These 14 small venues – all run or founded by immigrants to Britain – are part of the fabric of the nation’s high streets. But after two hellish years, can they survive?
North African: Los Moros, York
Tarik Abdeladim, 51
“When I started out, getting harisssa in York wasn’t easy,” says Tarik Abdeladim. “There was one stockist.” Chefs have been frantic since reopening after lockdown, he says. “The combination of Brexit and the pandemic has been like a tsunami hitting our industry. We’re a tourist city. European staff, especially those without families here, have gone home.” He employs 20 mostly local workers.
“People used to drop their CVs in all the time. I recently advertised for chefs and didn’t have one response. That’s a huge geographical and emotional shift; people no longer want to work long kitchen hours away from home.”
Abdeladim moved to London from Algiers in 1990, aged 20: “We’d visit Paris when I was young and I worked in kitchens on the Côte d’Azur, so Europe was always on my radar. I visited a friend in London and fell in love with British culture, history, music, football. I never went home.”
Having worked first as a pot washer, then later as a waiter and front of house, he moved to York in 1997, after visiting the city. “As an immigrant, language is a barrier to jobs,” he says, “but being in restaurants was what I knew. The pot wash suited me till I knew enough to speak to customers and take orders.”
His falafel wraps and fiery merguez sausage, served with harissa on hot baguettes, quickly became the city’s top-rated food on Tripadvisor, after he opened a stall on Shambles Market in 2015. When a regular offered to sell him their restaurant three years
later, he established Los Moros – a Spanish nod to his Berber heritage – serving modern north African cuisine. Its picturesque British exterior belies the colours and aromas of an Algerian souk you’ll find within.
Abdeladim’s food is steeped in the legacies of Algeria’s invaders. He says: “My indigenous Berber family cooked tagines. My grandmother sat for hours at our kitchen table making kilos of couscous from semolina. The Romans brought olives and citrus; the Arabs brought spices; the Turks came to defend us, bringing coffee and baklava; and, finally, the French, with the croissants I ate for breakfast back home. All the cultures that shaped my taste buds exist on my menu.”
They include the merguez he first cooked for his stall, now served in a butter bean dish his mother used to make:. “My father would go to the best butcher in Algiers.” Abdeladim says. “It’s the food of my childhood. When I came here at 20, I was young and adventurous, I wanted to discover and learn. My own business was never part of the plan. A guy from the Michelin guide tweeted about my food last year. I never envisaged that.”
Cambodian: Kambuja, Marple, Greater Manchester
Y Sok, 45
“Hunger pain never leaves you,” says Y Sok, who was raised in a refugee camp in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge civil war, where Red Cross food parcels sustained her family before they moved to America. “Every day there was a lottery system for a new life in France, the US or Australia. My father chose America.”
She moved to the UK in 2014, aged 37: “I remember hanging up our sign and someone saying, ‘We’ll see how long that lasts.’ I wanted to change the perception of Asian food, the racism around it.
People grew up eating £5 Chinese meals from the chippy but wouldn’t blink at paying triple for pasta. I wanted the suburbs to discover what ethnic food really is.”
Sok’s 20 staff, who also run a market outpost, are mostly South Asian or Cambodian. She wants to sponsor skilled-worker visas for another two. “It is hard to find a Cambodian chef from our tiny UK population,” she says. “I have found loyalty in immigrant staff, who come looking for better opportunities. If you treat them well, give full benefits and respect, most tend to stay.”
The restaurant, where walls are adorned with framed vinyls – it was formerly called Angkor Soul because of her husband’s record store downstairs – served takeaways during the pandemic. Sok says: “The supply chain has been horrible. I spent days driving round, looking for products.”
Dishes include cha kroeung, a curry with lemongrass, galangal and turmeric, and loc lac, a French colonised dish.
