The rapid expansion of ethnic-oriented midmarket restaurant chains such as Yo! Sushi, Wagamama, Busaba Eathai and Banana Tree is being increasingly hampered by the lack of specialist chefs in the UK.
The skills shortage is seen as a direct consequence of the coalition Government’s change in immigration rules, which has closed the door on all but the most senior chefs hoping to join the UK restaurant industry.
The situation risks reaching crisis point in the next year, according to Yo! Sushi’s head of people, Suresh Benarse. “We can’t recruit [sushi chefs] directly from abroad as we could before and there is little growth in numbers of quality candidates in the UK. Efforts to develop chefs internally alleviate the issue, but it doesn’t fill the gap – in fact, the shortage is getting worse.”
Banana Tree, which operates five sites in London focusing on food from the Indo-China region, is experiencing similar recruitment problems. “We can’t find a good level of indigenous staff and we can’t get them from abroad – it’s a big problem,” says owner and executive chef William Chow.
The Asian casual-dining sector has been a focus of particular growth in recent years, led by the likes of Wagamama and Yo!, with smaller-butgrowing operators such as Tampopo, Busaba Eathai and Thai Square seeking to follow in their footsteps. All are suffering to some degree from the restrictions on bringing in chefs from non-EU countries, which were introduced with little warning by the Government last April.
The situation is exacerbated by the lack of sufficiently skilled and interested candidates coming out of UK catering colleges, though steps are being taken to address this shortfall through the introduction of five new training centres for Asian and Oriental Cuisine by People 1st and the Hospitality Guild.
Duncan Robertson of The Quayhouse, a recruitment and consultancy firm that specialises in the ethnic restaurant sector, says there is widespread concern in the industry over the skills gap. “Around 6,000 jobs remain unfulfilled in the sector – it’s my view that a good proportion of those will be in ethnic restaurants,” he said.
This article was first published in the April 2012 issue of Restaurant magazine. See the magazine for more on immigration issues in its Toolkit feature.