Arguably the industry’s most iconic Indian chef, Cyrus Todiwala has won more awards than Jamie Oliver has opened restaurants. He has published three cookbooks, advised Government and cooked for numerous celebrities, royalty and heads of state, not to mention his MBE and OBE received for outstanding services to hospitality.
By Kerstin Kühn | Caterer and Hotelkeeper
His restaurant, Café Spice Namasté, which he has run with his wife Pervin for 16 years, is not only one of the most celebrated in the UK, it’s also one of the most sustainable. And this week, the couple officially launch a new venture, Mr Todiwala’s Kitchen, the first of a planned chain.
With such a huge list of achievements one might be forgiven for thinking success has come easy to the Todiwalas. But few will realise just how hard the pair has had to fight to get there.
"The Home Office chased me for eight long years, trying to kick me out of this country," reveals Cyrus. "Even when I was sitting on the National Advisory Council for Education and Training Targets, next to David Blunkett, I had a letter at home threatening me with deportation. It said I was a semi-skilled, unreliable individual and unwelcome in this country. Blunkett had no idea and I never mentioned it."
Cyrus and Pervin Todiwala first met in the kitchens of the Taj Mahal hotel in Bombay in the 1980s, where Cyrus was assistant manager and Pervin was completing work experience during her studies. He worked his way up to corporate executive chef of the Taj Group’s Taj Holiday Village in Goa, where he was in charge of 11 restaurants and 160 staff. But come 1991, Pervin decided it was time to leave India and so the couple, along with their two young sons, moved to London, where Cyrus had been offered the chance to run a small restaurant called Namasté. It was quite a change from being executive chef at a luxury hotel group.
"I arrived there and the restaurant was pretty lousy," Cyrus recalls. Nonetheless, he quickly started to develop his distinct culinary style of giving traditional Indian cooking a European twist, lifting a notoriously heavy cuisine and reinventing it with flair and imagination. The restaurant became a big hit but despite the critical acclaim, the business was under threat.
"The owners ran into financial problems and were faced with closing the restaurant," Cyrus says. "It was a difficult situation for me because I was on a work-permit and overnight I was jobless with a young family to look after. So I asked Pervin to join me in taking over the restaurant. I knew we could do it but only if we did it together."
Pervin agreed but with no money of their own and having to pay back the previous owner’s debts, the situation quickly became dire. Cyrus explains: "When we took over the restaurant we were homeless overnight because the house we lived in had come with the job. We had no money and no bank would lend us money. We couldn’t even buy a fridge. We were desperate and I spent many nights crying behind Pervin’s back, wondering just how I was going to provide for my family."
Friends and relatives lent them cash – "we got £500 here, £2,000 there" – and after winning a car in a raffle and selling it for much less than it was worth, the Todiwalas managed to get enough money together for a deposit on a house. With a roof over their heads the couple could finally focus on their restaurant.
But the fairy tale ending wasn’t quite theirs. "The Home Office started to really breathe down our necks," Cyrus says. "I went from being an employee to being a businessman without investment, which upset them very much. We had to prove to them every month what we were doing, they gave us condition after condition to fulfil. Eventually the final demand was to get investment or to get out."
It was at this time that Cyrus’s cooking at Namasté caught the eye of entrepreneur Michael Gottlieb, then president of the Restaurateurs Association of Great Britain and owner of two Smollensky’s restaurants in London. He approached the Todiwalas about launching a new Indian restaurant with him as the investor. Café Spice Namasté opened in 1995 and the rest is, as they say, history, although the struggle with the Home Office continued for many more years. "One day I will publish my memoirs and tell that whole story," Cyrus jokes.
