IIt’s always been a great strength that there are so many international influences on the hospitality industry in this country: they make it rich, they make it interesting, they make it fun. But now, the perfect storm of the pandemic and Brexit is taking a heavy toll on that diversity.
In my restaurants, we have seen a considerable number of people leave and return to Europe over the last year and a half, and not enough people come to fill the places they have left; it’s really crippling the industry.
It makes recruiting and retaining talent, from commis chefs and kitchen porters to experienced chefs and managers, highly competitive. We even had a guy we hired in the morning leave in the middle of his shift because he said he had a better job offer. There is one positive thing: I see more Brits coming to work in the sector, which is great, but there are not enough of them, leaving us at risk of ceasing to be a world leader in food.
When I first came to the UK from Israel in 1997, many years before Brexit, there were Europeans everywhere. There were French, German, Italian, Greek and Scandinavian people at all levels of the hotel industry; I have worked with people from all those countries over the years. I would say that at least 60% of the jobs were taken by immigrants, most of them from Europe.
My own story is one of immigration: when I opened the Ottolenghi deli in London in 2002, all but two of the people who started it with me were immigrants. My partners were Sami Tamimi, a Palestinian, and Noam Bar, an Israeli. Everything we brought was from another part of the world. There was obviously a strong Middle Eastern feel to the ingredients, the techniques, the dishes, and it was a wonderful and very satisfying feeling to bring the food I grew up with here, along with North African, Southern European and the antipodes.
The UK was very open in its acceptance of food from the rest of the world and I am grateful for that. In other parts of Europe, Italy and France being the most typical examples, there is a strong patriotic tradition in the kitchen. Twenty years ago, there was something of an apologetic tone when it came to British food. There is much less of that today.
It has been hard to watch the mood in some parts of the UK turn against immigration. I always felt it was a terrible shame that the inequalities that people in British societies experience are attributed to immigration. Over the years I have felt ashamed, angry, misunderstood, because people have confused immigrants with social issues; They have the wrong goal.
Like other cultural phenomena, food is enriched by the interaction between different cultures – we wouldn’t have all the amazing cuisines without absorbing people from all over the world. You can get some of the best Sri Lankan, Persian, Malaysian, Lebanese, Vietnamese, Chinese and even Mexican restaurants here, thanks to people who have emigrated. The diversity, the plurality, the sheer delight of the food in this country today would not have been the same if it had not been for those who have come, have cooked their food and made their cultures prosper in a hospitable environment. People really take it for granted.
In the 1960s and 1970s, olive oil could only be obtained at a pharmacy. Grenades could only be obtained from specialized shops in London owned by Iranians and Arabs; the herb and spice selections were much smaller; even eggplants were hard to find. People think that hummus, now a staple spread in the UK, has always been here. But that was not the case 25 years ago.
In a restaurant kitchen, cultural differences create interesting interactions. Years ago, I worked with a totally inexperienced but hard-working young man from Malaysia. I will never forget the time I asked her to make a fruit salad. She went and picked out the ingredients, and came back with a bowl full of fruit with a pile of tomatoes on top.
A dish that we cooked in my Nopi restaurant was the product of having a Catalan chef in the kitchen. Scully, the head chef, was working on a version of a Moroccan pastilla, which is a sweet meat pie. I wanted to make this incredibly rich and beautiful dish even more special. The Catalan chef suggested adding a layer of spinach cooked Catalan style, sweet and sour with pine nuts, and it worked very well with the Moroccan flavors, cinnamon and shredded meat. People bring their heritage this way and enrich menus at restaurants across the country.
A lot of our staff are still from the EU, and I would love to find a way for them to continue to be allowed to come. It would be the most incredible thing if the government could understand the predicament of the sector, but also the benefits that immigrants bring. I do not want to turn back time and we must accept that we are in a different world after Brexit. But I would love to see how amazing this industry has been for our culture. It has brought tourists from all over the world to try our food. We have exported internationally famous chefs, and it contributes a lot not only in terms of our well-being, but also our economy.
When immigrants are allowed to work in our kitchens and on restaurant floors, and start their own businesses, everyone wins.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism