A shortage of skilled chefs in Britain has been likened to “cancer eating away at the hospitality sector”, as industry figures show at least two curry houses are being for-ced out of business every week.
The shocking number of closures was revealed by the sales data of Cobra, the beer sold in most Indian restaurants.
The figure was confirmed by the Bangladesh Caterers Association (BCA) which represents the UK’s 12,000 curry restaurants and takeaways.
Ministers have said the issue of staff shortages is being addressed by training Britons to become chefs in Asian restaurants, but industry leaders say the drive to recruit locally is not working.
The BCA warns hundreds more curry houses will shut down.
Pasha Khandaker, president of BCA, told Eastern Eye: “I’m not surprised by these stats at all. I’ve been talking about it for a long time now. It’s more than two that are closing each week.
“It’s like chronic disease, like a cancer. We will see more places closing down very shortly.
“It’s not just the beer suppliers who will be affected. We have chicken, meat, rice and curry suppliers who rely on our trade. It’s a ripple effect.”
Government rules say to bring a skilled chef in from outside the EU, they must have five years of experience and be paid a minimum of £29,570 a year after deductions for accommodation and meals. The job cannot be in a fast-food outlet or an eatery which provides a take-away service.
“This situation faced by the industry started from the shortage of staff,”said Khandekar. “When you have a shortage, it means your service is affected, standard of food is affected; you have less business and low-quality staff. When your business is affected, the natural thing is to close.”
Samson Sohail, sales director at Cobra Beer, said the statistics were found through 16 sales reps based up and down the country. They visit the 7,000 licensed restaurants on Cobra’s list every six months and every 12 weeks give them a courtesy call.
“The statistics, which come from 2014 sales figures, show that restaurants are opening as well, but not so many as they are closing,” Sohail told Eastern Eye.
“There was a time when we had 7,600 restaurants on our books, but now it’s under 7,000. The problem has been becoming bigger in the past four years.”
Cobra has partnered with award-winning chefs to launch an initiative that will train other chefs around the country in a comprehensive skills sharing programme. More than 250 restaurants have already signed up to the initiative.
Sohail added: “When we first started, 25 years ago, we were helped by the Indian restaurant industry. They welcomed us, supported us and helped build Cobra. Cobra is now a world-class beer but we still won’t forget our roots.”
A government spokesman said they welcomed top chefs promoting innovative cuisine, but also wanted to nurture more domestic talent.
Khandekar, who owns a chain of restaurants in Kent, said restaurants would take “a young local person”, but they are not interested in working in the sector.
“They are more educated and can get higher wages. If you look at the history of hospitality industry in this country, it’s always been supported by foreign workers. Everywhere you go, you will always have people from abroad,” he said.
“There are two immediate solutions. They can at least let one chef for one outlet from abroad work with reasonable wages, not £30,000. There’s no reason to have it that high.
“The other thing is they have to inject some incentives, because we are contributing £4.2 billion to the British economy; we deserve a contribution from them.”
Iqbal Wahhab is chair of the Asian Restaurants Skills Board which was set up by former communities secretary Eric Pickles to boost the profile of high-end Asian cuisine. He said encouraging home-grown talent to take college courses is the solution to growing the industry.
Wahhab added: “The Asian Restaurant Skills Board and our Mastarachef programme have worked with government and People 1st to implement strategies that will entice greater numbers of young people here to take advantage of courses.
“There are also weekend courses called the Junior Chefs Academy which are working very well and will in time deliver.
“Our remit is to drive more young people through these courses so they can realise that the prospect of becoming the next Cyrus Todiwala, Atul Kochar or Vivek Singh is very much open to them.
“Yes, we need more talent but a more constructive approach to this would be for restaurateurs to open themselves up for apprenticeships for young people and to engage with local schools and colleges, rather than yearn for the days we could bring overseas labour in.”