Growing up among Cambodian refugees, in Boston, then Los Angeles, where she would cater dinner parties and small weddings, food provided comfort for Sok’s community. Kambuja returned her to her roots. “As an immigrant kid, I wanted to eat American mac’n’cheese to assimilate,” she says. “I took the Cambodian food my mother cooked for granted. My restaurant brought me back to a place I had been away from for so long.”
Caribbean: Buzzrocks, Manchester
Buzzrock, 72, and Farida Anderson, 60
Two decades after his parents arrived in the UK with the Windrush generation, Buzzrock came to Britain from Jamaica, in 1976, age 27, holding only a photograph of his mother. Raised by an aunt, Buzzrock (known as Buzz) was the last of his family to emigrate, following his three sisters, once his father – a second world war veteran – had made enough money.
Buzz established his name in the shebeens and all-night Caribbean clubs of Manchester’s Moss Side where he met his wife Farida – the daughter of a Somali immigrant, now an MBE – and cooked up a taste of home for the city’s Jamaican community, including the tightly packed dumplings he is named after.
Now his café, where meat marinates from 6am and punters queue before noon, dishes up 300 plates of island food a day. “Our customers are British, Irish, Asian, Caribbean – 80% are white. It gives me a buzz to see all of them with ‘dem belly full’.” (They sell T-shirts carrying Buzz’s slogan in their online shop.)
“Buzz and I have put in a lot of hours to get here,” Farida says. “When they called the area ‘Gunchester’ we’d dodge bullets, serving food from our trailer. We fought for eight years to get our premises, experiencing racism as black shop owners.”
The pandemic has had an impact, too. “Meat is 30% more expensive. I spent last summer policing the door, getting people to wear masks and sanitise.”
In the shebeen days, Buzz’s cooking fuelled illicit gambling dens and a side-line supplying cannabis. He started the business following a two-year prison sentence for drugs offences and the (now expired) threat of deportation. Farida – later a campaigner for prisoners’ families – fought for him to remain. Now, they employ ex-offenders and prisoners on day release. “We believe in second chances,” Farida says.
Thirty years after he started feeding crowds from a gazebo at Manchester’s Caribbean carnival, Buzz is still serving the same jerk recipe, salt fish patties, flavoursome gravy and curried goat (actually lamb, because British palates “don’t like the bones in goat”) in the shop the couple opened in 2007. “Consistency is the thing,” Buzz says. “People say they’ve been to many places but never tried jerk like I make it.”
French: L’Escargot Bleu, Edinburgh
Frederic Berkmiller, 51
“I have seen staffing problems in restaurants for years,” says Frederic Berkmiller, who established a French-Scottish training exchange for young chefs in 2011, long before Brexit and the pandemic triggered an exodus of foreign and casual workers.
“Chefs say all the time that they can’t get waiting staff now foreigners have left. We have to build our own ecosystem. Young people brought up on chips, curry sauce and supermarket food will not aspire to cook and work with fresh fish or vegetables they’ve never seen before.”
Since lockdown, he has slimmed his staff from 30, across two sites, to six, including chefs who have been with him for years. “The work is hard, so I look after my chefs,” he says. “We’ve been working four days on, three off, for 15 years.”
Born in the Loire valley, Berkmiller moved to London in 1988, then to Edinburgh in 2004. He works to a sustainable, “producer to pass” ethos, farming himself and using nearby growers and suppliers for the dishes plated up at his chef’s pass.
He serves classic French cuisine from a locally sourced Scottish larder and four-acre garden, employing skills he learned as a teenager. “School didn’t like me and I didn’t like school. At 14, I was sent to live in as an apprentice in a restaurant where food was hunted, picked and cooked on site.”
L’Escargot Bleu is an authentic, charming bistro, with a blue frontage and a wood-panelled bar, tablecloths, a blackboard with the day’s menu and large, classic French advertisements on its walls. “I like to cook by my mood,” Berkmiller says. “My dream restaurant would have no menu. Time-intensive beef bourguignon and veal blanquettes are disappearing, but I’m a great defender of classic French cooking – it’s my origin.”
