Indian food is part of British way of life: Chef Cyrus Todiwala

Chef Cyrus Todiwala is among the clutch of Indian chefs whose names and faces are recognisable in Britain. It could be due to his Café Spice Namasté chain, frequent appearance in television and radio shows, or, just the innumerable awards and recognition he has won.

Born and brought up in Bombay, Todiwala, graduated in hotel administration and food technology and rose to become corporate executive chef of the Taj Group in Goa.

He left India for Australia in 1991 before coming to London to run the Namasté restaurant where he developed his trademark style of blending traditional Indian techniques and flavours with unexpected ingredients.

Today, Cyrus is proprietor and executive chef of the Café Spice Namasté group (Café Spice Namasté and The Parsee). He was also in the team involved in the NHS Better Food Programme chaired by Lord Grossman. In 2000, Cyrus was awarded an MBE for his commitment and expertise in the restaurant and catering industry.

Excerpts from an e-mail interview with The Indian Diaspora by Kavita Bajeli-Datt:

Tell us about your tumultuous journey, from working at the Taj Hotels in India to running the Café Spice Namaste group in the UK?

My journey in this great industry of ours began with entry into the Taj Mahal Hotel Bombay from May 1996 as a junior trainee cook. This was at the bottom rung of the ladder and with a lot of hard work and determination and a lot of grief and pain and despair in between, I eventually and finally ended up as executive chef for Goa and left the group to join a friend in his newly relocated restaurant in Poona. I was asked to take over the new Taj Bengal kitchens on Calcutta but Pervin, my wife, refused to move to Calcutta and hence the decision to move out. Calcutta for a Bombay lad was never painted a good picture of and it had this image about it that made one think a million times.

How did you grow so big?

In the early formative years, I had conducted a small business, sometimes with friends and sometimes of my own of making and selling cakes, jams, wines and so on and this bug was biting again. However, Australia did not excite nor did it lure me at all. Firstly it felt a million miles away from home. But we had an opportunity thanks in part to a letter I had been sent by the then Prime Minister Mr Bob Hawk who we had looked after during the Commonwealth Summit in Goa in 1983. So we decided to move back to Bombay and then set off for Australia for a short period at least and then see what is in store for us.

The Taj grapevine went berserk that I was leaving Poona and moving out. A dear friend who had worked with me at the Taj was working in London and he got in touch with me asking me what my plans for Australia were. When knowing I had none, he asked if I would like to come to London and perhaps run a restaurant with him.

That was it, my decision was made. We went to Australia endorsed our passports and residency to keep it open for three years, applied for a work permit to London and here we are now twenty four years later. .. we are well settled, have a reasonably successful business and have done ok for ourselves. What transpired in between and the saga and the stories all helped to make us stronger and with greater conviction to succeed.

How the Asian catering businesses have evolved and expanded in the UK and who are the key personalities who ushered in this change?

The Asian catering business has evolved albeit slowly and little on one area and with massive strides in other areas. With the British public now having very advanced discerning palates, it is destined to grow further, provided we can close the skills gap. On the one side the industry has grown in leaps and bounds and standards in several region have been scaled up dramatically.

On the side of the average and cheap provision market there is growth in sales but not in cuisine, culture and style. There is no need for that to change as there is a huge market for that too.

I used to be mocked at with two phrases – ‘The Father of New Wave Indian Cuisine’ and ‘The Svengali of Spice’. None true.

I did bring about a small revolution when we decided that enough was enough and I had to offer to the public the food I knew and understood and not what was the Indian food norm here that I did not understand. This set a pace for me.. several new places opened up some copying the same name SPICE as it became a cool word to use.

One has to remember that it was the Bombay Brasserie that put Indian food on the culinary map of Britain for the first time in 1982-83. More is yet to come and more to showcase to the world with London quite easily the culinary capital of the world

The Indian curry has become part of the British menu. How has Indian food and recipe have changed the mindset of the average Britisher about India and Indians?

Whilst Indian food and Indian restaurants have become almost a daily part of a Britishers diet, sadly the cuisine in the wider sense does not give an image of strength, success, creativity, authenticity, deserving of a better reputation and raising the profile of Indian dining.

We do not enjoy that status except the Michelin starred ones, but in most cases our segment of the industry is still regarded as a ‘curry house’ phenomenon designed to please a hungry diner after he has downed a few pints of lager on a Friday night.

This is the battle I have been fighting and wanting to create an equilibrium and maintaining a sort of prestige not by way of a fine looking establishment but by sheer respect for our cuisine and our culture.

We have a cuisine that is far more intricate and classically inclined if we adhere to it, than most other cuisines from the wider world, but sometimes due to our own nature we have weakened it slightly and given the impression that we cannot be on par. The simple fact that today in Britain alone we have a major skills shortage is evidence enough that we cannot fill that gap with just about anyone and everyone.

However an age old tradition cannot be erased in a decade even and we need to work collectively to keep raising that image.

You have been part of the team that was involved in the NHS Better Food Programme. Tell us something more about this stint?

This goes back to the year 2000. The citizens of the UK are very concerned about their NHS and it ends up swaying the balance.

This was one such year and the NHS was top priority, there were some flaws and the Labour Government wanted to create a showcase. A report from the research offices in Sheffield had highlighted that due to poor diet and not sufficiently good food patients were spending longer in the hospital than perhaps they might have the need to. A famous television presenter was selected to lead a team of well known chefs to help redesign the food offering within the NHS. I was selected to be a part of that team and my role was to recreate recipes across the Asian cuisine offering three main cuisines being Indian, Chinese and Thai.

I ended up developing eighty recipes for the various food manufacturers.

I have been involved with the NHS Barts Hospital Trust to promote sustainability within the NHS and am still involved in a few ways to help young children learn more about better food habits. Helping them to launch a global sustainability week which has caught on all over the world and a few bits and pieces of developing vegetables season recipes for individual trusts.

Can food be both sumptuous, mouth watering and healthy too? Please give us some tips to healthy eating.

Indeed food can be sumptuous, mouthwatering and healthy too. One simply has to learn to balance their cooking and the meal. It is not wrong to have some rich food on the table if it is well balanced with some healthier options within the menu. So in preparing a great meal often all the food on the table can be rich and tasty at the same time.

Often a salad is treated as the healthy option. Not necessarily true and it depends on what goes into the salad.

But of the right amount of protein along with balanced carbohydrates and fats will make a meal delightful indeed. These days healthy eating is a fad. People are more conscious and often sacrifice the foods they loved for a fixation on eating only healthy. They do forget that the body does need a balance and that balance is well rounded. So balance is the key. Sumptuous good looking, very tasty and yet balanced food will take away the fears of the unhealthy hidden amongst that meal.

What are the reasons for unhealthy eating habits?

The rise in the middle class in India has been blamed for so much of the health issues the country is now facing. Some of the most critical points affecting us South Asians in our diet are, the fats we use, the habit of excessive salt and sugar in our diets and the love for dairy foods. We have an epidemic of obesity, diabetes, cardiac issues and so much more today because we South Asians have not altered our eating habits but have changed our lifestyles.

Your work has got you wide recognition, awards, television and radio shows so tell us about your future plans?

No major future plans. But I sincerely want to go around India doing research on the multitude of regional cuisines and nuances and document these, learn from these and share this for the future generations. Alas time and money may intervene.

I want to develop more new recipes and am hoping that at some stage I will be able to slow down and do that. I would like it very much to have a solo TV programme on a major channel that can give people like me the opportunity to showcase what our cuisine is truly all about and how much we can influence the average cook to create simple tasty Desi food.

Published on The Indian Diaspora