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Are we ready to curry favour with Olympic visitors?

"Are we ready to curry favour with Olympic visitors?"

:: Enam Ali MBE – FIH ::

Next year millions of visitors from every corner of the globe will descend on the capital as we host what has rightly been called the ?Greatest Show on Earth. Staging the Olympics (www.london2012.com) will be a challenge – and one Londoners will rise to magnificently I am sure. But it will also offer a once in a generation opportunity for us to showcase what we do well in this country. And one of the things we do best is serve up a good curry! There has been a curry business in London since 1809, when Sake Dean Mohammad opened up his Hindostanee Coffee House on Great Portman Square. There were ups and downs during the subsequent 200 years, but the British love of curry has persevered. And over the past two decades in particular curry has gained in popularity and the industry has become a major force in our economy. Not just in London, but across the country. It is estimated that there are now around 12,000 curry restaurants in the UK, employing 80,000 people and with a combined turnover of £3.5 billion.  The late Robin Cook MP even famously described Chicken Tikka Masala as our national dish. Going out – and staying in – for  a curry has become one of our  national pastimes for sure. The quality of the industry has also improved in leaps and bounds.  The days of dingy restaurants with flock wallpaper and less than impressive service standards have long gone. In their place are a host of modern, stylish restaurants, some with Michelin stars, who are serving food that rivals, and sometime surpasses that of any other cuisine. The front of house skills have developed to match those in the kitchen The Olympic Games offers the UK’s curry restaurants, and particularly restaurants in London and the South East, a unique chance to promote themselves on a global stage. They have an opportunity to gain global recognition and promote the British curry as one of the world?s truly great cuisines. But are we ready to seize this once in a lifetime opportunity? At this moment in time I would have to say no. I have been in the business for over 20 years –  as the owner of Le Raj in Epsom (www.lerajrestaurant.co.uk) and founder of the British Curry Awards (ww.britishcurryaward.co.uk) – I probably know as much as anyone about this sector. Yet I have seen very little being done to promote the curry sector in the context of the Olympics.We have to get together and market our sector so that every visitor who comes to the Olympics tries a British curry at least once. We have so many fine spice restaurants across the UK, each one with their unique selling point and flavours, and it would a real shame if this chance were to be missed. Time is running out. We have to proactively promote the curry industry to visitors coming to see and take part in the Olympic Games. Visitors have to be given all the information they need about our flourishing curry restaurant sector so they come and sample the wonderful food on offer while they are here for the Games. I am not just talking about Brick Lane, which is a vibrant centre whose East End location will make it attractive for those going to the Olympic Park. Right across the capital there are a host of establishments serving curry of the highest quality, and to suit a range of different budgets. London isn’t the curry capital, nor is Glasgow or Birmingham. The whole country is a ?curry nation? and restaurants everywhere can reach out and take advantage of the Olympics to give their business a major boost. Marketing and promotion are the key. We have to get the message across using all types of media, especially the internet. There is a strong case for a unified approach, rather than trying to do this on a restaurant by restaurant basis. We will be much stronger if all curry restaurants work together to promote ?British Curry 2012?. Individual restaurants have to gear up as well so they are ready for the influx of visitors. Have they got the menus right? Do they need to offer them in different languages? How are they going to cope with a possible surge in business? Does their interior and exterior need a bit of a makeover ready to receive visitors? They need to start asking these questions now. Staffing is crucial and it is here that we need support from the government whose approach to immigration controls is hurting our sector. Many restaurants are short of chefs and other staff, yet the government is making it and more more difficult to recruit professionals from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and other locations where the necessary skills can be found. Takeaway restaurants have been told they can no longer apply to bring chefs from abroad.  All restaurants are  also being told chefs have to pass an English language test when the only test they really need to pass is the language of curry! Furthermore we are now able to recruit chefs at graduate level only, with a minimum salary offer of   £28,260. These chefs have to be educated to NVQ level 4 and this means 5 years of experience at a senior post-graduate level. More boxes have to be ticked, including a good CV as well as references showing a career progression, before we can even start the process of recruitment. Of course the Government has to take action on immigration. But these rules are a real straight-jacket for the curry restaurant sector, which naturally finds it difficult to employ people with the right cooking skills and passion for curry that they need within the UK and European Union. It would be a great pity if restaurants who are thinking of expanding or promoting themselves during the Olympics are not able to do so because they cannot find the right staff. The government seems to listen when high powered financial services and other City firms complain about immigration restrictions, but not when curry restaurant owners do the same. There are around 400 days to go before the Olympics starts. The clock is ticking as we get ready to welcome the world to London and the UK. Curry is one of our potential gold medal winners, but only if we start getting ready now. That includes the Government agreeing to ease its restrictions on overseas recruitment.

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