Britain’s first curry college opens to teach new chefs as restaurants face staff crisis

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Holding some floppy dough over a clay furnace, the temperature gauge reads 300C. “Stick it on the inside wall,” says my teacher. “And don’t catch your arm on the rim.”

Naan bread looks simple enough, but to create it you need speed, skilful co-ordination and skin made of asbestos.

It is Bake Off on steroids.

Good curry chefs can make hundreds of naan breads every hour, but they are a dying breed. British curry is in crisis.

Immigration restrictions and a brain drain mean hundreds of curry houses closing each month because good chefs are now like “gold dust”.

Good curry chefs are now 'like gold dust'
(Image: Tim Anderson)
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Enam Ali MBE is the self-proclaimed King of British Curry and he’s sunk £500,000 into the UK’s first curry college, to forge a new generation of curry chefs.

Students will learn the secrets of uniquely British Indian dishes such as chicken tikka masala, jalfrezi and Bombay potatoes. Over a three-year course, they will become curry masters.

Enam Ali MBE has sunk £500,000 into the UK’s first curry college
(Image: Tim Anderson)

Enam owns Le Raj restaurant in Epsom Downs, Surrey, the UK’s first Indian restaurant to join the elite gastronomic club Chaîne des Rôtisseurs.

It has taken him two years to establish Le Raj Academy in partnership with the nearby North East Surrey College of Technology. It is recruiting students for the first course in September.

Students at the college will learn the secrets of uniquely British Indian dishes
(Image: Tim Anderson)
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Enam says: “Traditionally the only way to become a curry chef was to start at the bottom, working in a restaurant, washing pots and pans in the kitchen. We now have a generation who are becoming doctors and lawyers.

“They don’t want to work in the restaurants and to them, the idea of working as a pot washer is discouraging.

Enam says many of the younger generation want to be lawyers and docters rather than chefs
(Image: Tim Anderson)

“The only way to attract new talent was to have an academy where they can learn the cuisine without starting at the bottom. Students will be able to work in any sector but will have the added bonus of being experts in British curry.”

Most curry dishes popular on menus in the UK are unknown in India and were developed in first generation curry houses opened by the Bangladeshi community in the 1960s and 70s.

Most curry dishes popular on menus in the UK are unknown in India
(Image: Tim Anderson)

These anglicised dishes have been so successful, they are now gaining popularity in India where restaurants catering for global diners prefer to offer them over traditional Indian dishes.

In the UK, the curry industry is worth £4.2billion and employs 100,000 people. But tough immigration rules have made it difficult for restaurants to recruit chefs from the Commonwealth .

The UK's curry industry is worth £4.2billion and employs 100,000 people
(Image: Tim Anderson)

The subsequent domestic chef shortage has driven up wage demands and many restaurants are unable to survive without East European labour.

Enam says: “Good curry chefs in the UK are like gold dust. They are becoming rarer and come at a premium.”

Mirror man Nick risks his hand as he attempts to bake a naan bread
(Image: Tim Anderson)
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British curry ingredients differ from India, along with cooking methods, says academy head chef Neeraj Saraswat.

“In India, a biriyani and most curries would be cooked in a big pot in one large batch,” he says. In UK curry restaurants, dishes are all cooked individually.”

Neeraj and Enam continue my class with a British chicken jalfrezi. After slicing the chicken breast too finely, I get the hang of the fast cooking style.

Nick's jalfrezi almost done
(Image: Tim Anderson)

The individual portion finely balances chilli, ginger and garlic puree, bay leaves, coriander powder and onion stock.

Prepared in minutes, it is left to simmer until the thick sauce is infused with spice and heat. Mine tastes like anything on offer at my local takeaway and has no additives or fattening ghee.

It gets the thumbs up from Enam.

Nick's chicken jalfrezi received a stamp of approval from curry master Enam
(Image: Tim Anderson)

“You can tell a lot from a curry,” he says. “In some restaurants the food is angry because the chef is unhappy.

“But when a dish is made with passion and love by someone who cares about what they are cooking, it is reflected in the food and elevates it.

“This is the type of chef we want to create at the academy.”

With places on the course still available, hopefully more budding curry chefs will tikka a chance on a new career.

From The Mirror