Leading restaurateurs in the £3.2b Asian dining sector have reacted with scepticism to leaked Government plans for "curry colleges" to school British workers in the art of Asian and Oriental cooking.
It emerged last week that the proposal from Communities Secretary Eric Pickles was part of the Government's forthcoming Integration Strategy, which is expected to be published shortly.
A Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) spokesman did not deny the existence of plans for "curry colleges" but there were few details on what they would involve or how they might be funded. However it is thought that the idea has come as a response to a shortage of skilled chefs in the sector, exacerbated in April this year by the migration cap. The cap has proven unpopular with many in the restaurant industry because it makes it hard to recruit anyone from outside the EU who is not coming to fill a graduate level job, speaks intermediate English and meets specific salary and employment requirements.
Enam Ali, chairman of the Guild of Bangladeshi Restaurateurs and owner of Le Raj restaurant in Epsom, Surrey, questioned whether the proposed measure was simply a PR exercise.
"Our main objective is building chefs, not a college," he said. "There are already a number of colleges and universities around the country who would be best to accommodate those skills and develop those skills. That is a much better option than keeping on talking and making headlines."
He called on the Government to ensure that any training scheme designed to help the sector would follow the apprenticeship model, with a mixture of classroom-based training and day release in restaurants on a minimum wage.
Meanwhile, Sanjay Anand, chairman of restaurant and wedding catering group Madhu's, questioned how the Government would find sufficiently skilled chefs to teach courses.
"On the basic restaurant cooking I don't think it is such a bad idea. But all the specialists in this country are so busy working. Who is going to open these schools and how is that training going to take place?" he said.
Anand added that he would still prefer to see a relaxation of the migration cap. "A guy who is making jalebis in Delhi has a real skill but probably can't speak a word of English, so he has probably got no chance of coming here and yet his skills would be appreciated in this country."
reinventing the wheel
And Cyrus Todiwala (pictured), chef-patron of Café Spice Namaste, said not enough thought had been given to a vital section of the hospitality industry.
"We had a school that did so well and put 960 young people into full-time jobs and the Learning and Skills Council killed it. Now we have a minister trying to reinvent the wheel. How nice. We identified this issue 13 years ago," he said.
But the British Hospitality Association (BHA) which earlier this year warned that the migration cap would make things difficult for Asian restaurants, supported the idea. "The BHA would support the concept of a school to encourage young British people into training in Asian and oriental cookery. There are already some schools and private institutions offering this kind of training. A new school, if successful, would help plug the skills gaps caused by the government migration policies," a spokesman said.
A DCLG spokesman said: "British Asian restaurants and takeaways make a vital contribution to both the national economy and the local community. However in order to achieve the Government's aim of reducing net migration, under the revised point-based system only the top 5% of the most skilled chefs qualify for admission to this country. The Government is continuing to look at how it can best support British talent in Asian cuisine, working with the sector to ensure employees have the right skills."
Curry colleges - a good idea or government spin?
When we have 2.5 million unemployed, anything to help reduce that and if training works to get them skilled to fill a need then that makes sense. We could argue that teaching classic French cuisine in our colleges years ago was no use as the students were not from France!! Instead it helped us stretch our culinary skills.
I'm always in support of any Government initiatives to support training in this area, but I think the authenticity of the food will always suffer no matter how many training colleges or initiatives you put in place. Many of our clients who have distinct regional cuisine at the heart of their menu have quietly grumbled to me in the past year about their troubles with finding qualified staff.
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By Neil Gerrard
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