Will Brexit change London dining?

  • Vir Sanghvi
  • Updated: Jul 10, 2016 10:04 IST

But why,” asked the very nice lady at Immigration at Heathrow, “would you not take a British passport if you were born in London?” I am used to the question by now, so I gave my standard reply about being a proud Indian and that despite the undoubted advantage a Brit passport offered a frequent visitor (you don’t need visas for most countries), I was very happy with my Indian passport.

At the Langham, some of the expat staff may have to go back and they weren’t thrilled by the prospect (The Langham Hotels)

But of course, the UK I remember is very different from today’s UK. When I was born, the Commonwealth was The Big Thing. Commonwealth citizens didn’t need visas and it was brown people who made the National Health Service possible and West Indians who ran the buses, tubes and trains. Over the decades the Commonwealth contribution to the UK’s cultural life pretty much transformed the country. The West Indians gave the Brits reggae and we gave them Bhangra and Bollywood.

Britain’s iconic curry is a dish invented by migrants, who contributed greatly to the local cuisine (Shutterstock)

Thousands of hardworking East Pakistani (later Bangladeshi) immigrants set up curry houses. Though, in a historic misjudgement that continues to blight the image of Indian food in the UK to this day, they chose not to serve the delicious cuisine of Bengal but a mishmash of bogus, made-up Indian dishes. (Cue: thunder and lightning. The last time I wrote about the UK’s curry houses, they passed resolutions condemning me!)

But I reckon that the Commonwealth dream died around the time Idi Amin threw out the Ugandan Indians in the early 1970s. Many of those expelled had British passports. But the British government informed the hapless refugees that this did not guarantee right of residence in the UK. (Yes, I know this sounds bizarre but UK Immigration policy from the late 1960s can the summed up in one phrase: “Keep the Blacks and Browns out”!)

Even liberals took to telling us, ‘you know, there is only so much immigration a society can absorb.’

Those Ugandan Asians who were let in (“on humanitarian grounds”) demonstrated to the UK what hard work was all about. They came with nothing, set up little corner shops, worked 18-hour days and today hundreds of them are millionaires: a triumph of Gujarati and Punjabi enterprise.

But by the early Seventies, the UK had a new obsession. After having been kicked around by Charles de Gaulle for years, Britain was finally allowed into the EEC or the European Economic Community, a common market. The old “Commonwealth Passports” queues disappeared at Heathrow. Europeans (nearly all of them white and many, blonde and blue-eyed) were told they could just walk through the immigration counters. We, on the other hand, were told to get visas, a process that still can take weeks.

The British voted to stay in the EEC in 1975 but soon the Common Market gave way to a quasi-political structure called the European Union and any European was guaranteed right of residence, employment, benefits etc in the UK.

The old Commonwealth guys who had helped construct post-War Britain were told that they were still welcome to stay (“we are a multi-cultural society”) but could they please ask their relatives and friends to stay at home in Dhaka or Delhi or Nairobi or wherever. (If however they had White relatives in Sydney or Montreal, “well then, old boy, we shall certainly do our best to help bring them over.”)

The staff at Lurra, which served a good steak, believed that there are better opportunities outside of the UK, even as far as Australia (Lurra)

So why did Britain fall out of love with the Commonwealth (except for the Queen, who, God bless her, still loves the Commonwealth) and rush into bed with Europe?

Well, I guess we had outlived our usefulness. Europe made economic sense. (Or not, depending on which side you chose to believe during the referendum debate.) White people were easier to absorb into British society. And, I suspect, the UK establishment could never reconcile itself to Britain’s post-Empire role as just another small island of no great consequence. Being part of Europe made them feel like part of some big, great power bloc again.

And the same liberals who had supported curbs on immigration when it helped to keep black and brown people out – ‘only so much immigration a society can absorb’ – dropped their objections as white Europeans moved to Britain.

As you may have guessed, I’m ambivalent about Europe. In Britain, to be a Eurosceptic is akin to being a Neanderthal. All my British friends are determinedly pro-Europe and regard anyone who opposes the idea (i.e. the majority of the British people) as being anti-globalisation (hurrah for that, I say!) small minded, poorly educated and racist.

So, throughout this London trip I have been treated by old friends as a moron who can’t possibly be expected to understand the issues, because I live in Delhi.

Can’t I see that all the people who voted to leave are really racists?

At the glamorous Park Chinois most of the staff are European and didn’t care about Brexit as they would find work elsewhere (Park Chinois)

Racist? Hello? Why is it racist to oppose the EU? Well because the anti-Europe side includes people like the odious Nigel Farage who attacks hard-working Polish builders who take jobs away from those Brits who are not prepared to work as hard as them and expect more money, anyway. (All the anti-European immigration sentiment is always framed in anti-Eastern European terms. Western Europeans like the French and the Italians are as lazy as the Brits.)

It’s the bit about racism I find particularly ironic. A nation that has imposed virginity tests on brides coming from India and has passed a series of legislations aimed at keeping brown and black people out of the UK has now clambered on to the moral high ground, claiming to be anti-racist because liberals are standing up for the residency rights of White Polish builders!

One of the possible consequences of the UK’s exit from the EU is supposed to be the collapse of London’s reputation as the gourmet capital of the world. I have never been convinced by this argument. (Or by the claim that London is actually the gourmet capital of the world.)

London has some wonderful European chefs but many came in before the UK joined the EU: the Roux brothers, for instance. The whole Italian restaurant revolution of the Sixties (led by men like Mario, Franco, Lorenzo, and Alvaro) had nothing to do with the EU. And Britain’s reputation as a foodie haven is largely due to Brits themselves and some Commonwealth types: Gordon Ramsay, Marcus Wareing, Heston Blumenthal, Peter Gordon, Brett Graham, John Torode, Phil Howard, Alan Yau and others.

On the other hand, the people who are really hurting are the Indian restaurateurs. The Sylheti restaurant owners have complained again and again how they can’t get visas for their relatives – their restaurants tend to be family establishments. Indian restaurants run by Indians also face a huge crisis because it is next to impossible to get visas to import good chefs from the subcontinent.

The people within the restaurant trade who may be hurt are the front of the house staff. I went to Lurra, a Spanish restaurant famous for its Galician steak (nice but not in the same league as Kitty Fisher’s) and asked the guy who served our table if he was worried. “No”, he said. “It will take two years and in any case, there is less and less scope in England. I want to go to Australia.”

At Alan Yau’s glamorous Park Chinois (where, unlike the last time, I had a really great evening with superb food, excellent wine and great jazz) most of the staff are European. (A trend pioneered by Mr. Chow in the Sixties where Italians served Chinese food.) I asked the sommelier at Park Chinois, who is Bulgarian, what he made of Brexit. He didn’t really care, he said. He had spent years in Italy and would go back there.


But there will be people who will mind. I stayed at the wonderful Langham Hotel which merges Asian hospitality with super-efficient service from a largely European staff. Some of them may have to go back and they weren’t thrilled by the prospect.

As I explained to the lady at Immigration, I’m not British and I don’t live in the UK. (No doubt the next racist Immigration or Nationality Act they pass will take away my right of abode as well.) So, I have no locus standi to express an opinion. It is their country and their problem.

But, speaking only for myself, I rather like the idea of an EU-less Britain. Even if it has meant the loss of the honourable and decent David Cameron and the possible ascent of Teresa May. (Personally, I would have liked to see Boris Johnson as Prime Minister: at least he would have been entertaining.)

And I do feel bad for the wonderful Eastern Europeans who do such an excellent job working in the front of the house at London’s restaurants. If they do have to go, I shall certainly miss them.

From HT Brunch, July 10, 2016

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