Scandinavian: Hjem, Hexham, Northumberland
Alex Nietosvuori, 29
“It can be hard to find a passion for working kitchen hours among local boys and girls,” says Alex Nietosvuori, the Swede behind
newly Michelin-starred Hjem, which he established in 2019 with his Northumbrian fiancé Ally Thompson, 37; they also run the Hadrian hotel and a gastro pub in the north-east market town.
While their fine-dining staff have expanded to a team of eight, lockdown triggered departures elsewhere in the business. “A lot of people are in our industry for convenience or to pay their way through uni,” Thompson says. “They realised there’s probably an easier way to live than working till midnight everyday.”
Nietosvuori, who emigrated from Sweden in 2015, is matter of fact. “At the end of the day, if people leave, we don’t need them here,” he says. “We want all of our business to reflect the standards of our restaurant.”
It compounded a problem started by Brexit, Thompson adds: “There are no applications from Europeans now. Our last stage [intern], an Italian, left before lockdown. Our two Polish chefs have said the vote made them feel unwelcome. I fear we will see fewer European chefs wanting to open here.”
Hjem – both a Norwegian translation and Northumbrian dialect for “home” – sits on the same latitude as Nietosvuori’s native Skåne, in the south of Sweden. The same berries, mushrooms and plants go into the recipes on his tasting menus, including crisp croustades; pearly, white river cod; and the restaurant’s signature horseradish sorbet with spelt crumble and warm apple caramel served inside a wooden apple crafted by Thompson’s father.
“In Sweden you can forage on anyone’s land,” Thompson says. “Alex will often be walking the dog and pull containers out from his backpack.”
Nietosvuori, whose career began 12 years ago, making pies in Malmö, says: “Our ambition is very simple: to be the best in the country, then the world. Last time we opened bookings, they were gone in two minutes. I couldn’t care less about food when I was young. Now, food is everything.”
Chinese: The Welcome, Belfast
San Wong, 69, and his sons Charlie, 44, and Michael, 42
Charlie’s father, San, was 16 when he left Tai Po, Hong Kong, with his parents. “We couldn’t make a living in the New Territories,” San says. “My father left first; I followed six months later.”
His 70-cover Chinese restaurant, situated on Stranmillis Road in Belfast, bills itself as the longest established in Northern Ireland
(the first Welcome opened in Portadown in 1973; it switched location to the Belfast site in 1982) and passed to his sons, Charlie and Michael, five years ago.
“We still use sauces from Tai Po, but the pandemic has hit the supply chain hard,” Charlie says. “People are stockpiling imported ingredients. You have to buy up what you can from Chinese supermarkets. Consistency is important.”
During the Troubles, San stayed, while other families left. “Many Indian and Italian restaurants closed. Those were dark days, but
they presented an opportunity to make our name. As an Asian family, we would be waved through road blocks while both sides of the city fought.
“Today we have families who’ve been coming for three generations. I’ve turned away rock stars and politicians to honour bookings from my regulars.”
Indian: Dastaan, Epsom, Surrey
Nand Kishor, 47
The pandemic dealt the worst possible blow to staff at Dastaan who lost their senior chef, Balam Singh, to Covid last January.
“He was my right-hand man, my friend, we miss him terribly,” says chef-owner Nand Kishor Semwal, born in Dehradun, in the
Himalayan foothills. Half of his 22 employees were taken ill over Christmas 2020.
The 52-cover restaurant, born of a friendship between Semwal and co-owner Sanjay Gour, both former head chefs at the Michelin-starred Gymkhana in London (where Singh also worked), is operating at 30 covers with a delivery driver, post-pandemic. “We’re lucky – our staff have been here for years, but I’m paying £2-3 more per kilo of lamb, and a box of chillis is up 50%.”
The name Dastaan is taken from the Urdu for fable or tale. The unassuming shopfront on a Surrey high street belies a vibrant, talked-about and beautifully plated menu served in simple surrounds.
