It has always been a great strength that there are so many international influences in the hospitality sector in this country: they enrich it, they make it interesting, they make it fun. But now, the perfect storm of the pandemic and Brexit is severely affecting that diversity.
In my restaurants, we have seen a substantial number of people leave and go back to Europe over the past year and a half, and not enough people are coming to fill the places of those who have left; it’s really crippling the industry.
It makes hiring and keeping talent, from the commis chefs and the kitchen porters to experienced head chefs and managers, very competitive. We even had a guy we had hired in the morning walk out halfway through his shift because he said he’d had a better job offer. There is one positive: I do see more Britons coming to work in the sector, which is great, but there are nowhere near enough, leaving us at risk of no longer being a global leader in food.
When I first came to the UK from Israel in 1997, many years before Brexit, Europeans were everywhere. There were French and Germans and Italians and Greeks and Scandinavians at all levels of the hospitality industry – I’ve worked with people from all of those countries over the years. I’d 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 set up the Ottolenghi deli in London in 2002, all bar two of the people starting it up 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 that I grew up with here – alongside north African, southern European and antipodean influences.
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 of cooking. Twenty years ago, there was a kind of an apologetic tone when it came to British food. There’s much less of that today.
Watching the mood in some quarters of the UK turn against immigration has been hard. I always felt it was a terrible shame that the inequalities people experience in British societies are attributed to immigration. Over the years I’ve felt sorry, angry, misunderstood, because people have made that confusion between immigrants and social issues; they have the wrong target.
Like other cultural phenomena, food is enriched by interaction between different cultures – we wouldn’t have all the incredible cuisines without having absorbed people from all over the world. You can get some of the best Sri Lankan, Persian, Malaysian, Lebanese, Vietnamese, Chinese, even Mexican restaurants here, thanks to people who have immigrated. The diversity, the plurality, the pure deliciousness of food in this country today would not have been the same had it not been for those who have come, cooked their food and made their cultures thrive in a hospitable environment. People really take it for granted.
In the 60s and 70s, you could only get olive oil from a pharmacy. You could only get pomegranates in speciality shops in London owned by Iranians and Arabs; herb and spice selections were a lot smaller; even aubergines were hard to find. People think that hummus, which is 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 make for interesting interactions. Years ago, I worked with a totally inexperienced but hard-working young guy from Malaysia. I will never forget the time I asked him to make fruit salad. He went and picked out the ingredients – and returned with a bowl full of fruit with a pile of tomatoes on top.
One dish we cooked at my restaurant Nopi was the product of having a Catalan chef in the kitchen. Scully, the head chef, was working on a take on a Moroccan pastilla, which is a sweetmeat pie. He wanted to make this incredibly rich, beautiful dish even more special. The Catalan chef suggested adding a layer of spinach cooked the Catalan way – sweet and sour with pine nuts – and it just worked so well with the Moroccan flavours, the cinnamon and shredded meat. People bring their heritage in this way and enrich menus in restaurants across the country.
Many of our staff are still from the EU, and I would love to find a way for them to keep on being 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 don’t want to turn back time, and we need to accept that we’re in a different world post-Brexit. But I would love recognition of how incredible this industry has been for our culture. It has meant that tourists come from all over the world to try our food. We have exported celebrity chefs internationally, and it brings so much not only in terms of our wellbeing, but also our economy.
When immigrants are allowed to work in our kitchens and on restaurant floors, and to start their own ventures, everybody gains.