Ali is also owner of Le Raj restaurant near Epsom, and editor of trade publication Spice Business. He called May’s stance on the issue an ‘immigration betrayal’ that has ‘raised a massive question mark on the future of the curry industry in the UK’.
Theresa May today rejected calls to relax visa rules from the Indian subcontinent, which supporters said would make it easier for immigrant chefs to come to the UK, thereby helping the industry.
May is currently in the Indian capital of Delhi, meeting Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, to negotiate what commentators are calling the UK’s first post-Brexit trade deal.
Bangladeshi-born Ali, who received an MBE in 2009 and has run his restaurant for 26 years, has historically lobbied the government – including David Cameron’s former cabinet ‒ to change the laws around immigration.
He claimed that licensed curry restaurants are in decline due to the government’s immigration policy, which often requires chefs to speak a very high level of English, and earn almost £30,000, despite most chef salaries being closer to £25,000.
Ali said: “Staff shortages mean many of us are struggling to meet customer expectations, and it is almost impossible to expand as we would like to.”
However, speaking to BBC News today, May said: "Nine out of 10 visa applications from India are already accepted. The UK will consider further improvements to our visa offer if, at the same time, we can step up the speed and volume of returns of Indians with no right to remain.”
This ultimately meant that the UK would look to send immigrants overstaying their visa home more quickly, but would not look to change the rules to allow easier UK entrance.
The controversy comes ahead of the 12th annual British Curry Awards 2016, set to take place on 28 November and looking to recognise the best curry restaurants nationwide.
In a previous year in her former role as home secretary, May spoke at the event, saying: “The British curry industry really is one of Britain’s greatest success stories…Through hard work and innovation, you’ve built a vibrant industry, which generates wealth, promotes growth and employs tens of thousands of people.”
The Asian impact
Ali is not the only high-profile Asian chef to discuss the impact of immigration and visas on the UK’s curry scene.
Other chefs to discuss the idea in recent years have included Cyrus Todiwala, Vivek Singh and Atul Kochhar, all of whom joined with Ali two years ago to launch the Mastara Chef initiative from the Asian Restaurants Skills Board.
The campaign sought to overturn the tough rules on work permits, including reconsidering the levels of English language or the average yearly wage required, for an immigrant chef hoping to work in the UK.
It also aimed to teach UK-based chefs the skills needed to cook Asian dishes.
Speaking at the time of the Mastara Chef initiative, Ali said: “For me, it doesn’t matter if they can speak English, because I’m looking for somebody that can cook a curry – I’m not looking for somebody to come into my kitchen lecturing English.”
Zest Quest Asia
In contrast, Todiwala has been more vocal about training UK-based chefs in Asian cooking, and in 2013 launched his Zest Quest Asia young Asian-style culinary competition to help support the future of the Indian and wider Asian restaurant industry.
Speaking to BigHospitality, Todiwala said: “If you ask anyone at the moment – and the Asian sector is the worst – their biggest problem is manpower. I think supporting other competitions and launching my own competition Zest Quest Asia (to encourage British kids to look at cooking Asian food too), is my way of doing my bit and helping the future of the industry.”
The British Curry Awards 2016 are set to take place at Battersea Evolution in London, and will seek to recognise top curry restaurants and staff from across the country.