Hundreds of curry lovers, food experts and restaurant owners from across the world gathered in London for a gala ceremony to recognise the talents of chefs, the unsung heroes of the kitchen. The awards are the brainchild of Syed Nahas Pasha and his brother, Syed Belal Ahmed, who run Curry Life magazine regarded as the authoritative voice of an estimated 10,000 Indian and Bangladeshi restaurants, take-away and associated businesses in Britain. Nahas Pasha explained what makes the Curry Life awards distinctive, “ Well, there are many other awards in this field. Everyone is doing their bit for the industry. But I believe Curry Life is unique in giving awards to curry chefs on a massive national scale. This year we have awarded 21 chefs from different corners of the country. We even have a curry chef from Sweden in our European category and a chef from Kolkata, India, in the international category. No other institution or organisation has ever recognised so many curry chefs together.”
The quest to find the most talented chefs took the Curry Life team from chic, up-market restaurants to more humble establishments and takeaways. They have rewarded the most traditional as well as the modern, the innovative and creative. The team were impressed by the quality of food whether it was chicken tikka masala, jalfrezis and curries so loved by the British public or the modern fusion dishes which have their roots firmly in the traditions of the subcontinent.
Chefs young and old strode to the podium to receive the coveted awards, several took their children and other relatives to share the proud moment. The best European curry chef of the year award was presented to a chef from Sweden. The winner of the Lifetime Achievement award was Alhaj Rafique Uddin who opened the first Indian restaurant in the city of Carlisle 40 years ago. He is 82 years old and was held up as an inspiration to younger generations. A year ago his two sons opened a restaurant in his name called 'Rafik's" in the same city.
Curry Life magazine was established 10 years ago. Its promotion of chefs began with the first British Fusion Food Festival in the Dhaka Sheraton Hotel in 2002. Since then it has held a British Curry Festival every year in Bangladesh, India and several countries in continental Europe. Nahas Pasha says, “We started recognising chefs with awards in 2009. Chefs who worked hard and changed the food habits of Britons are shy and kind of neglected in terms of the right kind of exposure. They deserve the recognition. If there is no good food there is no good restaurant. Curry Life thinks by recognising chefs for their hard work and creativity we can encourage new generations to enter this profession, this is the only way forward to keep this industry going. We launched Curry Life Chefs Club two years ago which has a growing number of members. We provide two free training places each year to members.”
Nahas Pasha and Belal Ahmed are, with justification, most proud of making an impact in India, the home of curry, where their food festivals have won accolades. Nahas Pasha said selecting winners is no easy task, “ Our curry chefs in the UK are different from people on the subcontinent. Their working environment is different. The clientele here is very different so the food is different as well. When our chefs took Balti dishes from the UK to India and a twist from Yorkshire pudding to Dhaka, in Bangladesh, for our International British Curry Festival, it really created a buzz in the media. Everyone wanted to try this. Now Balti sauces from Birmingham are exported to India”.
Nahas Pasha said it was amazing to see how people in the industry were coping in the current difficult economic times and he hoped British government ministers would get the message that rising taxes and other restrictions were hurting the trade. He expressed disappointment that the curry industry had not been helped by the Olympics which had failed to result in a surge in customers as had been hoped. Other speakers drew attention to other challenges facing the industry – the biggest being the introduction of tough restrictions on immigration, which meant restaurant owners could not get the chefs and skills that were needed.
Lord Karan Bilimoria, Chairman of Cobra Beer Partnership, a sponsor of the awards, said the individual achievements of the winners were an inspiration to the whole industry. “ The winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award demonstrated the pioneering spirit of the curry restaurant industry, where individuals have gone as complete strangers to every corner of Britain, opened up their restaurants, made friends, won customers, and most importantly, without fail, put back into their local communities. It is these pioneering entrepreneurs who have made curry a way of life in Britain.” Lord Bilimoria, who arrived in the UK when he was 19 years old, recalled the transformation that had taken place over the thirty years that he has been here. He noted three key changes: he had been warned that he would not get to the top as a foreigner, this is no longer the case; entrepreneurship was not celebrated as it is now and in the international context power these days is shifting from west to east.
The Business Minister, Matthew Hancock, paid tribute to the Bangladeshi community for demonstrating the values of hard work. He disclosed that he had curry every Sunday when he travelled to London from his constituency in the country. Jim Fitzpatrick, Labour member of parliament for Poplar and Limehouse, which has a large Bangladeshi community, said, “ The Curry Life Awards is a great opportunity to celebrate the best in the business. To greet and acknowledge the efforts of chefs, owners and suppliers is a welcome chance to applaud an important sector of our hospitality industry.”
Stephen Cole, Al Jazeera presenter, who hosted the event, reminded those present that the first time curry appeared on a menu in Britain was in 1773. Today Greater London has more curry restaurants than Dhaka and Delhi combined; the UK is now the global hub of curry. Before Bangladesh was created, Bengalis from undivided India introduced Britain to curries, they were the real pioneers and today their descendants from Bangladesh remain a dominant force having built the industry into a multi-billion pound business. The Curry Life Awards are evidence that curries are now a truly global cuisine.