Are foreign sushi chefs getting a raw deal

Israel’s sushi craze could be in for trouble.

The government says it will send foreign restaurant workers packing by January 2009, and industry leaders warn they won’t be able to provide the food Israelis want and their business will be hurt.

Asian food has become increasingly popular in Israel, thanks to the large number of young Israelis who travel to Asia in an unofficial rite of passage after compulsory army service.

Thai, Chinese, Japanese and Indian restaurants have grown into a $280 million-a-year business, accounting for 10 percent of the local dining landscape, according to the Israeli Ethnic Restaurant Association.

Asian restaurants employ 900 foreign-born chefs and kitchen workers. But the Trade Ministry says it wants to get Israelis into those jobs.

“We feel an Israeli can hold a wok as well as a Thai or a Chinese person,” said Shoshana Strauss, a lawyer at the Trade Ministry, which regulates work permits for foreign workers.

Officials have limited the number of visas for foreign restaurant workers to 500 this year. The restaurant association has appealed to the Supreme Court, but if the order is upheld, the restaurants will have to lay off nearly half their foreign workers.

And beginning next year, there will be no work visas for foreigners in the business, only tourist visas permitting brief consulting opportunities for experts in Asian cuisine, the Trade Ministry says.

“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, who owns two Asian restaurants employing 14 Asian kitchen workers in the Tel Aviv area.

Strauss said the government doesn’t plan to chase off all foreigners, but rather wants to bar unskilled kitchen workers who she said are sometimes exploited by being paid less than minimum wage.

The ministry has begun offering Asian cooking classes to Israelis, but few have shown interest, generating skepticism enough Israelis will step forward to fill the void.

“I doubt this will succeed,” said Arnon Volosky, chief executive of the Ethnic Restaurant Association.

He claimed that for each foreign worker in an Asian restaurant, seven Israelis are employed rolling sushi, waiting tables or working the wok.

The restaurant association has begun a series of one-day strikes denying customers certain dishes. — ap