NEW DELHI:To the palates of chefs from the Indian subcontinent, the idea of flying to the UK on a ‘vindaloo visa’ does not seem as flavourful as the lip-smacking Goan dish itself. Ever since Liberal Democrat leader, Sir Vince Cable, proposed at the British Curry Awards last Monday that Britain should seriously consider luring Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi chefs on one-year visas to resolve its growing curry crisis, vindaloo visas have dominated discussions in drawing rooms and across dining tables. But chefs The Sunday Standard spoke to have been baulking at the proposal.
According to a survey done by the British Curry Awards, a severe shortage of curry chefs has badly hit what has long been one of Britain’s most popular and lucrative food industries. A cap on visas for migrant workers from outside the European Union has been seen as a major reason for this, leading to fears that an estimated 6,000 of the 12,000 curry restaurants in the UK could shut shop over the next decade. Some have suggested that three to four such eateries are closing down every week, sending the 3.6-billion-pound curry restaurant industry into a tailspin.
Yet, the highly sought-after South Asian curry chefs are not smacking their lips. It’s not always about money, some suggest. Says Sujeet Singh, executive chef, Radisson Noida: “A chef who goes to the UK from India is already trained. He doesn’t grow there exponentially. There is monetary growth but no significant career growth. Therefore, even if they’re not allowed to work in the UK, it won’t impact them dramatically.”
Others have been weighing the pros and cons of jumping at a one-year work visa. They see the suggestion as progressive but not practical. “Established players would not like to risk their careers for a year’s exposure, because after returning to India, they will have to look for jobs again. Keeping the Indian job market in mind, it could be a challenge,” says Tarun Dacha, corporate chef, Claridges Hotel, New Delhi.
Dacha feels that existing visa restrictions will keep robbing the chicken tikka-loving British of the chance of tasting authentic Indian cuisine because “our neighbours are passing on their variations (of curry) as authentic”.
Touching on Brexit, he says that only if the UK manages to exit the European Union without hobbling its businesses, would it be able “to have the cake and eat it too”.
According to a House of Lords report, leaving the European Union without a trade deal in place could put up to 97 per cent of British food and drink exports at risk. About 29 per cent of British food, including supplies for restaurants, comes from the European Union.
Some suggest that Britain needs to bank on home-grown talent to sustain its restaurant industry. Says a British High Commission spokesperson from Delhi: “The restaurant industry needs to move away from an unsustainable reliance on migrant workers.
“We do understand that millions of people in the UK enjoy Indian food every week. We continue to welcome the very top chefs who promote innovative and authentic cuisine in the UK, and these skilled chefs are on the shortage occupation list, after all. The Great British curry house is a cornerstone of the unique living bridge that exists between the UK and India.”
Precisely, Sir Vince Cable would probably say as he steps up his campaign for vindaloo visas. Replying to The Sunday Standard over email, he writes: “With the support of around 100 Indian restaurateurs from across the country, I have written to our Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, asking that the government no longer sit on suggestions for the so-called ‘vindaloo visa’, which were sent to her department over a year and a half ago.
“It is time for the government to read this report, which was produced by a section of the British curry industry, and take its suggestions seriously.”
Stressing that curries are arguably the UK’s favourite cuisine, Cable continues: “We need to make sure what has been a tremendously successful industry is not ruined because of a skills shortage... A one-year visa to bring in skilled curry chefs would go a long way in training the next generation of highly skilled chefs needed to keep this great, popular industry going.”
A retired restaurateur from Gloucestershire, South West England, rues: “It was Britain’s greatest strength to absorb culinary and cultural diversity. Well... not any more. And that’s a pity.”
A former officer at the British High Commission underscores the critical role the 2.37 million migrants in the UK play. “The UK heavily depends on them, specially people like caretakers, cleaners, agriculturists, those involved in manufacturing, and sanitation. The skill and labour shortage that the country faces can effectively be met by creating jobs for those skilled personnel from across the borders.”