Drumroll, please. And the National Curry Capital of Britain is…..Bradford! At first glance, the Indian restaurant scene would appear both hale and hearty, with the Friday-night cravings of even the smallest cul-de-sac in Middle England-shire sated by a local curryhouse. But the facts say otherwise, as does a stroll along the South end of Brick Lane, whose eateries now serve more Margheritas than masalas.
Rents are up, footfall is down. It’s a pattern replicated up and down the country, so much so that the £3.5billion Indian restaurant industry has declared itself in crisis. But those involved aren’t taking the threat lying down. Academic institutions in both Bradford and London are devoting themselves to a bid to reverse the trend, hoping to coax young aspiring chefs into Indian kitchens.
A major factor in the restaurants’ struggle is the inability to recruit chefs skilled in the myriad styles of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi cooking required in the typical curryhouse. A crackdown on immigration legislation left restaurateurs powerless to employ talented chefs from the subcontinent, and simultaneously revealed a nation bereft of home-grown talent up to the task at hand.
In answer to the growing conundrum, both the International Food Academy at Bradford College and the University of West London have launched initiatives designed to engage aspiring chefs with Indian cuisine. It’s an understandably hard sell, with second- and third- generation immigrants perhaps more inclined to the sort of jobs which involve considerably less physical effort for considerably better pay.
There’s also, of course, the issue of glamour. The curryhouse is a stalwart for most, if not all, British diners- but has never been held in the same esteem as venues offering European cuisine. Couple that with the endless comic satirisation of ‘going out for a ‘ruby’’, and it’s not surprising young British Asians don’t want to enter the industry. Or that people won’t dig half so deep into their pockets when they fancy an Indian.
But the chefs putting their names to the latest initiatives are those who themselves have successfully rallied against the conventions and stereotypes which unendingly proliferate the British psyche. London-based individuals like Vivek Singh and Cyrus Todiwalas have flouted the rules with panache, and are firmly behind the drive to entice more spicy talent into the arena. Up North, meanwhile, Akbars‘ founder Shabir Hussain is taking on apprentices through Bradford’s scheme.
Colin Burt, Head Chef at the International Food Academy in Bradford, strongly supports the idea. Under his tutelage, both youths and career-changers will undertake not only practical training, but also benefit from a job placement at noted local restaurants like Shimla Spice, Aagrah Shipley, Zouk and Akbars. At the University of West London, interest in the four £3,750 apprenticeships has spiked since recent coverage on the BBC.
With industry noteables like the Brilliant’s founder Gulu Anand and Lord Noon- the man behind most of the Indian ready-meals you’ve ever eaten- backing the schemes, the training and apprenticeship ideas look like a persuasive answer to this particular element of the Indian restaurant crisis. The real struggle was always going to be making the Indian kitchen a sexy and desirable prospect for the ‘yoof’ of today.
Can it be done? Well, with hour-long queues for tables at Dishoom’s new Shoreditch outpost, a mere step from Brick Lane, it seems so. Brits are finally affording subcontinental cuisine the interest- perhaps even the respect- it deserves, gaily munching on smart tins of Duke of Delhi’s snack mixes from posh purveyor Fortnum & Mason as they eagerly await the seat which will entitle them to get stuck into the lamb raan bun they’ve heard so much about.
There’s even room for non-Indians- and female ones at that, Ganapati’s Clare Fisher being a prime example. And we’re increasingly celebrating the talent at the tandoor, recognising the complexity and diversity of subcontinental cuisine, and displaying a frankly voracious appetite for it. In Capital Spice, Chrissie Walker showcases 21 of London’s most popular Indian establishments and their chefs. Reading their bios, it’s clear an Indian chef’s job can be fulfilling, rewarding and, yes, even sexy.
So will we see the return to rude heath for the nation’s Indian restaurants? It’s a big definitely maybe, so long as the industry can embrace the initiatives wholeheartedly, becoming less insular and more egalitarian into the bargain. With careful delivery and a decent sell of the training schemes, the industry could just render itself futureproof. And that alone has got to be worth a celebratory Ruby Murray.
Chrissie Walker’s Capital Spice is published by Absolute Press, RRP £25
For more on the University of West London scheme, see http://courses.uwl.ac.uk/CourseDetails.aspx?CourseInstanceID=33503
For more on Bradford’s International Food Academy, see http://ifa.bradfordcollege.ac.uk/
Main image: Regency Club