Every month, former Five Guys operations and development director and chief executive of Thunderbird Fried Chicken, Marcel Khan reads a book (so you don’t have to) and applies insight into the sector based on what he’s learned between the covers and beyond. This month: The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla.
The Good Immigrant is a collection of 21 essays by black, Asian and minority ethnic writers working in the UK across literature and media. Editor Nikesh Shukla describes the book as ‘a document of what it means to be a person of colour in Britain’.
And although the book focuses significantly on challenges and struggles faced by immigrants – first or second generation, refugees and asylum seekers – what ultimately prevails is a story of a country which has (often reluctantly) provided a home for people to put their best self forward in order to contribute to a greater whole and a greater nation. The stories and testimonials underpin an upward, forward and positive trajectory. It’s also funny as hell, as trials and tribulations often are in the rear-view mirror.
The book was bound (no pun intended) to appeal to me. I’m a mixed-race person married to a mixed-race woman; we both come from families which included first generation immigrants. My father: a Pakistani man in Holland. Her mum: a Jamaican invited by the UK government to come to the ‘home country’ to practice her skills as a nurse. I myself came to the UK way back in 1989. I am an immigrant.
I initially picked up The Good Immigrant in 2016 at the height of Brexit hate and it provided a much-needed balance and tonic to the discourse of that time.
More recently, the conversations and concerns around Brexit (hard, soft, fast, slow…. who can guess?) seem to have shifted the main focus from xenophobic to economic. In other words, from ‘them’ back to ‘us’. This development was welcomed by me, and, I’m sure, many others. Ultimately, let’s prioritise economic well-being and hopefully we will have the resources we need to patch together the country again.
The UK hospitality industry seems, to me, pretty much united around views of immigrants within our sector, and they are almost unanimously positive and supportive. We all prop up some of the well-meaning clichés around our favourite contributors to our restaurants. The Polish and Romanian grafters. The Lithuanians with their stamina and resilience. Happy, smiley Brazilians and vibrant energetic Italians FOH crews. Ambitious Asians. Vibey team-playing Aussies. Nicest people in the world from New Zealand. The list goes on. We tend to all agree that we couldn’t have built our unbelievably awesome F&B industry here in the UK without immigrants.
So, it came as a bit of a shock to hear some insanely xenophobic and racist comments bandied around during the holiday season, always in relation to Brexit and ‘our borders’. A few drinks in, and some ugly sentiments regarding immigrants, migrants and refugees raised their heads in what were, moments earlier, perfectly lovely conversations. One conversation with a (very) senior industry leader comes to mind. I won’t be highlighting either the individual nor the specifics of the conversation but suffice to say that I am unable to reconcile myself with it.
The preface to my column is usually ‘Marcel has been reading Book X, so you don’t have to…”. It’s meant to be a tongue-in-cheek invitation into what might be a different perspective on things. I never thought that within the readership, inclusion, racial harmony and immigrants’ contributions to our industry would be a question. Alas, that is not the case.
So, this particular column is a call to pick up The Good Immigrant. I suspect that for most of you it will be a welcome, positive and sometimes humorous reminder of what makes our sector, and country, great (again).
Better yet – enjoy and celebrate the diversity in your organisation by shining a positive light on it every day. It will make for a happier workforce who might just need reminding they are welcome here.
I’ll close with a happy memory. Back in my Nando’s days we enjoyed Christmas dinners with crew members who were far away from home and didn’t have family – other than their Nando’s family – to celebrate the yuletide with. The rule: bring a dish from your country. The international smorgasbords we all enjoyed were amongst the best meals I’ve ever had.
Yes, that’s beyond metaphor. Long may we feast on the diversity in the greatest and most inventive (and downright tasty) restaurant sector on the planet!
Marcel has been reading The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla. Maybe you should, too?
Marcel Khan spent six years as operations and brand development director at Five Guys, and before that he was regional MD for Nando’s UK for almost a decade. He is now chief executive at Thunderbird Fried Chicken.