Semwal moved to England, for work, in 2003, having cooked in Mumbai’s best kitchens. His lamb chops with mustard relish remind him of the meat his mother and grandmother prepared. “I cook the food I ate at home in north India and cooked in kitchens in the south. I was always fascinated by food. My dream came true.”
Tibetan: Taste Tibet, Oxford
Yeshi Jampa, 42
“We need more staff but we know it’s not a good time,” says Yeshi Jampa, who started up his canteen-style restaurant in November 2020, after six years serving up east Tibetan soul food at fairs and festivals, including Glastonbury. “There aren’t enough skilled workers around, or the time to train them.”
Jampa and his wife, Julie, opened Taste Tibet’s distinctive blue front door, on a residential street, mid-pandemic. “It’s been really hard,” he says. “Suppliers didn’t want to come for our relatively small orders. I was going round shops buying chicken.”
Their kitchen is open Wednesday to Saturday, with five employees, including staff from Tibet and Timor-Leste. “With more people, we’d be able to be open more often,” says Julie, who met her husband while working in India.
Jampa had a semi-nomadic upbringing, followed by an accidental immigration. At 19, he crossed the Himalayas to help his brother join an Indian monastery. “I walked for 24 days. The journey was so hard, it was 17 years before I returned home.” He met Julie and moved to Oxford, where she worked, in 2011. “I’d never seen food covered in plastic or sold in such small quantities,” he says.
Photographs of the mountainsides where he grew up, rearing yaks and cattle in summer and storing produce for winter, decorate the brick walls of his restaurant. The queue for his steamed momo dumplings hasn’t dissipated since he first pitched up on Gloucester Green market, in Oxford, in 2014. During lockdown, they used their premises, and customer donations, to send food to frontline workers and vulnerable people. A cookbook, Taste Tibet, follows on 17 March.
Jampa says: “My driving force is to educate people about Tibet; food is a big part of that. Our canteen is a place where a rich man
can eat the same food as a poor man. Being a refugee influences that. Where I grew up, the signs in schools said ‘Others before self’. That ethos, karma, is important in Tibet.”
Māori/Malay: Kota and Kota Kai, Porthleven, Cornwall
Jude Kereama, 48
The last two years have given hospitality workers time to take stock, according to Jude Kereama: “I think a lot have really enjoyed being at home with their families. That’s had a big impact on attitudes towards working in this industry. I’m lucky to have had loyalty from mine.”
He employs 10 people across his two restaurants on Porthleven’s Harbour Head. “Brexit and the pandemic have also taught us we must change the way we cook. Fish prices are four times what they should be. It’s no longer sustainable to demand overfishing and huge pieces of cheap meat on meals.”
Born in New Zealand to a Māori father and Chinese-Malay mother, Kereama has seen a lot of changes in the Cornish food scene. “When we moved here, everything around us was pubs. My menu was a culture shock.”
After rising through the ranks of New Zealand hospitality, he came to England on a two-year working visa, aged 24, and fell in love with his restaurant manager wife, Jane. They converted a west Cornwall boat shed into Kota in 2006, and opened family-friendly Kota Kai in 2011. Jane died of cancer in 2019.
His Kota menu pays homage to his childhood. Soft-shell crab in a bao bun, with Asian slaw and seaweed mayo, is a bestseller. “My siblings and I would catch blue swimmer crabs on Waikanae beach,” he says. “Mum would throw them in chilli paste and we’d dip in white bread and butter.” Tempura oyster, served at the restaurant, is inspired by the taste of his dad’s battered oyster, enjoyed with fish and chips every Friday, on the beach back home.
“In New Zealand, everyone had an abundance of garden veg and fruit trees. We’d harvest everything. Dad taught us bush-craft and foraging. Mum brought Malaysia’s fusion flavours and had an open-door policy. Friends would walk past at 6pm, knowing they’d get an invite to dinner,” says Kereama, a finalist on the BBC show Great British Menu, whose dream is to cook for the Queen. “Immigration is about following a dream. I try to give people my soul food, something that comes from my upbringing, my journey, and no one else’s.”
