Chef Cyrus Todiwala
Cyrus is an award-winning chef, successful restaurateur, and one-half of The Incredible Spice Men, a TV show that if you have not yet checked out, you definitely need to watch. He’s also authored numerous cookbooks including: Mr. Todiwala’s Bombay, Cafe Spice Namaste, and Indian Summer. If that isn’t enough, Chef Cyrus has his own line of pickles, chutneys, and sauces, and he also teaches cooking on the side.
I’m so excited to have Chef Cyrus Todiwala here on the show today.
On His Journey from Bombay to the UK:
The journey from Bombay to UK, so actually, Bombay to UK would not have happened, but we actually decided to migrate to Australia.
After I left the Taj Group in 1989, I joined a friend in a city called Pune and we ran a restaurant together. The partnership was a bit weak. It wasn’t becoming very successful. The restaurant was very successful, but as partners we were failing so we decided to migrate to Australia.
The grapevine within our industry is very, very strong. People come to know who’s moving where very, very quickly, and a friend of mine who was in London at the time, called me, asked me what plans I had for Australia. I said I had no plans at all. I’m just going there. Maybe if I don’t like it, I come back to India. He asked whether I’d like to come to the UK and run a restaurant with him and that’s how it started.
This was in the early ’90s. This was early 1991. By the time I reached UK, it was late 1991, and we’ve been here since.
On Challenges on Getting Started as a Chef in London:
Oh man, that’s a whole history in itself, believe it. The biggest challenge I found first was I found that the cuisine that I inherited here was not the kind of food I knew how to prepare. This threw me off guard completely and people use strange terms over here. There is a classical term called “vinda” like “vindaloo,” which actually refers to a level of heat in the food, and they would use terms like “madras.” For me, it’s a city. It doesn’t have any other sense to me, and also the food was not prepared the way we learned to prepare Indian food. It was all very basic, shoddy, and that was a big learning curve for me. It actually scared me because I thought I hadn’t a clue about what Indian food was all about, because “How can Britain be wrong?” I thought. That was the first hurdle.
The second hurdle, of course, was some of the people that inherited me when I came to the kitchen here, and the chefs would smoke inside the kitchen. They would leave half lit cigarettes by the side of the cooker, and cook the food, and then pick up the cigarette again, and start cooking while they’re still smoking. These things we were not used to because we came from a very disciplined environment in the kitchen. There were lots of hurdles.
The language barrier because the cooks in the kitchen didn’t speak much English at all, and they couldn’t communicate in Hindi or any of the other languages that I knew because I don’t speak Bengali. That was another hurdle for me.
We had all sorts of other issues, of course, but we managed. Some people left, which was not a bad thing because we managed to bring in the right kind of help. For me, it was a transition from running two hotels, a large brigade under me with a line of sous chefs, to suddenly go all the way back 15 years and start cooking from scratch, everything upwards.
On His Restaurants:
We were running a restaurant that did not belong to us down the road. Then my friend and I used to manage the restaurant. He moved on, and I kept still working with the people who owned the restaurant, but there were a lot of difficulties happening at the same time. The difficulties came out of the restaurant — the height of the last recession in the early ’90s — and the business was not able to cope with it. Eventually, we asked to take over the running of the business, and I took over the running of the business, asked my wife, Pervin, if she would join me. Because she said yes, I said, “Okay.” I had the courage to go and say, “I’ll run the business now. I’ll take it over and I’ll pay you.” Besides the payment, of course I had to service all the loans, all the debts, and everything else that came with it.
What we ended up doing was we changed our status from being an employee to suddenly becoming an employer and this the Home Office would not like. That put me in a lot of difficulty with the Home Office because a foreigner who wants to work and invest in this country needs to bring with him a lot of money. Not thinking about that at all, we got into a lot of difficulty with that situation. That situation stayed with us for 10 whole years of living in a situation where you did not know whether you are coming or going, or you were here today or gone tomorrow.
