Yotam Ottolenghi on the most important ingredient in any kitchen: diversity | Restaurants

It has always been a great strength that there are so many international influences in the hospitality industry 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 seriously affecting that diversity.

In my restaurants, we have seen a significant number of people leaving and returning to Europe over the past year and a half, and there are not enough people coming to take the places of those who have left; it’s really crippling the industry.

This makes hiring and retaining talent, from commis chefs and kitchen porters to experienced chefs and managers, very competitive. We even had a guy we hired in the morning walk out halfway through his shift because he said he got a better job offer. There is a positive: I see more Britons coming to work in the sector, which is great, but there are not enough of them, which leaves us at risk of no longer being a world leader in food.

When I came to the UK from Israel in 1997, many years before Brexit, Europeans were everywhere. There were French, Germans, Italians, Greeks and Scandinavians at all levels of the hospitality industry. I have worked with people from all of these countries over the years. I would say that at least 60% of the jobs have been filled by immigrants, most of them from Europe.

My own story is that of immigration: when I created the Ottolenghi grocery store in London in 2002, all but two of the people who created 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 on here – alongside Northern influences. African, South European and Antipodian.

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 sort of apologetic tone when it came to British food. There are far fewer today.

Watching the mood in parts of the UK turn against immigration has been difficult. I always thought it was a terrible shame that the inequalities experienced by people in British societies were attributed to immigration. Over the years, I’ve felt sorry, angry, misunderstood, because people made this confusion between immigrants and social issues; they got the wrong target.

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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 find some of the best Sri Lankan, Persian, Malaysian, Lebanese, Vietnamese, Chinese and even Mexican restaurants here, thanks to people who have immigrated. The diversity, the plurality, the sheer delight of food in this country today would not have been the same without those who came, cooked their food and made their cultures thrive in a hospitable environment. People really take it for granted.

In the 1960s and 1970s, olive oil could only be obtained from pharmacies. You could only buy pomegranates in specialist 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, which is now a staple in the UK, has always been there. 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 hardworking young Malaysian. I’ll never forget the time I asked her to make a fruit salad. He went to get the ingredients – and came back with a bowl full of fruit with a pile of tomatoes on top.

A dish we cooked in my restaurant Nopi was the product of a Catalan chef in the kitchen. Scully, the head chef, was working on a version of a Moroccan pastilla, which is a sweet pie. He wanted to make this incredibly rich and beautiful dish even more special. The Catalan chef suggested adding a layer of Catalan-style cooked spinach – sweet and sour with pine nuts – and it worked so well with the Moroccan flavors, cinnamon and shredded meat. People bring their heritage and enrich the menus of restaurants across the country.

Many of our employees are still from the EU, and I would like 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 plight of the sector, but also the benefits that immigrants bring. I don’t want to go back in time and we have to accept that we are in a different world after Brexit. But I would like people to recognize how incredible this industry has been for our culture. This means that tourists come from all over the world to try our food. We have exported celebrity chefs internationally, and this brings a lot not only in terms of well-being, but also in terms of economy.

When immigrants are allowed to work in our kitchens and restaurants and start their own businesses, everyone wins. There would only be winners, no losers.

As said to Ellie Violet Bramley

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