Since April 2016, restaurants in the UK have faced restrictions on Tier-2 visas for skilled labourers, in addition to high salary thresholds, meaning even the most junior kitchen staff from overseas are paid a minimum of £35,000. Issues like this, and more have officially lead to a curry crisis in the UK. However, Curry Queen Sarah Ali Choudhury is one of the very few who believe otherwise. “It's less a staff shortage and more a woman shortage. Women are held back by men in the industry who would rather declare a 'curry crisis' than give a voice and a platform to talented female chefs. Is it really ok to blame immigration laws when you are not doing your own bit to help the industry?” she said.
One of a systemic issues is the lack of women in UK-Asian culinary. The Bangladeshi Caterers Association, founded in 1960, represents 12,000 south Asian-run restaurants and their 100,000 employees. No women have reached the organisation's highest level in almost 60 years of existence. Sarah believes the industry isn't ready for women. She said, “Each year the Asian Curry Awards crowns a 'Curry King', but no 'Curry Queen'! I was asked to apply for an award but as someone who is not a restaurant chef or owner, the only one I would have applied for was 'Curry Queen', yet it doesn't exist.”
Now, Sarah is taking matters into her own hands in her role as the FSB's national lead for women in catering. She is set to launch a campaign to encourage women in the curry industry to step forward and make a difference. She said, “There are tonnes of women already working in the Asian food trade, but you don't hear about them because they don't get recognition. So, if existing trade bodies won't cater for women, then I will create my own.” Sarah added that the few women already recognised in the industry, like herself, are generally valued as tokens. “It looks good to have me involved because it seems as though the industry is beginning to evolve, when really there is no systemic change being made to how women are treated. A woman won the top prize at the International Indian Chef of the Year awards one year, but she was flown over from India specifically for it. It did nothing to empower female Indian chefs here.”
“It is a fact that there are very few women working in Indian restaurants, you will always be greeted by male staff, whereas if you visit Chinese, Thai or other Asian establishments you could be greeted by either a man or a woman.” She added, “I remember at the age of 20 when my mother and I were working in our family's restaurant in Bridport, customers would comment how rare it was to see women working in Indian restaurants. We felt like we are rocking the boat at the time, unfortunately, little has changed in the 25 years since.”
“Why do men go home and eat dinner cooked by their wives, but don't let them cook in their restaurants? Surely, if their wives' food is good enough for them, it's good enough for their customers.”