance to get more people from the Commonwealth," he says. "You never know. You can only predict."

'Incredibly naive, wishful thinking'

Faiza Shaheen grew up in working-class, South Asian east London and has a PhD in economics from Oxford University. This year, The Guardian chose her as one of Britain's rising political stars.

Faiza Shaheen is the director of the Centre for Labour and Social Studies (CLASS), a left-wing think tank in the UK. (David Gutnick)

Shaheen was a vocal campaigner for Britain to stay in the EU. She saw Brexit as a handy cover for an anti-immigrant, racist groundswell.

She says Enam Ali's idea that Brexit could help end the curry crisis was understandable, but misguided.

"The South Asians thinking about their restaurants were naive to think that an anti-immigration stance would mean less white Poles and more brown Muslims, Pakistanis or Bangladeshis. That was incredibly naive, wishful thinking," she says. 

Shaheen says Brexit puts everything back on the table — from worker's rights, to the future of EU immigrants already in Britain, to business prospects. As members of the South Asian community who voted to leave the EU see stories about post-Brexit hate crimes, some are starting to have second thoughts

"People being shouted at on the bus, people being spat at, and suddenly this community thought, 'we played into the wrong hands here,'" she says. 

"I am sure there are regrets. And there should be."

The curry houses of the future

Mohammed Saleem was a top chef at Enam Ali's Le Raj restaurant.

Le Raj cooks Alfen Valles and Mohammed Saleem (David Gutnick)

Now Ali is paying his salary — not to cook, but to teach. Even Ali knows that leaving the European Union, no matter how it plays out, is not the whole answer to the curry chef shortage. So he built a training kitchen at North East Surrey Technical College called Le Raj Academy.

But there's a critical problem.

Unemployment in Britain is at a 12-year low. Learning how to be a curry chef can take three to five years.

And no one has signed up for the course.

"No one comes to tell me, 'I want to become an Indian chef' ... Somebody says, 'I want to be a French chef,'" says Ali. "The government [said], 'Enam, why don't you train them?' I spend a million pounds here on a college ready to go. I don't have a student."

James Pizer is the owner of The Thali Cafe in Bristol. (David Gutnick)

Jim Pizer is the owner of five Thali Cafe restaurants in Bristol. It was just named one of the best Indian restaurants in the UK.

He pays above-industry-average wages and says he has no problem finding British-born chefs to train. 

"There is a curry crisis for the restaurants that have not moved on for the past 20 years," he says. "You have this aging, slightly out-of-touch generation of restaurant owners who are finding it tough to adjust to an evolving market. It is a skills gap."

"They are fixing on the chef element, but really what I think they need to do is attract young people into the sector to drive home these changes that are needed."

A dish at The Thali Cafe in Bristol. (Provided by Thali Cafe)

Second thoughts

On March 29, all eyes were on Prime Minister Theresa May, as she officially triggered Article 50, starting the legal process extricating Britain from the European Union.

The front pages of the UK daily newspapers on on March 29, 2017, the day British Prime Minister Theresa May triggered Article 50. (DANIEL SORABJI/AFP/Getty Images)

Enam Ali and Oli Khan watched nervously.

They knew they had delivered. Nine months earlier, on referendum day, surprisingly high numbers of British South Asians had voted to leave the EU. 

Now, Ali and Khan were hoping for a sign that immigration relief was coming. There hasn't been one. 

"The Brexit minister, the other ministers ... they said, 'If you support Brexit, we will help you get people from Commonwealth countr[ies], then we might have more chances to get people from South Asia. But it is not happening," says Khan. "And as the Prime Minister mentioned, she is not going to allow anyone from South Asia, because we have a lot of people who are unemployed."

"I won't say they lied to us, but this is a political game. We feel betrayed by supporting Brexit."

He says that if he could do it all over again, he would not support the Leave campaign. 

Paying the price

Faiza Shaheen says curry restaurant owners, many of whom have grown accustomed to relying on cheap immigrant labour, face an uncertain future in post-Brexit Britain. If they want to attract high skilled immigrants, they will have to raise their wage levels — and their prices.

"Curry will get more expensive, and Brexit voters will literally have to pay the price."

Related links

Click 'listen' above to hear David Gutnick's documentary. 


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