A top Latin American restaurant owner says he is "banging against a brick wall" in trying to tell Immigration New Zealand that Kiwis who work in kebab shops are not Mexican food specialists just because they've handled avocado and jalapeño.
Besos Latinos owner and head chef Luis Cabrera, who cooked for former US President Barack Obama during his visit to Auckland, is fuming that the restaurant's bid to hire specialist chefs from overseas is being knocked back by INZ which says there are available New Zealanders to do the job.
Under current rules, employers must prove there aren't any Kiwis who can fill a job vacancy and register with Work and Income New Zealand (Winz) for referrals.
Besos Latinos serves traditional dishes from Argentina, Cuba, Colombia, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela and claims to be "the first of its kind" in New Zealand.
About 20 people have been referred by Winz, jobseekers who "ticked the box" claiming they were familiar and had cooked Latin American food.
But when interviewed, Cabrera said most couldn't tell the difference between guacamole, empanada and ceviche.
"One was a kebab shop worker who ticked he could be a Mexican chef because the shop had offered a Mexican kebab, and another had worked in a cafe that had a sandwich which used guacamole," Cabrera said.
It's vital for chefs to have a passion and cultural understanding of the food they produce, Cabrera said.
"It takes generations for that to happen and INZ just doesn't get it that this cannot happen overnight," Cabrera said.
Cabrera, who has signed a lease to open a new restaurant near Wynyard Quarter on Auckland's waterfront, said INZ's lack of understanding was also affecting his expansion plans.
Restaurant Association chief executive Marisa Bidois said restaurants were struggling to find trained and skilled staff to assist in their businesses.
She said the association's research found that not enough New Zealanders wanted to work the hospitality industry.
Chefs remain on INZ's long-term skills shortage, including chef de partie, commis chef, demi chef, second chef and sous chef.
But Michael Carley, the agency's operations support manager, said New Zealand citizens and residents were always given first priority.
"Robust processes exist to ensure that there are genuinely no other New Zealanders available to do the job," Carley said.
"Immigration officers need to be satisfied that there are no suitable New Zealanders available to take up a job which has been offered to a foreign national who does not already hold a visa which enables them to work."
The agency worked closely with Winz to determine whether there were any New Zealanders available for any particular job offered. If there was, it was "unlikely" a visa application would be approved.