February 21, 2019 |
It is nearly 20 years since Robin Cook, then the UK’s foreign secretary, proclaimed chicken tikka masala to be the country’s national dish. Little did that humble, worryingly orange dish realise that it would soon be on the verge of extinction along with its overseer, the British curry house.
According to Yawar Khan, chairman of the Asian Catering Federation (ACF), 50% of the UK’s 35,000 Indian restaurants will disappear from British high streets inside a decade. Another nail in the coffin of all that is great about Great Britain, following on from our article on pubs who are struggling under the weight of increased costs.
These are turbulent times and in a crisis we should be able to turn to two steadfast custodians of culture – the pub and the balti house. But both are under attack and face destruction and demolition from two powerful enemies; the consumer and brexit.
Actually let’s just blame the people.
Those who voted for separation from the European Union would certainly have not have taken into account the enormous changes that the country would face post-split. Yes immigration was a major factor, yes some did not like paying into the bottomless pit of money that is the EU. But if the referendum had asked whether you would wanted to lose your Friday beers and chicken madras then the whole shambles might well have been avoided.
But as it wasn’t asked, Brexit went into disaster overdrive and, instead of the balti being the saviour it became the victim.
But it isn’t just about Brexit, it also about changing consumer tastes. Today’s consumer drinks less alcohol and is more considerate as to what they put into their bodies. A ghee ladened curry with questionable protein sources masked by a shed load of garam masala isn’t going to fit into their Insta-filled lifestyles. You don’t see many images of heads tilted to one side, teeth gleaming in front of a pint of lager and a bowl of onion bhajis.
This government is hell-bent on reducing the number of foreign workers who dare attempt to earn a living in the UK, forgetting that the country has always welcomed foreign workers who have contributed towards creating a diverse and generally co-operative society. By creating stricter work requirements, including mandating that salaries for a curry chef must be a minimum of £35,000, the government is signing the death warrant of an industry that contributes over $5 billion annually to the British economy. Short-sightedness most probably, trying to curry favour (?) most definitely but whatever way you want to look at it, chefs are in short supply with estimated shortfalls of 30,000 and that is a problem that is only going to get worse.
So maybe the answer lies closer to home. With the changes in consumer tastes and the immigration issues, it is time for second and third generation British chefs from an Indian sub-continental heritage to step up and Save the Balti.
Conservative MP Paul Scully says he’ll lobby for relaxing the rules for chefs as Britain revamps its system, but he sees the answer closer to home. “The only long-term viable solution” is “finding a more effective way to recruit chefs in the domestic UK market,” he said in his role as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the British curry industry.
He has a point. These people not only have the understanding of the cuisine having had their mums and aunties force feed them ladoos and samosas for years, but they also understand today’s consumer. They know that a lighter, authentic version of the standard 1990’s balti is the way forward and that they can deliver it.
Some of the new breed of Indian restaurants have understood that their futures depended on being in touch with their customer and so brands such as Darbaar, Darjeeling Express, Gunpowder and the renowned Dishoom have, in the main, British owners of Indian sub-continental heritage and have fused their heritage and nationality together to form a new breed of Indian restaurants that does not need to import specialist chefs from overseas. You are more likely to find a slow cooked leg of lamb served by a waiter called Annie than you are a lamb vindaloo served by Abdul.
So maybe it’s a good thing. Times change and if you are clinging onto a failing past then you are going to end up in trouble. This staffing issue doesn’t just affect the Indian restaurant industry, it also affects the Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Indonesian restaurants too as they face the need to change.
So whilst in no way I am advocating Brexit and its implicit jingoism, I am suggesting that the restrictions on bringing in skilled workers may be there for a period of time and this should be used as a catalyst for change. Consumer tastes are changing, so the good old balti needs to change too and the best way it can do that is if the British Asians create their own concepts.
Another way to look at it is this. If somebody doesn’t grab this opportunity and creates the Indian restaurant of tomorrow then post the non-existent pub, which became a craft ale bar, we will all be going home to a frozen Findus pizza. I have lived through these terrible times and I certainly don’t want to revisit them. So my message is clear – in uncertainty there lies opportunity so go out my son and create a garam masala phoenix that majestically rises from the ashes of post-brexit Britain.