Ethiopian: Beza, London
Beza Berhanu, 44
“My staff are students or mums who need some hours,” says Beza Berhanu, who was 16 when she followed her cousin to the UK. Her vegan restaurant in Elephant & Castle opened six months before the pandemic. During lockdown, locals and her landlord funded cooking for NHS staff, the homeless and those out of work. “When I came here I wanted to do something that helped people. I came for opportunity. Look at me now,” she says.
Berhanu grew up in Addis Ababa. Weekends and the winters were spent away from the city, at her grandmother’s, where the table was full of colour – spinach, tomatoes, green beans. “She grew everything you can think of on her land. My grandmother was an Orthodox Christian who knew all the health benefits of vegan food, or what we knew as ‘fasting food’. She was over 100 when she died.”
Berhanu studied as a nutritionist in London, and started making juices, then batches of red lentil and spinach, to sell at Camden market. “When I started cooking, all that my grandma taught me came back to me. Ethiopian food was new to my customers – they were full of wonder.”
Long queues led to the offer of a 25-seat premises in another part of London, which has all the colour and flavours of her grandmother’s table. In fact a round, Ethiopian-made replica table, crafted from dyed grass and palm leaves, hosts her customers. “In my culture, if you have one meal, you share it with someone. My family would sit around my grandma’s table and tell each other about our day. Now everyone wants to sit at my table.
“Sometimes I sit in my kitchen and think: ‘Now people know my culture.’ I still go back home to fill my suitcase with the berbere spice that my mum makes, to use at my restaurant.”
Italian: Casanova, Cardiff
Antonio Cersosimo, 45
“I wanted to live abroad and being in the EU made that easy,” says Antonio Cersosimo, who was a physics student when he left Italy for Wales in 1999, aged 22, to improve his English.
Now he runs one of the country’s best, authentically Italian restaurants, where regulars visit twice a week and the menu uses a mix of local ingredients and Italian imports, including wine, truffle and salami, which are increasingly hard to come by.
“The ripple effect of Brexit, coronavirus and the Suez canal blockage has been chaos,” he says. “Prices have gone up. In some cases we’re the only ones in the UK buying from small, family producers, so they simply had to stop exporting to us.”
When he opened in 2005, it marked a departure from the garlic bread and lasagne served in Wales’s Italian cafes. “I’d never had garlic bread in my life. In my grandparents’ village in Calabria, we ate polenta or risotto. In Milan, where I was raised, my mother made her own passata and sourdough.”
He says successive generations of immigration to the UK have changed attitudes to new cuisines. “When we first opened, I’d put goat and octopus in the bin every week because people wouldn’t try them – now they’re our bestsellers. “I was part of the second wave of immigrants. We came not because we had to but through choice, so we brought a different approach – less need to assimilate. I could make bolder choices with the food I cooked because, if it didn’t work, I could go home.”
Gambian: Parkers Arms, Newton, Lancashire
Stosie Madi, 51
At the height of summer, pre-Brexit and pre-pandemic, Stosie Madi’s multi award-winning pub would cook for 300 people over a weekend, opening six days a week. This summer’s staffing shortage has halved their week and their capacity. “It is heart-breaking. We could still be cooking for those numbers – we have the demand – but we don’t have the staff. After being closed for 18 months, we have not been able to capitalise on the boom that followed.”
With no local transport, and based in a wealthy hamlet where teenagers are not looking for work, Madi has relied heavily on staff from eastern Europe, often living on site. Her four core staff are Brits and one Romanian, who has been there for four years. “Brexit has been a nightmare. It stripped that workforce away. If something doesn’t change drastically, I can’t see how independent restaurants can survive.” Madi describes herself as a “French-born Gambian with Lebanese origins”. She was born at the end of colonial rule in West Africa and followed her parents into hospitality, opening a jazz club in her 20s, then a restaurant.
