Asian food has become increasingly popular in Israel, fueled by the large number of young Israelis who travel to the region in an unofficial rite of passage after compulsory army service.
Thai, Chinese, Japanese and Indian restaurants have grown into a $280 million industry, accounting for 10 percent of the local dining landscape, according to the Ethnic Restaurant Association.
For the moment, Asian restaurants employ 900 foreign chefs and kitchen workers. But if the government has its way, that number could soon drop.
“We feel an Israeli can hold a wok as well as a Thai or a Chinese person,” said Shoshana Strauss, a lawyer at the Industry and Trade Ministry, which regulates work permits for foreign workers.
Restaurant operators said the Israeli plan posed an existential threat to their thriving businesses, saying the foreigners have expertise that cannot easily be replaced.
“If we don’t have cooks, we don’t have food. If we don’t have food, we don’t have customers,” said Steven Lobel, a sushi operator who owns two Asian restaurants that employ 14 Asian kitchen workers in the Tel Aviv area. “It’s pretty much one of the biggest threats we have as restaurant operators.”
This year, the government has limited the number of visas for foreign restaurant workers to 500. The restaurant association has appealed to the High Court of Justice.
But if the order is upheld, restaurants would have to lay off nearly half their foreign workers. In 2009, there will be no work visas for foreign chefs, only tourist visas permitting brief consulting opportunities for experts in Asian cuisine, according to the Industry and Trade Ministry.
Earlier this week, Israel’s Asian restaurants went on a one-day strike in protest over the government’s threat, giving the nation a taste of life without spicy tuna, California rolls and chopsticks.
Strauss said the government was not trying to eradicate foreign restaurant workers altogether. Instead, she said, the ministry was trying to eliminate unskilled kitchen workers, who she said are often exploited by restaurateurs who pay them less than minimum wage.
“They are well-behaved, they work very hard [and] they don’t demand their rights,” Strauss said, adding that the situation creates some “humanitarian issues.”
The ministry has begun to offer Asian cooking classes to Israelis, but few have shown interest, generating skepticism that there will be Israelis to fill the soon-to-be vacated positions.
“I doubt this will succeed,” said Arnon Volosky, chief executive of the Ethnic Restaurant Association. He cited examples in London, New York and Paris, where ethnic restaurants often employ foreign chefs who specialize in their home cuisine.
“I don’t think you go into an ethnic restaurant anywhere in the world and see only locals working there,” Lobel said. For each foreign worker, seven Israelis are employed rolling sushi, waiting tables or working the wok, he said.
“What we do is help people have fun in this hectic country we live in,” Lobel said. “Everyone’s enjoying it, we’re creating job opportunities for locals.”