It would be an understatement to say that the curry industry has been a marvel of British business over the last five decades. From its germination in the late 1950's, with the influx of immigrants to the UK, from India and Pakistan, who set up curry restaurants in cities like London, Birmingham, Bradford etc, the curry industry has grown at an exponential rate over the ensuing decades. Today it is one of the largest contributors, from the hospitality industry, to the UK economy, boasting a turnover of £3.5 Billion. However, it looks as if the UK curry industry has reached its Meridian and is now steadily slipping down the economic scale.
A misunderstanding of how the hospitality business operates and, to put it bluntly, a lack of commonsense on the government's part, has thrown the curry industry into an unprecedented crisis. Fundamentally speaking, the curry industry grew quickly because it was popular with the public and entrepreneurs galvanised this popularity in numerous ways. This hasn't changed in the slightest, yet circumstances outside of the industry's control have truncated its progress.
Enam Ali MBE, FIH is one of the leading voices in the UK curry industry; his Epsom restaurant Le Raj was the official curry caterer for London 2012, and is one of the only Indian restaurants to be a member of the prestigious La Chaine des Rotisseurs. He is also the publisher and editor of Spice Business Magazine and the founder of the British Curry Awards.
Speaking to Enam over the phone, he says that the crux of the problem is the governments tightening of the immigration laws, which has left a large gap in the market for good Indian chefs. "It was the last Labour government that initiated this Point Based System" he says "this system was borrowed from Australia, which works well there but doesn't here." The restriction on non-EU migrants has hit the industry hard, as immigrants from the EU have little to no knowledge of Indian cuisine. "It's do with authenticity" says Enam "If you go to a French restaurant, you want French chefs cooking the food, same too of Italian restaurants and so on, customers expect and demand authentic chefs, people want to feel they're eating something which has been cooked by someone who knows what they're doing."
This is having the most deleterious effect on the industry yet politicians from both sides of the political spectrum don't seem to grasp the severity of the problem. "I've raised this concern with ministers several times, to Chris Grayling and others, and none of them appear to understand. For the curry industry to compete in the market, this immigration policy needs reform." Although this current government has declared the PBS flawed, it's still very slow to do anything about it, particularly in concern of skilled workers.
If we turn our eye to the British-Asian community itself, we see that where traditionally sons and daughters would have gone on to work for the family business, they're now branching out into entirely different professions "obviously this a good thing on the whole" says Enam "the children and grandchildren of immigrants now feel part of British society like they've never done before, so traditional ties are being broken. But where the hospitality business is concerned, we're losing a sizeable proportion of people who could be great Indian food chefs, it's a difficult situation."
Why should we care about the state of the curry industry?
The curry industry is one of British hospitality's crowning achievements, as Enam states "we've created such a wonderful industry that the whole world comes to enjoy, it's something you can't find anywhere else, not in the U.S, Dubai, France etc. Even in India, its British curry products like Patak's sauces for example that restaurateurs want, because they know it's good. The industry has so much influence over in India, simply speaking because it's all about quality."
Having grown and become so successful so quickly, it's important for Britain to understand how vital it is to the economy and British prestige abroad.
In conclusion, Enam says "we can't let pessimism overtake our optimism, there's what I would describe as a nagging culture in the UK, nothing's ever good enough, we moan it's too cold, we moan it's too hot etc. What we need to do is be proud of and look after our achievements, like the curry industry, no one can come close to us, and we must help it in times of crises."