It was a very terrifying time for us, but then what happened was one of the preconditions that I agreed with the Home Office was that I would take every opportunity I had to get into a partnership and try and invest in more manpower and create more workforce, and this came in the guise of a gentleman called Mr. Michael Gottlieb. He used to own restaurants called Smollensky’s and he approached me. We got together. He had this vision of Cafe Spice and we included the Cafe Spice Namaste part of it, and Cafe Spice was born.
On His Line of Condiments:
Coming to Britain, I found there were only two pickles I could lay my hands on — mango chutney and the lime pickle. They were not to my taste because the mango chutney was far too sugary and it wasn’t the kind of chutney I was used to. It came in big barrels. The lime pickle — I knew exactly how lime pickle is made over there that comes exported, so I started making my own pickles little by little by little.
We have a very, very leading prosthodontist in this country. He’s not a dentist dentist. He’s a prosthodontist and he’s an authority on the human jaw, as disfigurement and everything else. His name is Dr. Besford. Dr. Besford came for dinner and then he had the pickle, and he said, “I want to buy some of this pickle.” I said, “I’m not selling any pickle. It’s only on the table when you eat in the restaurant. You can have some. I could maybe put something in a little bowl and give it to you, but that’s about it.” He said, “No, no, no, you got to bottle it for me.” I said I had no clue about how to bottle stuff. I don’t know how to buy bottles. I’m very amateurish and I don’t know how to preserve these things.
Anyway, he persisted and he persisted and he persisted, and I kept saying, “No, no, no, no, no” until I had a very good couple of reviews about our pickles and chutneys in the press. A very famous food reporter called Charles Campion called up and said, “Can I do an article with you about pickles and chutney?” I said, “Sure.” He said, “But can you make me some when I come?” I said, “Sure I can.”
When he was writing the article, and when we sat in what was a makeshift office, literally in the garbage room of the restaurant, this Dr. Besford is a man who’s larger-than-life and he’s gregarious. He’s a huge character with a huge voice and everything about him is big and large, and he’s a fantastic man. He sent me a fax which came, ironically, at the time Charles Campion was chatting with me and he must have printed the fax in a size 40 font.
He is like that, Dr. Besford, and it was big. You could read the fax half a mile away as the paper churned out “Mr. Todiwala, where is my aubergine pickle? Signed, Dr. Besford, blah, blah, blah.” Charles Campion asked me, “What is that?” I said, “This doctor drives me nuts,” I said. He wants me to pack. I cannot pack. Anyway, his phone number was in such a large print. Ten meters away Charles Campion quietly scribbled the phone number out and he called Dr. Besford after our interview. Dr. Besford in all his excitement poured his woes out to Charles Campion. He’s saying, “This man makes the most amazing pickle but he won’t bottle it,” and all sorts of stories he told this guy, and he forgot about it.
Sunday, in The Sunday Times, in the magazine section, the center spread was this big block letters, saying “The Chef, The Dentist, and the Miserable Pickle.” I started getting phone calls left, right, and center about wanting to bottle the aubergine pickle. Dr. Besford then did some research, told me I can get empty bottles from a particular source. When I got some bottles, I asked some friends, “How do I pickle without it blowing up in my face? How does the pickle preserve?” We learned about it, and it was thanks to Dr. Besford that we are selling a few thousand jars a year now rather than just a few jars here and there.
The Pressure Cooker:
What would you consider your signature dish?
I think it has to be the dhansak. It has to be because we have developed it well. We evolved it ourselves and because I get the most amazing lamb in Britain, and mutton in Britain, it works extremely well. As the top seller, and as a dish that has never died in its excitement on the menu, I think that would be the signature dish.
Is there a dish that you love but will never appear of your restaurant’s menus?
Wow, there is one thing I love more than dhansak, is a very simple dal and rice which we cook at home which is called mori dal. With that we eat a little spicy prawn pickled kind of thing called pathia. That is my all-time favorite, but it doesn’t feature on the menu as a regular. It features occasionally on the specials. The reason is not because I don’t think we can make a good job of it. The reason is because I end up eating far too much lentil and then the after-effects on me are terrible.
