In­dus­try sup­ported Brexit, but says it didn’t get visas for needed work­ers

The Denver Post - - BUSINESS - By Dan­ica Kirka The As­so­ci­ated Press

Celebrity chef Oli Khan and oth­ers at Great Bri­tain’s curry houses feel be­trayed. As an in­dus­try, they backed leav­ing the EU in the un­der­stand­ing that it would be­come eas­ier to bring in more chefs from South Asia. But that doesn’t seem to be in the cards.

lon­don» Mo­hammed-Faizul Haque makes it all look so easy.

To a pan full of siz­zling chicken he adds a la­dle of or­angey base sauce and then lemon, send­ing flames shoot­ing up. He reaches to a line of ves­sels for pinches of cumin, co­rian­der, salt, chili and gar­lic, the feel of the in­gre­di­ents be­tween his fin­gers as his only mea­sure. Af­ter the demon­stra­tion, he sends a plate of Balti kuchi chili chicken up­stairs to the din­ing room at the Taste of In­dia in Lon­don.

Haque’s deft touch isn’t easy to repli­cate — and that’s a prob­lem for Bri­tain’s curry houses, which are shut­ting down at a rate of two a week, in part be­cause there aren’t enough chefs and kitchen staff.

Curry restau­rant own­ers, who as an in­dus­try backed the cam­paign to leave the Euro­pean Union af­ter as­sur­ances it would lead to more visas for South Asian cooks, feel be­trayed. They’re an­gry that they helped de­liver the vote to leave only to have the gov­ern­ment fail to de­liver on prom­ises to help save their in­dus­try. Rather than eas­ing the short­age, Brexit is likely to make the sit­u­a­tion worse by cut­ting off the flow of East Euro­pean work­ers who in­creas­ingly have filled the gaps in re­cent years.

“What’s hap­pen­ing since Brexit is even more res­tau­rants are clos­ing; we can’t get peo­ple from any­where,” said Oli Khan, the se­nior vice pres­i­dent of the Bangladesh Cater­ers As­so­ci­a­tion UK and a celebrity chef. “Curry houses are in dan­ger.”

Brexit is just the lat­est prob­lem to hit the South Asian restau­rant in­dus­try in a coun­try where chicken tikka masala is as much the na­tional dish as fish and chips. In ad­di­tion to a chef short­age, Bri­tain’s 12,000 curry res­tau­rants are strug­gling with com­pe­ti­tion from pre­pared su­per­mar­ket meals, high de­liv­ery costs, and ris­ing food prices from a lower pound.

Though ca­su­ally called In­dian food, most curry houses are run by Bangladeshi im­mi­grants and their off­spring who fused South Asian fla­vors with Bri­tish tastes to cre­ate a new cui­sine worth an es­ti­mated $5.6 bil­lion to the econ­omy an­nu­ally.

For ex­am­ple, the hum­ble pa­padum isn’t tra­di­tion­ally served as a starter, said Enam Ali, owner of Le Raj in Ep­som. It be­came an ap­pe­tizer when res­tau­rants tried to ac­com­mo­date Bri­tons ac­cus­tomed to be­ing served bread when they sat down. The onion bhaji was adapted from onion rings.

What is at stake, Ali said, is not the her­itage of Bangladesh, but the her­itage of Bri­tain.

“I’ve given my life in the curry in­dus­try and I can see with my own eyes that it is dis­ap­pear­ing,” Ali said.

The un­ease of the curry houses is repli­cated in ways large and small across Bri­tain, as Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May pre­pares to start the le­gal process of leav­ing the EU next week. High­tech com­pa­nies in search of en­gi­neers, farm­ers in need of fruit pick­ers and builders look­ing for con­struc­tion work­ers have raised con­cerns about pos­si­ble staff short­ages.

The hos­pi­tal­ity in­dus­try is par­tic­u­larly wor­ried. An anal­y­sis from the Oxford Mi­gra­tion Ob­ser­va­tory shows some 89,000 peo­ple from many of the EU’s new en­trant coun­tries in the east are work­ing in food and bev­er­age ser­vices.

May has taken a tough stance on im­mi­gra­tion af­ter anger about high ar­rival num­bers fu­eled last year’s vote to leave the EU. While ex­it­ing the bloc will al­low Bri­tain to even­tu­ally limit Euro­pean im­mi­gra­tion, the gov­ern­ment has so far re­fused to re­lax the rules for mi­grants from non-EU coun­tries.

“We are work­ing across gov­ern­ment to iden­tify and de­velop op­tions to shape our fu­ture sys­tem to en­sure the best pos­si­ble out­come for the Bri­tish peo­ple,” the Home Of­fice said.

The rules now re­quire mi­grants from out­side the EU to have a job pay­ing some $43,600 a year— more than many nurses make in Bri­tain. Curry houses, which mostly sell food at rea­son­able prices, can’t meet that stan­dard.

The curry own­ers have in re­cent years filled the gap by hir­ing East­ern Euro­peans, par­tic­u­larly Poles and Ro­ma­ni­ans. Be­tween 5,000 and 6,000 curry house work­ers are East Euro­peans out of a to­tal 150,000.

Take Aga Poz­niak, a qual­i­fied teacher form Lodz in cen­tral Poland. Though she now serves cus­tomers in front of house at Taste of In­dia, she started out as a kitchen as­sis­tant.

“I had never been in an In­dian restau­rant in Poland so I had no idea about the In­dian kitchen,” she said. “So I learned ev­ery­thing here. … It doesn’t mat­ter when you cut pep­per if you cut pep­per for In­dian food or Pol­ish food. You cut pep­per.”

The lack of prospects for ad­vance­ment, how­ever, of­ten means that the East­ern Euro­peans soon move on to other jobs.

And the res­tau­rants, some of which have been in the fam­ily for decades, can no longer look to the next gen­er­a­tion to fill the gaps. As mothers and fa­thers have pros­pered and be­come part of Bri­tish so­ci­ety, many of their chil­dren have moved into pro­fes­sions such as law and medicine rather than cook­ing. And with no new in­flux of onion chop­pers in the pipe­line, even those that want to stay in the busi­ness are hav­ing a tough time.

Sayem Ahmed, for ex­am­ple, wants to trans­form the Taste of In­dia into a Miche­lin-starred eatery, and he’s study­ing busi­ness at Mid­dle­sex Univer­sity to make that dream come true.

But the 19-year-old finds him­self in­creas­ingly pulling shifts at the fam­ily restau­rant — time that takes him away from his stud­ies.

“I’d say the whole in­dus­try is in dan­ger,” he said. “They re­ally need to think of some­thing for us.”

Chef Mo­hammed- Faizul Haque uses lemon juice to make flames as he demon­strates how to give a smoky fla­vor to dishes such as Kuchi chili chicken at the Taste of In­dia curry restau­rant in Lon­don. Matt Dunham, The As­so­ci­ated Press

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