London, Feb.14 : There was a time in the United Kingdom when the British public was addicted to South Asian cuisine, especially popular dishes like Chicken Tikka Masala, but not anymore.
According to a report in The Independent, owners of Indian or Asian cuisine restaurants, the 3.5 billion pound industry is being hit by a recent government crackdown on short-term visa schemes for foreign workers from outside the EU. Restaurateurs say that because of this crackdown, skilled chefs have become scarce.
Secondly, the dramatic increase in world rice prices has hit the owners pockets quite severely.
A third problem is the difficulty in persuading their sons and daughters to follow them into the trade.
Enam Ali, who chairs the Bangladeshi Guild of Restaurateurs and owns the Le Raj restaurant in Epsom, is quoted by the paper as saying that something must be done to alleviate staff shortages, otherwise South Asian restaurants could go under sooner than later.
After more than six decades, the Asian restaurant trade is going through one of the most critical periods. Over the past two years, restaurant owners have been lobbying the Government to listen to their concerns, but they have been ignored.
"The industry risks being destroyed," the paper quotes Rajesh Suri, the owner of Tamarind in Mayfair, the first British Asian restaurant to be awarded the prestigious Michelin Star award.
"I know of at least 15 restaurants in the past year that have had their openings delayed because they couldn't find the chefs," he added.
Asian restaurant owners have also been hit by the worldwide rise in food prices and rice. Big rice producers such as India and China have imposed severe restrictions on exports in order to retain supplies for domestic consumption, while others, such as Vietnam and Egypt, have banned exports.
Official figures say the price of food has risen by 6.6 per cent over the past year, but rice is now 60 per cent more expensive than it was last year and Basmati rice at least double the price.
Restaurant owners here say that if the price of the product does not come down, the increase will have to be passed onto the customer, and may well end up in the customer not visiting the premises again.
This week the Immigration Advisory Service has told the Government that restrictions on lower-skilled workers from outside the EU could cause "irreparable damage" to the food industry.
Earlier this week, a spokesperson from the Border and Immigration Agency (BIA), said that the agency's objective is to manage migration in the national interest, and striking the right balance between safeguarding the interests of the UK resident work force and enabling UK employers to recruit or transfer skilled people from abroad in order to help them compete effectively in an international market.
Immigration Minister Liam Byrne has asked the Migration Advisory Council to advise him on whether there is a skill shortage in the ethnic cuisine sector and whether any changes in the visa laws should be made.
The Government has also suggested that Asian restaurateurs should try to hire chefs from within the British Asian community. But many owners say that the younger generations have higher aspirations.
Restaurant owners in Birmingham, however, have come up with a novel way to attract the children of Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani immigrants into the cooking trade.
A new 20 million pound plan to open the world's first "Balti Academy" has been launched by business leaders desperate to arrest the crippling shortage of chefs.