So to keep away from eating too much of it, I don’t put it on the menu.
Guests will have to look for it. Sometimes they ask and so I do a special Parsi evening. I sometimes give on special occasions a dhan dar pathia.
What is a professional chef tip that all home cooks should know?
Invest in a good knife, number one at least. People tend to buy cheap knives from markets which are not well tested. They look very great, but they don’t buy a good knife. You should invest in a very good knife because your knife is a direct link between you and the food you prepare. Invest in everything good rather, but most carefully, make sure your knife is well-honed, well-crafted, well-kept, well-maintained. That’s one of the key things.
The other thing is de-clutter your mind when you cook. Just de-clutter it. Everybody likes to cook from a recipe book and then they come and say the book’s too difficult. That’s because we take it too personally on both. First of all, read the recipe as though you’re reading a novel, and then forget about it. Put it away for a couple of hours. When you come back to it, the recipe literally just falls into pieces in your lap and you find it much, much easier to tackle. This is one of the key things is not to clutter your mind too much.
Mise en place, which is of course is a French term. Pre-preparation — very, very important. Everything to be prepped before you start cooking so that then you don’t land yourself in a state of panic. The process just falls smoothly into place one by one.
Besides your own, which are some of your favorite restaurants in London?
We have quite a few actually we go to. We have a Vietnamese restaurant pretty close to us called Green Papaya. We know the owners quite well now over the years. Of course, we become very friendly. That’s our favorite haunt because the food has never disappointed us. Then we have a couple of very dear Chinese restaurants. One of them is at the Royal Garden Hotel now, called Min Jiang. It’s excellent. It’s Chinese food with a Nyonya influence so it’s brilliant.
Of course, a friend of ours who owns a chain of restaurants called Good Earth, which are fantastic. Then of course, we’ll eat Chinese. We’ll eat French. We’ll eat Italian. Anything new, we’ll go and try. London’s an exciting place today. London’s got some of the best restaurants in the world.
Is there a chef whose food you want to try but haven’t yet had the chance?
Yes, Michel Roux, Jr. I haven’t had the chance to go to the Gavroche yet after so many years. I think it’s a disgrace that we haven’t been there yet, but no, we have not had the privilege of eating the food cooked by the Roux brothers.
Certainly want to go there but still haven’t made it.
What are your thoughts on food trucks?
Well, I’ll tell you what. We own a truck.
But ours is slightly different. It’s a high-capacity, high-volume truck that we take to cricket matches and other events, and it can produce 2000 meals a day almost.
It does damage the restaurant trade in the area because when a truck is parked nearby, the restaurant trade will suffer a bit because people want the food cheaper on the streets, but some of them do not produce a great product and yet charge a lot of money for it.
I think that the quality is something that the truckers always disregard. It’s always disregarded because sometimes they will sell at a very low profit margin and they always compensate quality for price. I think that is one of the things that I dislike about it.
Though having said that, there’s so much vibrancy in those trucks. They bring such good menus forward. A lot of classical dishes coming out. A lot of local foods that were hidden for years together that suddenly appear in a van. I think people enjoy it most. I think people enjoy it most because it’s at their doorstep, and hot, and supposedly looking fresh.
Ours is just branded Cafe Spice Namaste. It is branded but ours needs a lot of power to work because it needs to be at a pitch, but it’s a great unit. It’s a fabulous-looking unit.
On Keeping Posted on Chef Cyrus:
The best way would be to log into the Cafe Spice website, which is www.cafespice.co.uk, and they can leave a message for me on the website. We have a person who picks it up, passes the emails on to me, and I respond to people directly. We also have a Twitter handle, of course, @MrTodiwala, or @ctodiwala, @CafeSpiceNamaste. The website, if they want to write a personal email or a note, and want a feedback or something, I’ll be very happy to reply back to people.