Subscriber login Close [x]
remember me
You are not logged in.

Cyrus Todiwala MBE - Chef, restauranteur and educator

Published:  23 July, 2008

You have just come from speaking to the BBC on issues that you clearly find emotive. What's going on?
The Government has put forward a new proposal that restaurateurs cannot import staff from India who don't speak English. But people who come from Poland, Bulgaria or Lithuania don't necessarily speak English. The restaurateurs are saying it is unfair, because those people who come from remote areas, who might have a particular skill that is lacking here, won't necessarily know the language. I agree you can't survive in this country without English - the Government has a point. But the fact that every single person coming out of the subcontinent of India must speak English I think is very arrogant on the part of the Home Office.

Is there a way round the issue?

The Government sponsors ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages), so, for example, my employee Eva, who is Polish, can go to a class and learn English. But if people aren't given the opportunity by their employer they won't learn the language. So employers have a responsibility. If my employee asks me, 'Can I take an hour off every day? I need to go to the college down the road to learn English', and I say no, then I am doing wrong. I am being unfair to the person, and also to myself, because if my staff can speak English it is to my advantage. Training is a religion at Caf Spice Namast. There is always somebody on a course.

Is training a UK problem?

The single-biggest problem in the UK is that employers are themselves not adequately skilled and trained. For instance, if you go to Holland and want to set up a restaurant, the first thing the council will ask you is what qualification you have to run a restaurant. And you will say, 'None! I've done this and that, I've cooked'. 'Sorry!'. But in Britain, they will say, 'Sure! Let's see your premises; let's see if you're conforming to health and safety rules.' They don't ask if the employer or owner has the necessary skills, and that's where the UK has suffered. Because people are inadequately trained themselves, they don't invest in training their staff. They feel that if they invest in them, they will go and open their own businesses. Why do employers in the UK always want people from abroad? It is because of the cultural difference in work ethics, training and development [in other countries], where the individual is not made to feel subservient or servile. He is made to feel he is contributing to the greater good of mankind.

Is this a uniquely British attitude?

The Asian culture is similar. When I wanted to become a chef in India people mocked my parents. They said, 'What does your son want to do? Does he want to become a domestic hand?' They couldn't understand that someone in a hot kitchen sweating his backside off in a subservient profession was something that is on a par with the other major professions of the world. In England it was the same. Here there is the class system, while in India we have the caste system. Only people of a certain class have always done this kind of job and they are the lower class, so it becomes a cultural issue that has had a knock-on effect for many, many years.

Do you think that Asian restaurants have been unfairly penalised?

The Asian industry always gets bad press. The impression is that employers are selfish, that we are insular, that we are not contributive or socially cohesive. But they forget that the South Asian restaurant sector alone - restaurants, manufacturers and other food-related businesses - contributed 7.4 billion to the economy last year! We only serve food, but what happens behind the scenes? Don't forget that this industry needs everybody from accountants to plumbers to engineers to qualified refrigeration specialists - we support a whole plethora of industry.

Do you feel the Asian food sector is unfairly compared to others?

Definitely. Because the French and Italians have always had this huge prestige around their cuisine it's always them who receive the publicity and their chefs who get the most glory. Because Asian restaurants have typically provided 'cheap' fare, it is regarded as a low-skill, low-performance industry, and that has been the problem. The French have always enamoured the world with their mastery of the culinary arts, but there is greater mastery in what we do. Now I know a great deal about Italian food, French food, other cuisines of the world, but give me one qualified French chef who knows anything about my cuisine - zero! I think Asian restaurants have done themselves a huge disservice in terms of elevating their cuisine and culture to something that is to be respected on par with anything else in the world. Trying to provide a cheap and cheerful product for the masses has led to the overall impression that everything about the industry is poor. I think that is where the industry has gone grossly wrong.