Britain is busy plugging the skills gap with apprenticeships.
For years the lure of more lucrative jobs in technology-related professions diverted many young people away from the traditional hands-on trades, so it’s no surprise the country started to suffer the shortage of such skills.
Investment into training cour-ses is helping to bridge that gap and, in the same way, Bradford – currently the Curry Capital of Britain – is now stepping into the breach to stem a skills shortage in curry chefs.
In May last year the college launched its International Food Academy to prevent what has been referred to as an ‘unprecedented curry crisis’ due to a tightening of immigration laws leaving Indian restaurateurs struggling to find skilled chefs.
There are currently more than 50 students on the course ranging from apprentices to the unemployed.
For 20-year-old single mum, Demi Shoesmith, from Cleckheaton, the academy is giving her the opportunity to learn a skill and achieve a long-term goal. “I always love to cook, especially home cooking and I want to do this and get a degree in cooking so I can open a place abroad for me and my daughter,” says Demi, referring to her three-year-old, Skyler.
Learning how to cook international cuisine – her particular penchant is creating authentic pakoras and onion bhajis – is essential when catering for foreign customers.
“I have a lot of Asian friends and they all say I cook great for them. I have a friend who is Turkish and I have cooked for her and she loved it,” says Demi, who enrolled on the course in September.
Stirring the custard ready for the steamed syrup pudding she has prepared, Demi talks of the struggles young people often face when seeking employment. “I think with me being a single mum as well didn’t help,” says Demi, referring to it being perceived they may not be able to give 100 per cent to their job while juggling childcare.
“But single mums need a job just as much as anybody,” she adds.
“And I want to speak out to young mums who want to reach out to their goals and dreams.”
Sania Ali, 24, from Bradford, is a newcomer on the course. “I have always been interested and I want to become a chef,” she says.
Angelo Towse, 33, also from Bradford, joined the course in September to expand his culinary knowledge. “I love food and I want to indulge my passion for food, but I don’t just want to concentrate on one food. I want to get the basics right and I really like eating curry so it’s like a dream come true – I am not just consuming it, I am learning how to cook it myself.”
Angelo says he wouldn’t mind working in the kitchens of an Asian restaurant. He said: “Personally, I think it doesn’t matter your age, or sex or the colour of your skin. If you really want to learn something and somebody is willing to teach you it has got to be a bonus for both sides.”
Having run a similar operation in conjunction with a Chinese restaurant in a previous post, Graham Fleming, head of the International Food Academy, was confident it would work.
“Artisan crafts and trades have been re-born,” says Graham.
“There are so many jobs in hospitality and I cannot accept there are one million unemployed 16 to 25-year-olds. I know there are jobs in the community and they will say ‘I don’t want to do that’ but there are lots of opportunity in hospitality and food manufacturing at all levels and they have to start somewhere. Coming on an apprenticeship is the right starting point.”
With a relatively small expenditure, the college’s disused refectory was given a bright and stylish make-over providing the perfect environment for culinary training.
Students can enrol on the course at 19, an age group poorly funded according to the academy’s head chef, Colin Burt.
“The Government funding at the moment is poor for the 19-plus age group so there is no shortage of people wanting to come on a course like this and, despite the fact there are one million young people unemployed, there are a lot of vacancies for chefs, particularly because in Bradford the Asian restaurants have another problem with the tightening of immigration laws,” he explains.
Heightening media interest in the academy has been a boon, he said, and the awareness it has generated will, hopefully, stem the burgeoning ‘curry crisis’.
“I think the whole school system is geared to get them academically trained and if you look at the continent they filter non-academic students towards hands-on jobs such as catering and I think we need to follow that,” says Colin.
Communities secretary and former Bradford Council leader, Eric Pickles, has already give0n his backing to the launch of curry colleges across the UK. “And Bradford College is trying to address the issue,” says Colin.
Expanding the international culinary skills of Western chefs is one thing, breaking the taboo is another. According to Graham, the idea of Western chefs working in the kitchens of Asian restaurants is something the Asian businesses they are working with are now embracing with the offer of work experience.
This partnership will be further enhanced by Friday’s patron appointments. Chief patron is Mohammed Aslam, managing director of the Aagrah Group of restaurants. Associate patrons are Bobby Patel, from Prashad restaurant, whose wife Minal is a tutor on the course, and Charalene Lee, managing director of Dragon Thai in Bradford.
Mohammed Aslam says being installed as chief patron is an honour and he is pleased to support the academy.
“The reason why I accepted being part of it is importing chefs from the sub-continent is a short-term solution but the permanent problem is the training,” he says. “I wanted to be part of it is making a long-term solution to other problems and train the unemployed people here.”
A high profile is imperative and you can’t fault staff for keeping the academy in the public eye. Last year they became holders of the onion bhaji world record and there are events planned this year with the junior curry chef competition finals – which celebrity chef Brian Turner is expected to attend – and a charity dinner, both in April.
Says Colin: “We have definitely hit a vein with this and identified what was required and, because we are Bradford College, we like to cater for the needs of the city.”