‘Maha crisis’ of chefs hits £4 bn Indian food industry in UK

  • Prasun Sonwalkar, Hindustan Times, London
  • Updated: Aug 24, 2015 22:53 IST
Celebrated chef Cyrus Todiwala (Photo courtesy: craftguildofchefs.org)

A celebrated chef and restaurant owner described the severe shortage of Indian chefs in Britain as a ‘maha crisis’ that is not only leading to poaching, driving up salaries to unrealistic levels, affecting quality, but also leading to closing of at least two Indian restaurants a day.

Cyrus Todiwala, OBE, who owns Café Spice Namaste and other leading restaurants in London, told HT that the David Cameron government had not realised the gravity of the situation affecting an industry with an annual turnover of over 4 billion pounds.

He said: “It is not a crisis, it is a ‘maha crisis’. There is so much poaching going on; I lost two chefs recently and I know others who have lost many more. Their salaries have gone beyond the limits–how many restaurants can afford to pay chefs £55,000 or 60,000 a year?”

Some years ago, the government encouraged EU migrants in the UK who have full rights to work–such as Poles, Romanians and Bulgarians–to train and work in the Indian food industry, but Indian owners say they do not–or cannot–acquire the right skills needed.

Stringent visa curbs imposed in recent years have made it virtually impossible to import chefs from India. The booming food sector in India paying high salaries has also led to chefs preferring to stay home than migrate to Britain or the Gulf countries, Todiwala said.

Restaurant owners across Britain have reported the critical situation, including the Bangladesh Caterers Association (BCA), which has 12,000 members. Several ‘Indian’ restaurants in Britain are owned and run by people of Bangladesh origin.

Sunil Kumar, a senior chef who arrived here in 1999 from New Delhi and works in a leading restaurant, said: “There have been cases of food poisoning because owners desperate for chefs make untrained people cook in their kitchens. Food quality has gone down a lot.”

The problem has been complicated by the children of first generation Indian restaurant owners choosing other professions, and also by further curbs on Indian and other non-EU nationals planned by the Cameron government.

BCA wants the government to allow short-term visas for chefs from south Asia, but Todiwala said it will not resolve the situation. Skills training was the only way out, he said, and regretted that a school he set up four years ago had to close when government funding was stopped.

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