There seems to be a bit of hoo-ha going on about Britain' curry houses. What piqued my curiosity was a report in The Daily Mail earlier this summer that I came across whilst in London. In brief the report highlighted that sales data by Cobra Beer - a very popular beer sold in Indian restaurants, indicated that due to a shortage of skilled chefs, curry houses in Britain were closing at a rate of two a week. According to the news report this was further confirmed by the trade association, namely The Bangladesh Caterers Association. The crisis was put down to the first generation of restaurateurs retiring and with their offspring, some of who were university educated, not wanting to take up the mantle from their fathers.
The report was further picked up by The Telegraph and other British rags. It was an interesting story to say the least but what got me to write this article was when I came across it in The New York Times. I thought to myself, "If the story has crossed the pond then it must be serious, and it needs a bit of an insider's touch."
This story was of particular interest to me as the Indian restaurant was where I cut my teeth in the world of work during my school holidays as a fifteen to sixteen-year-old. My uncle, who was my chaperone in my first book, A Boy His Bibi And A Bari, owned a restaurant in the northern leafy suburbs of Kent, England. He opened the restaurant in 1974 and catered to a population of diners who were 99% white. It was during the latter 1960's and 1970's that saw that most of these first-generation Bangladeshis opening curry houses throughout the United Kingdom. To say they did a roaring trade would be an understatement. The dishes were very much Anglicised to cater to British palates. The ubiquitous Chicken Tikka Massala, a mild creamy curry dish that was the most popular has now been usurped by the Chicken Jalfrezi, a slightly spicier meal. Then there were crazy curry eaters, who after ten pints of Carlsberg lager, would brave the volcanic, tear inducing, tongue-singeing dish know as the Phaal. Even I would not dare eat this dish, as my stomach would be in tatters for the next two days. The dish was essentially a basic curry with chilli powder as the main spice. Even though today most of the curry houses sell Cobra, Bangla and Kingfisher beers, during the early heydays, the one and only beer sold was Carlsberg lager on draught.
During my summer work tenures of two maybe three weeks I would help out in the kitchen peeling potatoes and onions as well as up front setting tables, folding napkins and stocking the bar. I would also help my uncle count the coins and bag them for banking. Most of the business was in cash and many restaurateurs including my uncle opened more than one eatery. A further group of restaurant owners entered the market in the late 1980s early 1990s when the rag trade - clothing manufacturing, died in the East End of London and many of the former factory owners opened dining establishments to replace their former trade. Almost 9 out of 10 of these restaurants that catered to the white British palate, were owned by a Bangladeshi hailing from the district of Sylhet in the North East of the country. Now! why do I say white? Well, Bangladeshis in those early days did not eat out at Indian restaurants, because the authentic curry was cooked dutifully by the restaurant owners wives at home. They cooked dishes that were not Anglicised and were not served in restaurants. The women used a cooking style that they had learned back in Bangladesh and mixed spices in a way that was distinctly different from what the male chefs were utilising in the restaurants.
During those early years, one could not find the spices and ingredients needed to make a curry at home, unless you visited cities in England that had a high South Asian population. Areas such as London's East End, Southall in Slough, Leicester and Birmingham among others. However, as curry's popularity grew, Pataks, Noon and other companies sprang up to supply ready-made sauces and then the supermarkets began creating ready-made fresh and frozen curries. This proliferation of ready-made spices meant that chefs could now cheat. Whereas, previously they would need to mix the spices themselves, measuring cumin, coriander, turmeric, ginger and a myriad of other exotic spices to create the flavours. Now, they spooned it out of a jar.
Currently, the curry industry is worth approximately £4.5 billion ($6.7 billion) to the UK economy with 12,000 establishments employing over 150,000 people. So the curry is here to stay as it contends for British palates beating the nation's favourite takeaway - fish and chips, year in year out.
I had my foray into the curry business when I was an investor in a restaurant from 2005 to 2008. I sold out as the working partners had a disagreement, and I arbitrated by selling the business. For three and a half years, I saw the nuts and bolts of running such a business, I saw how hard it was. I would do my consulting work during the week and then on the weekends I would be the bookkeeper, making sure the numbers added up. I would ensure bills were paid, wages were handed out and staff were happy. I placated the main chef and the second chef when things got heated. I would make recommendations to the chef to bring in innovative new items to the menu, a bit of authenticity and something that was disruptive to the status quo.
So is the much ado about nothing justified on the restaurateurs part?
Well in order to understand this a bit better one needs to ask a few other questions. Is the curry about to disappear from Britain and consigned to the annals history? Are the restaurateurs right to be worried about mass closures of restaurants with losses of jobs? And finally is the British government to blame for not issuing sufficient visas for trainee chefs?
Poppycock! Is what I say to the first question. The British love affair with the curry is stronger than ever before. It began during the colonial days and now curry dishes grace tables up and down the land. From the mild Korma to the Vindaloo, served with copious Basmati rice, Naan bread and side dishes. It is even more imperative that the humble curry evolves to sate the British appetite not only for today but for years to come.
The second conundrum is a valid one. Yes, there will be closures of restaurants. Sub-standard fayre is shunned across all types of eateries. Yes, the second generation children of restaurateurs do not want to follow in the footsteps of their parents but rather become lawyers, accountants and doctors. With an increasingly discerning British palate a more authentic curry experience is being sought by diners. Hence why people seek out Brick Lane in London's Whitechapel, Green Street in East Ham, Birmingham's Balti Houses and Manchester's Curry Mile. The answer to this is one of bringing more "home cooking" to the restaurants. My mum taught me how to cook which I further perfected with the chef at my restaurant. Even to this day I will cook a dish or my mum will prepare something for lunch or dinner that you will never see in a curry house. Another twist available is with Britain's multicultural heritage and populace; an evolution of the curry may be what is required. There are flavours and tastes from all four corners of the globe, and a bit of creativity and disruption could take the curry to another level.
Is the government to blame for a shortage of trainee chefs? Well! to be a chef, I believe you really have to love cooking, be passionate about food, be an alchemist in the kitchen, working wonderful experiments with spices, flavours and ingredients. Does that mean there aren't people in the UK who want to be curry chefs? Yes! there are, and those would-be-chefs are not consigned to the Bangladeshi or South Asian population. Can anyone be trained to become a master chef in curries? Absolutely, if the desire and willingness to work hard and persevere until success has been attained.
So what is it that the trainee chefs from Bangladesh are bringing that is not available in the working population in Britain? Well nothing apart from their willingness to work hard and learn. Are they better chefs? No! because in Bangladesh - a patriarchal society, men and boys do not cook. They have mothers, wives and sisters cook for them from birth to death. They are no more naturally inclined or talented to be chefs than a sixteen-year-old from an inner city school in England just about to enter the workforce.
So what is the restaurateur to do? Well! Just as technology has brought disruption and change to our worlds through the likes of Uber, 3D printing and the Internet of Things. I feel a similar renaissance is required in the curry industry of Britain. Creative evolution is begging here for a new cadre of chefs, restaurants and inspiring new dishes to keep the love of curry going for generations to come.