Cracking the talent drain

Cracking the talent drain

SMEs can look closer to home when they are looking at how to hire the best, writes The Telegraph’s James Hurley .

“I'm with the Government on this” is not something you’ll hear very often when you ask an Indian restaurateur how he feels about tough immigration restrictions on non-European Union workers. Most of the industry is furious that it can no longer bring in the Indian and Bangladeshi chefs it relies on – unless it pays them almost £30,000 each, the Government threshold for bringing in immigrant workers.

The resulting dearth of trained chefs from the Asian subcontinent has been dubbed the “curry crisis”, with some restaurant owners saying it has contributed to an estimated 20pc decline in turnover in the industry since 2008.

However, Rajesh Suri (on the left in photograph), chief executive of The Tamarind Collection , an Indian restaurant group, thinks the rules are providing a rude but necessary wake-up call for curry entrepreneurs.

“Yes, it is a big blow. We have 12 to 14 chefs in a kitchen and we can’t pay them all £30,000. [Restaurant owners] were upset because they had been able to get cheap labour. But they forgot that they should have been helping local people.”

Mr Suri, 51, argues that an economic downturn is the right time for the industry – which is worth an estimated £3.5bn – to start employing young British workers rather than relying on shipping in cheap, ready-made chefs from Asia.

“Considering the unemployment we have in this country, we have to look after our own young people as our first priority,” he said.

But won’t having British chefs in Asian kitchens hit customers’ perception of the authenticity of the food?

“It’s wrong to say only Indians can cook Indian food, or only Chinese people can cook Chinese dishes. If you love eating it so much, why don’t you cook it?”

So far, Mr Suri has put 12 British apprentices through a training scheme developed by his company, which has a turnover of £6.5m. He is also trying to convince the rest of the industry to copy his approach.

Last year, Mr Suri established the Asian Restaurant Skill Board with industry counterparts including Iqbal Wahhab, founder of London restaurants The Cinnamon Club and Roast. Under the “Mastara Chef” banner, the group is focusing on raising funds for student scholarships for young chefs. So far, it has paid for 50 students to gain NVQs. However, Mr Suri admits his approach is neither a quick nor easy solution to an acute shortage of trained chefs. Indeed, it’s been a hard slog to make his own scheme work.

While he has no complaints about the support on offer – some government funding helped the company set up a partnership with a training college – trying to understand what motivates his young recruits proved harder than he had anticipated.

“There’s much more to it than you think,” Mr Suri said. “You need a structure to cope with working with people who are not adults, not mature. Having an understanding of how an 18-year-old really thinks is difficult at first.”

For a while, he was troubled by what he saw as the lack of work ethic he found in the apprentices. Then he looked at his own 18-year-old son, who unwittingly provided the inspiration for turning the project around.

“His behaviour made me think communication is the biggest problem they have,” Mr Suri said. “They think everything is easy and don’t understand the world isn’t like that – the world won’t give them what their parents will.”

The company modified its scheme to allow the trainees to ease themselves into working life. Apprentices are given Fridays and Saturdays off, and for three months start on shorter days.

“They’re not ready for full-time work. We grow them towards that and at every stage add some more responsibility.”

He says it’s necessary to pay “well above” the national minimum wage for apprentices, which stands at just £2.65 an hour. “That won’t even cover a day’s travel – you have to be reasonable.”

One of the scheme’s trainees, for example, 18-year-old Floyd Price, from Brent, is paid £16,000 as an apprentice chef with the company.

Mr Suri might need more young people from around the country to follow a similar route if his expansion plans are to succeed.

The company currently has four restaurants, with each focused on a different sort of customer. Its Mayfair outlet, Tamarind, was the first Indian restaurant to win a Michelin star, and attracts the likes of Sir Elton John and Tom Cruise.

Imli Street, in London’s Soho, offers “casual dining” based on Indian street food – a concept Mr Suri thinks he can roll out across the UK.

He is confident he’ll have no problem finding eager young chefs if he takes Imli Street around the country.

“There are plenty of people who don’t want to spend four years in college and still not have a job when they come out. The scarcity of jobs is making young people realise they need to work harder, and that will make us a better, more responsible society.”

Ambitious business owners who want to follow in Rajesh Suri’s footsteps with an innovative apprenticeship scheme, or simply want to share advice on hiring and keeping the best staff, will be catered for at the Telegraph Festival of Business. The event is free for directors of companies with annual sales of more than £5m. Speakers include Willie Walsh, Luke Johnson and Jim O’Neil. Secure your free place at

This article was originally featured on

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

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