Indian restaurants are moving upmarket but find they just can't get the staff these days. Martin Whittaker reports on a new academy to step into the breach
INDIAN restaurant diners are becoming more discerning, top chef Atul Kochhar says. "People are moving away from the common concept of Friday night - eight pints and a curry," he said. "They have started realising that there's proper food. It's not just chicken tikka massala and vindaloo."
Mr Kochhar is head chef at the Tamarind, Mayfair's renowned Indian restaurant. On a Tuesday afternoon he teaches Indian cooking at the Academy of Asian Culinary Arts in Ealing, west London.
The academy was launched last year in response to a huge skills shortage in the UK's Asian restaurants.
Business is booming in this sector. Indian food alone brings in around pound;3 billion a year from more than 15,000 restaurants and takeaways, employing an estimated 75,000 people.
Despite this, there has been no basic training other than what staff learn in individual outlets, and here standards are acknowledged as being generally poor.
At the academy, Atul Kochhar's students are into week eight of a national vocational qualification level 2 in Asian food preparation and cooking. In a state-of-the-art, stainless-steel kitchen, they are busy chopping fresh herbs, chicken and lamb.
"Opening the college like this has been fantastic," said Mr Kochhar. "As a chef I always face problems finding local people to come and work.
"Learning in the industry is quite tough in a way because you go to the professional kitchen and the chef has his own ways.
"They just get stuck to one particular style - whereas coming here opens up their horizons. They learn all about cuisine and by the end of 36 weeks they will have a very clear knowledge."
The academy was set up with a pound;285,000 grant from the Government's Skills Challenge fund.
Its home - the Thames Valley University's school of tourism, hospitality and leisure - has a track record going back decades to when it was a part of Ealing Technical College.
Professor David Foskett, the school's assistant dean, said the college recognised the skills gap for Indian restaurants.
"There is a huge skills shortage because people are not coming from India or Bangladesh like they did," he said. "And you find now that Indian restaurants are going up-market so they need higher-level skills. They're competing with French and Italian restaurants.
"There's no doubt about it - for many working in the sector, their skills are not as well-developed as perhaps they should be."
The academy also runs its courses at restaurants across London, including La Porte des Indes in Marble Arch and Gifto's Lahore in Southall.
avid Foskett insists that this is the first school of its kind in the UK. Although other colleges have laid on training for the ethnic restaurant sector, he says, the new academy is different.
"They didn't woo the industry," he says. "What we have done here is to give the Asian restaurant market a sense of ownership.
"All the teachers come from the top restaurants and they're working Asian chefs. We say to them this is your academy - we will help you develop it."
Meanwhile, another London training school for the sector is due to open in the coming months. The Asian and Oriental School of Catering is being launched at a site yet to be decided - in Hackney or Tower Hamlets.
One of its prime movers is Cyrus Todiwala, chef and director of Cafe Spice Namaste, who is also a senior adviser to the
Government on education and training.
Some training has already begun at Cafe Spice in east London, and advertisements for staff have appeared in trade newspapers. The new school will train for the Asian and Oriental sector. Its training will be far wider than culinary arts, covering everything from waiting tables to restaurant management.
Mr Todiwala said: "If you look at our business today, our customers have become very discerning. They don't want the same glop and the run-of-the-mill stuff.
"They're looking for a better product, better value, better service and better quality. And how are you going to present that? There's nobody out there. If I put out an ad for a chef, I wouldn't get one with the kind of qualifications I need - not one.
"The standards are so appalling throughout the sector in many respects. There is no basic training."
He said the new school aims to work alongside further education colleges in cities such as Manchester and Birmingham to ensure that the training is not London-
biased. A major hurdle is the
suitability of the existing NVQ programme to meet the demands of Asian cuisine.
At a recent seminar on the subject at Westminster College, concerns were voiced over the European bias of the existing NVQ, with one delegate calling the situation "institutionalised racism".
Mr Todiwala said: "This is our biggest problem. There is mostly a European bias. Today you cannot have a young person aspiring to get an NVQ level 3 or 4 in Asian cooking. It doesn't exist.
"We have been saying all along that the Government has not been listening to the problems of this industry.
"And it's such a massive industry - pound;3 billion in turnover - that's bigger than the steel and mining industry put together.
"So it's about time somebody listened. And if not, we have to plug the gaps so that better-qualified youngsters can come into the industry."