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Enam Ali, the 'Curry Prince' of Britain

Special Correspondent, London
Saturday, 10 September, 2011 02:53:15 AM

It would not be wrong to say that Enam Ali MBE is the heart and soul of British curry industry. Born in Bangladesh in 1960, he came to Britain to study Hospitality and Management but did not go back. He started the now famous, Le Raj restaurant in 1989 and became a fellow at the Royal Society of Arts the following year. He has been frequently called to give expert opinion on issues relating to Asian community and hospitality sector. Enam is the only Asian on the Home Office’s hospitality advisory board. He brought out Spice Business Magazine in 1998 which is very popular in the world of British curry business. The Asians recently interviewed him about his life and achievements.

The Asians: With the economy battering businesses what future do you see of the curry sector after the measures the current government in Whitehall have taken to control flow of immigrants that include barring hiring of chefs from South Asian countries?

Enam Ali: Yes, this is a problem. We do appreciate the government’s position especially when hundreds of thousands of people have been rendered jobless owing to the once-in-a-generation financial crisis. But on the other hand the hotel industry needs chefs who are not readily available in the required number. Now, it’s a chicken and egg problem. I would advise my colleagues in the hotel industry to keep in mind that our future now is in this country and, therefore, we will have to be more considerate about its problems while the government should also be sympathetic if there is a genuine need of brining a chef from abroad.

The long-term solution to the problem is to try to engage our young generation in the business. I am sorry to say that administrative affairs at the majority of our restaurants are not being looked after thoroughly. The poor state of managerial affairs is also a contributing factor towards the young generation’s lack of interest. We will have to modernize restaurant business strategies with the help of social media and publishing in which young people take keen interest too.

The Asians: Have you taken up the issues concerning the curry sector with the government?

Enam Ali: I would say that the government would also be looking for solutions to the problems. I had raised the issue (of the shortage of Indian chefs in Britain) with the Labour government making it clear that the Point Based System (PBS) would not work in the British society but it did not pay heed. The Labours borrowed the idea of PBS from Australia without considering socio-cultural difference of the two societies. Now, the current government is declaring PBS a wrong move. We have urged the government to mend the loopholes in the system rather than clamping a total ban on importing chefs.

The Asians: There is no formal institute where one can be trained as chef of Indian cuisine in Britain?

Enam Ali: The government has earmarked £200m for skill development in curry sector while we have also applied for support in setting up a college where some 200 people will be trained as chefs and for other roles. I, however, agree with the government’s stance that we should employ locals instead of hiring from abroad.

The Asians: What effect does the increase in VAT have on curry sector?

Enam Ali: It has affected everyone and every business especially when the inflation was already high. The government has its own plans to deal with the economic crisis. But I think this would make the recovery process a bit harder. I had recommended the government that the hotel and hospitality sector be spared of increase in VAT.

The Asians: When and did you come here?

Enam Ali: I came here in 1974 to study law as my parents wanted me to become a lawyer but instead got degree in Hospitality and Management. Every day is learning process for me and I believe in serving other people.

The Asians: You are a role model, how did you step in to the practical life?

Enam Ali: The first profession is footballer I did was to play for a football club. I received £1 (100 Bangladeshi Takas) for playing a football match, which I handed over to my mother. Here in Bournemouth I used to work two days a week for a fast food company while completing my studies. Later, I started working part time for Taj Mahal group restaurant where I extensively learnt how Indian restaurant run and understand customer demand and market need. I worked hard and employ all my innovative abilities to improve the restaurant, which resulted in customers’ satisfaction and better returns.

The Asians: When did Le Raj come to into being?

Enam Ali: It is the first Michelin listed restaurant and you can say it is the outcome of my love for the hospitality business. This is the real stamp of my creativity. But I make an effort every day to make it even better. Its name is the combination of French and Indian words, ‘Le’ in French means ‘the’ while ‘Raj’ in Hindi means empire. RAJ also denotes initials of my family. I opened Le Raj’s doors in 1989. I have had three restaurants –early 70’s Le Raj is now only restaurant brand name and a celebrity restaurant.

The Asians: And how did the idea of British Curry Awards come up?

Enam Ali: I thought to recognise the services of unsung heroes of the curry industry last 60 years. At that time awards were doled out to people who did not even serve a proper meal at their restaurants. I worked two years on the idea of the awards and formally launched them in 2005, which is now regarded the Oscars of hospitality industry. I would like to say here that imitators have launched around 17 curry awards since the success of British Curry Awards. Though the impersonators could not meet our high standards but the phenomenon has made curry awards a laughing stock.

The Asians: Would have you been as successful in Bangladesh as you are in Britain had you not moved here permanently?

Enam Ali: I think I would have been as successful in Bangladesh because of my creativity but my services might not be recognised as much as they are appreciated here.

The Asians: Did you face any difficulty on your path to success?

Enam Ali: Well, I have succeeded here with sheer hard work. I might have sacrificed the time meant to spend with family and friends but I did not have to face racial discrimination. But I did experience jealousy of life style.

The Asians: What does Guild of Bangladeshi Restaurants do?

Enam Ali: The guild was formed in 1992 with an aim to give Bangladeshi restaurants an identity here because at that time nobody knew that there were Bengalis behind the success of so called Indian restaurants. Now the guild has around 3000 members. We raise issues concerning to hospitality industry and its members from the platform of GBR.

The Asians: You are a busy person, how do you manage to give time to your family?

Enam Ali: Yes, it is a difficult task to manage time between family, business and social life but then one has to strike a balance. My wife and children understand the nature of my work and are really supportive.

The Asians: You also take active part in charitable work?

Enam Ali: I do not run any charity but I am a patron of several charities and have raised over one million pounds for various charities. I get spiritual satisfaction by helping others. My daughter Justine collected £18,000 for the flood-affected people of Bangladesh and she travelled all the way to the areas hit by flood to disburse the amount direct to the needy people.

The Asians: There is a saying that there is a woman behind every successful man, how true is this?

Enam Ali: There is a misnomer in media that women do not have the rightful status in our (South Asian) societies. There are issues of forced marriages. But I would say women are pivotal part of our family unit. My wife played an important role in my success. Man and woman are given different qualities by the Almighty, which are equally important in their respective context. I do not believe that men and women are equal.

The Asians: Would you give any advice to aspiring business persons?

Enam Ali: I would advise them that before they start their own business they must believe in their service or product and understand its marketing mechanism to create passion and do the smart work to stand out of the crowded market.

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