Today, Café Spice Namasté – solely owned by the Todiwalas – is one of the most iconic Indian restaurants in the UK. It was one of the first to break the mould – introducing colour and a totally different kind of cuisine, combining Cyrus’s rich Parsee heritage and the vibrant flavours of the subcontinent with unexpected, largely British ingredients, and a huge, unwavering focus on sustainability. Over the years, Café Spice has not only won countless awards, it has also developed a customer base that gives a whole new meaning to the term loyal diner. "We have people who eat with us two, three times each week," explains Pervin. "They don’t look at the menu, they just ask me to bring them what I think they should eat. They don’t feel like they are in a restaurant, it’s more like they come to our home. It’s really quite amazing."
With all that success it’s no surprise to see the couple branch out. Mr Todiwala’s Kitchen is located at the brand new Hilton London Heathrow Airport Terminal 5, which some might say is an unexpected location for a new concept. "Coming this far out of our comfort zone of central London is quite scary for us," admits Cyrus. "But this is not your usual hotel restaurant. Hotel restaurants have a reputation for being sterile and cold but Mr Todiwala’s Kitchen is not like that. The moment you walk in, you enter a different world, where you relax and enjoy yourself."
Light and airy, the decor mixes the traditional with the contemporary, with a 200-year-old wooden elephant named Roy as its centrepiece. An open kitchen and a chef’s table bring the dining experience alive, while the menu (see page 27) combines the vivid flavours of India with the best of sustainable British produce.
Indeed, as with everything the Todiwalas do, sustainability is at the very heart of this restaurant. From reclaimed floorboards to a fierce recycling process, every aspect of the restaurant’s carbon footprint has been considered. What’s more, it will offer four apprenticeships in conjunction with the Academy of Culinary Arts, which will see students undertake a three-year NVQ diploma. And if all goes well, Mr Todiwala’s Kitchen at the Hilton London Heathrow Airport Terminal 5 will be the first of many.
"Of course we can’t rush and we have to learn from this restaurant first," concludes Pervin. "But with everything we’ve been through, we know we can overcome anything. The most important thing is that we were backed into a corner and we came out fighting. Whatever happens now, we know we will cope because we have been through worse."
MR TODIWALA’S KITCHEN
Chef-patron Cyrus Todiwala
Restaurant director Pervin Todiwala
Head chef Arun Dev
Manager Asta Balciauskaite
Typical dishes Papaeta Purr Eedu – cumin and ginger flavoured sliced potato, topped with egg; Beef Tikka Laal Aur Kaala Mirich Masala – beef fillet marinated with puréed red chilli, crushed black peppercorns, home-ground mustard, garam masala and ginger; Dhaansaak – Parsee Sunday roast, sliced shin on-the-bone lamb served with brown onion rice, kachumber and a meat kebab; Vindalho De Carne De Porco – belly and shoulder of organic British Lop cooked in a rich, hot, slightly sweet and sour gravy; English Heritage Potato Bhajee – potatoes cooked and sizzled with mustard seeds, cumin and sliced onions, flavoured with garlic and fresh coriander.
Average spend £40
Address Poyle Road, Colnbrook, SL3 0FF
Telephone 01753 686860
? Footprint Forum Award for Commitment to the Environment, 2011
? London Chamber of Commerce & Industry Leadership in Sustainability Award, 2011
? Sustainable Food Award, Corporation of London Sustainable Cities Awards 2011
? Mood Food 2009 Restaurant of the Year
? British Curry Awards Industry Personality of the Year 2007
? Arena Accolade, 2006
? Green Mark Award, 2006
? Springboard Special Award, 2006
? Catey Education and Training Award, 2005
? Investors in People Champion Organisation, 2005
? Springboard Special Award, 2005
? Edge Employers Award, 2005
? Green Apple Award for Environmental Best Practice, 2005
? BIBA Restaurant Personality of the Year, 2005
? Tio Pepe ITV London Restaurant Awards- Outstanding Contribution to London Restaurants 2004
? BIBA Best Indian restaurant in the UK, 2004
? BIBA Best Front of House, 2003
? National Training Award 1997
? Culinary Honour of Merit – Epicurean World Master Chefs Society
? Best Indian Chef in the UK