The political situation forced them out when her daughter Laudy was 10. “We witnessed defenceless children being shot at in front
of us. Seeing poverty around us worsen, people disappearing, friends and colleagues threatened or jailed for political opinions was the last straw.”
Rural Lancashire, the home of her long-standing friend and business partner Kathy Smith, became an unlikely new start and a culinary success. Its location, in the Forest of Bowland, was pivotal when they took on the Parkers Arms in 2007: “We wanted to cook food from the land around us, to be self-sufficient.”
Citrus is one of their only imports and everything from ice-creams to bread, chutneys and pies is prepared on site: “I dream in ingredients. My cooking draws from my multinational background and my new, British one. One dish always on my menu is a pie – a dish from Middle Eastern culture, made with northern veg and the same pastry recipe I ate at school in Africa. Yet what could feel more British?”
Nepalese: Yak Yeti Yak, Bath
Sera Gurung, 58
Sera Gurung opened Yak Yeti Yak with his wife, Sarah, 18 years ago to satisfy his desire for an authentic taste of home. He grew
up in Armala, northern Nepal, without electricity or tap water. “Fresh vegetables grew outside and we kept buffalo and goats. My siblings and I would watch our mother cook on the open fire in the middle of the house.” Meat was a luxury and pork was forbidden. “As a boy, I’d travel to get it, then cook it on a fire by myself. It is still my favourite dish on my menu.” Gurung was studying business in London when he met Sarah in 1989. They returned to Nepal together for five years, before settling in the UK.
At Yak Yeti Yak, tucked away in the basement of three Georgian townhouses, their core team has been with them more than a decade, serving customers on floor cushions, under walls adorned with rice dollies, fish traps, nets and Nepalese art.
At this point in the pandemic, Sarah says, they are still in survival mode. “A few younger, newer staff liked furlough too much,” she says. Young employees saved their wages in lockdown and left when it was time to reopen. “Finding new staff to replace them and extra staff to keep up with Covid sanitation is difficult,” she adds. This has limited their capacity.
Gurung says: “I’ve had people travel to Nepal after eating here, then come back to tell me my food is better. One Michelin chef sends his kitchen porter for takeaway at the end of his shift. In our culture, a guest is like a god, to be respected. To hear they love the food of my home country feels wonderful.”
Mexican: Mestizo, London
Roberto Alvarado Rios, 71
In autumn, a competitor walked in and tried to poach the Spanish staff at Mestizo, a bright, cosy restaurant and tequila bar in Camden, near Regent’s Park in London. “I was shocked,” says owner Marysol Alvarado. “I would never do that. It shows how desperate the industry is. We had already lost staff from the floor, the kitchen. They left because of the pandemic and never returned because of Brexit. Every restaurant owner is struggling.”
Marysol and husband Roberto came to the UK from a restaurant background in Tecamachalco, central Mexico, in 1997 and opened Si Señor, in Soho, with an ambition to deliver traditional cuisine to Brits. In 2001, though, they were forced to close when the rent went up.
The pandemic threatened financial ruin again – the family put their entire savings into keeping their restaurant, and the Mexican market next door, going. “The supply chain has been menacing,” Marysol says. “The customer may never feel this, and perhaps gets mad about not being able to get served their favourite tipple, but certain food and drink items are just not available any more.”
Now the lively, 80-cover spot is thriving again, thanks to loyal locals and a solid reputation – a favourite dish is mole poblano (meat in a chocolate and chilli sauce). “Our menus are inspired by all parts of Mexico, by my mother and mother-in-law,” Marysol explains. “We are not fancy, but we are ambassadors for the food, flavours, colours of home. When Mexicans come to eat here, they remember when their grannies cooked for them: Mi casa es su casa.”
(Article source: The Guardian)