Can Cook, Must Cook

The food adventures of Franka P, a Trinidadian journalist living in London, UK. I'll write about my forays into all types of food and cooking, particularly Caribbean food. I'll also review books and recipes by the leading food writers and talk about the issues making headlines in the gastronomic world.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Culture or colour?

I had an interesting e-mail exchange yesterday with Fiona Shoop, the editor of fresh magazine. I sent her an email to say that I appreciated her article on the absence of female chefs.
In my email, I made the point that I believe the issue goes beyond female chefs, because there is also a glaring absence of ethnic minority chefs, male and female.
In response, she said she never thought about food in terms of colour but in terms of culture, and that's why the magazine will continue to highlight many types of food in the coming months including Caribbean cuisine.
While I understood where she was coming from, I think she missed my point.
For me, the issue isn’t simply about getting more chefs of colour in terms of numbers. I think it’s a heritage issue. I feel it's important that the food industry attract chefs from all backgrounds because if not, there’s a distinct possibility of some food cultures becoming novelties in the UK.

This mightn't be the case at the moment for the Asian community, but that food sector is facing a threat that can be averted if more young people got involved.
For years, the South Asian community depended heavily on chefs from places like India and Bangladesh to fill the lead roles in their restaurants.
They’ve been able to do this for years because the immigration laws in the UK currently allow for people with unique skills - like chefs - to work here without a problem.
But that’s about to change with the introduction of a new points-based system for workers from outside of the European Union in 2007.
The system favours doctors, engineers and financial experts. It’s similar to the system used in Australia and the government thinks it’s much fairer than the present system.
However, ex-Europe Minister Keith Vaz has reservations about the scheme because he doesn't think it would address skill shortages in certain areas, like the numbers of chefs needed in south Asian restaurants.
He said that while there were 10,000 south Asian restaurants in the UK, contributing £3.2bn to the British economy, there were 20,000 vacancies.
Essentially, what it means is that under the system suggested by the government, it will be easier for a Pole or a Greek, for example to find work in an Asian restaurant than an Asian.
I can see where Vaz is coming from but it's a fact that unemployment is high in the British Asian community so couldn't some of these vacancies can be filled if these unemployed youths knew that cooking was an option.
But who would be their role models? There are very few Asian chefs who are as well known in the mainstream as their British counterparts.
You'd think things would be different especially since curry is said to be Britain's favourite food. In 2005, Amaya was voted London's top restaurant and there are several top class Asian restaurants around the nation including Madhu's, The Cinnamon Club and Benares in London, Aagrah in Yorkshire, Kiplings in Bradford and Curry Fever in Leicester.
Atul Kochhar, chef-owner at Benares was the first Indian to win a Michelin star, but he's not on on tv alot. So I'm really glad he's one of the 14 chefs competing in the Great British Menu for a chance to cook for the Queen's 80th birthday. It would be a major coup if he beats Gary Rhodes, the bookies favourite and one of this country's best known chefs.
If the tv commissioners were willing to take a chance on Jamie Oliver who turned out to be a whopping success, why can't they do the same with an Asian or Afro-Caribbean chef?
I don't have the fear for the future of Asian cuisine in the UK that I do for Caribbean cuisine. I fear if there are no young hotshots to champion our food and no chefs to inspire the youth, then our cuisine will remain at the level of the takeaway in the UK.

Simple Indian by Atul Kochhar and David Loftus (Photographer) - Quadrille Publishing
Indian Essence: The Fresh Tastes of India's New Cuisine by Atul Kochhar - Quadrille Publishing

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