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Goodbye to the bhajis

01 January 2000
Goodbye to the bhajis

With their bright modern interiors and innovative dishes, the growing number of trendy Indian eateries such as London's Café Spice Namaste and Birmingham's Shimla Pinks are a million miles away from the flock-wallpapered curry houses that first appeared in this country more than 25 years ago.

No wonder, then, that when earlier this year industry spokesman Iqbal Wahhab wrote an article describing a night out at an Indian restaurant as akin to going to a funeral, where waiters were "miserable gits" and the curry sauce was likely to be from a jar, his readers saw red.

Clichéd image

In the fallout, Wahhab was forced to resign as editor-in-chief of Tandoori Magazine, and Indian restaurateurs boycotted both the magazine and Cobra beer, which he markets. It's not that Indian restaurateurs deny that there is a skills shortage, but Wahhab hit on the one issue at the root of it - his comments fuelled the clichéd image that curry houses are downmarket and not to be taken seriously.

The damage was compounded by the fact that his remarks were seized on by the national press, radio and TV. "The way I wrote the article was a mistake," Wahhab now admits. "I offended people when discussing a crucial area of the industry."

One of those trying to contain the potential damage is Enam Ali, chairman of the Guild of Bangladeshi Restaurateurs and owner of Le Raj restaurant in Epsom Downs, Surrey. Bangladeshis own nearly two-thirds of the so-called "Indian" restaurants in Britain, followed in numbers by Pakistanis and Indians, and he has long battled on their behalf to prove that the sector has shed its downmarket image. Now he has the figures to prove it.

According to market analyst Grove International, the Indian foodservice market has matured since it started in the UK 25 years ago, and is now worth more than £2b a year. A 6% rise in menu prices in 1997 helped restaurants see a 17% growth in turnover compared with 1996, bringing the figure for the restaurant sector alone to £1.784b. This puts it for the first time above the Oriental sector, which grew by only 3% to £1.65b.

The research also shows that take-aways and curry houses are giving way to restaurants at the top end. In 1997, the number of Indian restaurants in Britain grew to 7,626, representing only a 4.4% growth on the figure for 1996. But while many 40- to 50-cover operations have closed, they have been replaced at the high end of the market by "innovative" 130- to 250-cover units. This shows that the industry is plateauing in terms of number of outlets but growing in terms of covers and spend per head.

Staff wooed away

It is here that the problems start. The growth of restaurants at the top end has led to a demand for well-trained staff, yet ironically the industry's poor image is keeping them away. Similarly, while kitchen skills traditionally have been passed down through families, younger generations of British-born Asians are being wooed by other professions.

"How can we solve the problem when people are giving the industry a bad image?" asks Ali.

Ironically, Wahhab may have supplied the answer. Although the sector has no central organisation, and is sometimes divided by religion, the anger that his article sparked has united them in a call for dedicated training facilities for chefs and front of house staff in Indian outlets. The hope is that, by providing focused qualifications, the sector's profile could be raised and school leavers attracted.

So far, Ali says, the Butlers Wharf Chef School and three colleges have registered interest. Funding is being sought from the Hospitality Training Foundation, suppliers and the Government.

One step further

Shawkat Ahmed, secretary-general of the Bangladesh Caterers Association, who is among those calling for a specialised training centre, has gone one step further. He is lobbying government for the right to bring chefs over from the subcontinent as part of a three-phase solution. He says it would bring immediate relief to the skills shortage while, in the long term, training could be addressed and the profile of the industry thus lifted to attract college-leavers.

Ali doesn't agree. "It doesn't help to bring thousands of chefs over here. Our industry will do better to use British-born staff. I would have to train the chef from India to learn British Indian cuisine," he says.

Some also argue that they would, in addition, have to train immigrants to the higher British standards. "We're talking about the top end of the market," says Mohammed Aslam, managing director of the seven-strong Aagrah restaurant chain in Yorkshire, "and requirements for chefs are higher than in the subcontinent."

But Aslam also believes in the consistency of passing cooking skills on through the generations, and is adamant that he wouldn't take on outsiders - even from a chef school. Luckily for him, of his three nephews and two sons, four are chefs.

"Our formula has worked for 20 years," he says, adding that the group serves 7,000-8,000 covers a week in restaurants which range from 40 to 150 seats. Average spend is £14-£15 per head. But he still has problems front of house. "In Bradford, unemployment runs at 50%, but I still can't get a waiter," he says.

The low profile of the Indian waiter is leading many to leave family businesses, agrees Gulu Anand, who has owned and cooked at Brilliant in Southall, London, for the past 25 years. "Younger generations need recognition," he says. "They want to be lawyers, doctors or computer analysts. Few see the restaurant business as a career."

Like Aslam, he attributes his success to 35% of his 22 staff being family. "I am training my family, absolutely," he says. "New chefs take the consistency away." He measures his success by pointing out that turnover at the 200-seat restaurant is £18,000-£20,000 a week.

Anand believes that he has kept the interest of the younger generation by investing at least £125,000 to expand. "We started with 36 seats," he says, "and by next year we will have 270." He also invests in the decor. "These things are important," he adds. "In the past three years, we've been getting the upmarket type of clientele who wouldn't previously have come to Southall."

It isn't just decor that is changing. Indian cuisine has moved on since the 1960s, when menus were typically 40% curry and 60% steak and chips. Enam Ali wants more acknowledgement for the various regional "Indian" cuisines now on offer. More specifically, looking at chefs such as Cyrus Todiwala at Café Spice Namaste, who is famous for wild boar pickle and curried kangaroo, he wants recognition for the way in which Indian cuisine has evolved.

"We are in a box and cannot get out," he says. "People criticise our cooking if it is not seen to be the perceived original Indian, but look at [French chefs such as] Raymond Blanc - you wouldn't look at his style of cooking and hear someone say it isn't original."

On this, he is at one with Wahhab, who in September will open the 140-seat Cinnamon Club in London's Kensington. "I have never run a restaurant," says Wahhab, "so I have no idea whether I will do it better or worse. But you have to upgrade the product. No product survives by standing dormant."

It's a message that Ali has been trying to drive home. "We are encouraging people to refurbish," he says, "but according to their market needs. If you need flock wallpaper, do it. What we are encouraging them to do is move away from the lower end."

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