Sarah Ali Choudhury was one of the first to win a small award in 2017 for her gourmet Indian catering business – is no longer the new kid on the block, but one of the UK curry industry’s most disruptive influences.
The sector has been in a state of turmoil for a number of years. Since April 2016 restaurants have faced restrictions on Tier-2 visas for skilled labourers, in addition to high salary thresholds that mean even the most junior kitchen staff from overseas are paid a minimum of £35,000.
These issues can only mean one thing according to those supposedly in the know – the UK is in the midst of a curry crisis.
Sarah is one of the few people to say differently: “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?”
The lack of women in UK-Asian culinary is a systemic issue. The Bangladeshi Caterers Association, founded in 1960, represents 12,000 south Asian-run restaurants and their 100,000 employees. In almost 60 years of existence, no women have reached the organisation’s highest level.
According to Sarah, the industry isn’t ready for women. “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.”
Rather than wait for the catering industry to be ready, Sarah is taking matters into her own hands in her role as the FSB’s national lead for women in catering.
She is launching a campaign to encourage women in the curry industry to step forward and make a difference: “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.”
She adds 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.”
While, as Sarah says, there are many women working in Asian culinary here, they do not seem to be empowered by the men who have dominated the industry for decades: “It is a fact that there are very few women working in Indian restaurants; you will always be greeted my male staff, whereas if you visit Chinese, Thai or other Asian establishments you could be greeted by either a man or a woman.
“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 were rocking the boat at the time; unfortunately, little has changed in the 25 years since.”
She asks, “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.”
What’s clear from talking to Sarah, and looking around at the high-profile chefs on television, is that the south Asian food sector is part of a wider UK trend. India is streets ahead of us in this area, seeming to be far more open to women working in catering.
This isn’t an Asian food industry problem, but a British food industry problem.
There are almost 27,000 independent restaurants in the UK, yet the ONS estimates that just 17% of chef positions in the country are held by women. This percentage exactly reflects the Women in Business Council’s research on small business owners in the country. A lack of women entrepreneurs is a disappointing trend, which can only be tackled if we celebrate the minority there is for the role models they are.
Sarah was one of this year’s f:Entrepreneur #ialso Top 100, a campaign that celebrates and showcases female business leaders all over the UK. f:Entrepreneur told their stories and put them on a platform that show men and women the powerful minds behind some of the UK’s best small businesses.
It’s time that the restaurant industry was called to task for its own failures in empowering the brilliant women within it. Sarah is one inspiring entrepreneur that can deliver the much-needed change that south Asian culinary, catering at large, and the whole small business sector badly needs.