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Wanted: Indian chefs

By Nicholas Lander
April 01, 2008 11:07 IST
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Indian restaurants have become a prominent feature of the British culinary landscape over the past 50 years. Most small towns boast a curry or balti house, with a menu adapted for a western palate (chicken tikka masala for example, often described as our national dish, cannot be found in India), while anyone who craves more authentic food should head to Brick Lane in the east end of London or Southall, in the west, which has an even more concentrated collection of restaurants.

A number of talented chefs have also settled closer to the capital's centre: Atul Kochhar of Benares restaurant; Yogesh Datta of The Painted Heron; Vineet Bhatia of Rasoi; Alfred Prasad of Tamarind and Cyrus Todiwala of Cafe Spice Namaste.

But despite these strengths, the institution is under threat from two quarters. The first, specific to these shores, is the imposition of higher criteria for entry to the UK by the Home Office, an approach which is also affecting recruitment by Chinese and Japanese restaurateurs. It is, however, having a particularly significant impact on the Bangladeshi community, which populates so many Indian restaurant kitchens. The Immigration Advisory Service estimates this particular sector alone requires another 27,500 employees.

Finding them is increasingly difficult due to the second issue - that of the growing demand for chefs in India itself.

Earlier this year I met Hemant Oberoi, executive chef for the Taj Hotel Group, who explained that more hotels are opening in India as a result of the country's booming economy and its growth is drawing many Indian chefs back home.

"I am receiving applications from chefs who went abroad to find work, particularly in the Gulf, but who now want to come back and cook in India," he says.

To understand the implications of these changes, I sit down to discuss the situation over a very hot lamb vindaloo with Cyrus Todiwala, late one afternoon at Cafe Spice Namaste, his Indian restaurant in east London.

I chose to meet Todiwala for several reasons. At 51, he is slightly older than his London contemporaries and widely respected, not just by the capital's other chefs but also by the large hospitality companies, whose chefs attend his masterclass events, which are also run for the public.

He has given a great deal back to the UK, his home of 17 years, principally via training organisations such as Springboard UK and Investors in People, for which he was awarded an MBE in 2000.

Todiwala laughs when I ask him how difficult it is to hire good Indian chefs. "It is impossible rather than difficult, I would say. And to be honest I cannot even remember when we were able to hire a good Indian waiter. It's a big challenge."

But Todiwala, an optimist like so many in the restaurant business, has ideas about how this problem can be resolved.

"There are two things that have to happen. The first is that the Asian community has to be less ghettoised and contribute more to the society we have become a part of. And the second is we have to improve our whole approach to training."

"When young chefs first start in the big hotel kitchens in India they are taught the basics of French cuisine, of which they have had no experience at home.

"In the UK, we tried something similar a few years ago when we opened the Asian & Oriental School of Catering in Hackney, east London. While it was open we had over 900 youngsters attend. But then there was a change in the way the school was funded and it was forced to close down."

Todiwala found this disheartening: "But I still believe that if I could secure adequate funding for the right building and bring over seven or eight top Indian tutors we could train enough young people here to prevent standards falling."

A return trip to Cafe Spice Namaste for dinner again demonstrates the authenticity of Todiwala's cooking, which draws inspiration from Goa and his own Parsee background.

Beetroot and coconut samosas, batons of aubergine deep fried with turmeric, a masala spring roll stuffed with minced lamb, a slow roast lamb and the desserts - particularly the kulfi and ice cream made from Hunza apricots - are very good. Even the dining room, brightly coloured but functional, is evocative of India.

But despite his optimism, Todiwala expresses concern over the future of the restaurant.

"We've just been told that we have a new landlord, which makes me fear our rent will go up. And unless we change our approach I cannot see the same number of talented Indian chefs coming over here to work."

Given the contribution that he and so many other Indian chefs have made to British restaurants, this would be a great shame.

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Nicholas Lander
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