Cafe Spice Namaste in London is all about Indian cuisine with a European twist. Just a short stroll from the Tower of London and nestled in a former 19th-century courthouse with stained-glass windows, Café Spice Namasté is Cyrus and Pervin Todiwala’s family-run Indian restaurant in historic East London. It is serving sophisticated and imaginative cuisine that’s definitely worth writing home about. More than a restaurant it’s a culinary institution. Columnist Richa Grover caught up with Chef Cyrus Todiwala for an exclusive interview for Asian Lite News
Richa Grover:How did the name of the restaurant Cafe Spice Namasté come about and what does it stand for ?
Cyrus Todiwala – CAFÉ SPICE was a name that our first business partner Micheal Gottlieb had in his mind to create the first ever chain of Indian restaurants in UK. He has imagined these restaurants to be delivering good not great Indian food (he understood Zero about the food anyway). It was his vision and to make this happen he was looking to hire a chef. Through a connection he made to seek help form a gentlemen called Pat Chapman who happened to be the one that had started THE CURRY CLUB OF BRITAIN way back in 1980 and for whom I had done several cookery classes in Bombay and Goa whilst still working with the Taj Group. Pat told him that the person he needs to speak to is currently working in the UK and that was me. Michael came to our old restaurant NAMASTÉ (the restaurant did not belong to us ) and made a few visits after which he asked for us to meet him. The meeting went well though he had assumed that i would also be a typical Indian Chef and may not be able to converse in English etc.etc..
However the employment angle went out the window and a partnership angle emerged but naturally as we had nothing to our names and zero cash it was a very tiny partnership.
But the Name Café Spice it would be. However we wanted to maximise on the name Namasté which had grown in popularity and was gradually becoming quite famous and it would be best to use that name too to keep our followers knowing. Hence CAFÉ SPICE NAMASTÉ was born on the 14th of November 1995.
We now do not have any partners but own the business ourselves.
RG- Where does your menu get its inspiration from?
CT-Menu inspirations come from all over. This is often a topic hundreds have asked me but I do sit a lot and think. And then I have an additional thinker who i am married to that also provides ideas which i take and then mould in my style. Today Britain has the best produce available from all across the Globe. British Produce itself is of a very high quality and is very diverse seasonally too. This gives someone like me an immense opportunity to create non stop. If one was to look at our weekly and monthly specials from 1992 it is worth ten great cook books at least.
As a keen environmentalist and lover of all things natural I do make loads of friends in the farming and fishing industries. This gives me access to a wider plethora of products than any chef in Britain today and most of the time Café Spice Namasté has done it, cooked it, dusted it and been there before others wake up and make a big noise and hooo haaa about the product which we never do.
LADIES. Indian and Asian Ladies give me great inspiration from across all communities. When I mean ladies I mean mature women who are grandmas perhaps or very much the domestic cook still. Rather the Domestic Engineer and they hold vast knowledge but like not to share with others or at times are even shy. These ladies of our land are the ones that should take time to write things down and hand them down too else I fear some of our traditional food shall all but disappear. With a massive eating out culture you are solely left to the devices of the restaurants or stalls you visit or the super market food you buy heat and serve. SO to seek secrets out from ladies is crucially impotent to me and I jog these down in my mind thought most of the time I always have a scrap paper and a pen in my pocket for ideas.
India is my greatest inspiration though and I say it very often that if I lived to be five thousand years old, I may yet never master Indian food. I hope to learn a great deal more though before my time is up.
RG-Do you have specials and seasonal dishes or is there always a fixed menu at your restaurants?
CT– We have both. Our regular a’la carte menu is fixed and few dishes change regularly, but the monthly special menu is all to do with seasons mostly. We do lots of Game meats for example during the hunting season and we must be the only Indian Restaurant anywhere that offers such a wide variety of game dishes. Vegetables change with the season each month and a seasonal Thali is offered each month.
RG-Has working in various famous kitchens of big restaurant banners across continents equipped you to be better prepared for being an entrepreneur?
CT– Nothing prepares you to be an entrepreneur. We got into it purely on default. No choice at one time and being pushed against a wall with zero options we became entrepreneurs in Britain. We learnt along the way and still live by our mistakes and stupid decisions. The Entrepreneurial brain is always very active, but its entrepreneurial not business minded. But yes we try to do the right things always. Failure is a part and parcel of business and we live by that code ourselves. However the dream has never shrunk or diminished and though we shall never be millionaires or wealthy per say, we can proudly claim that our wealth lies in what we have achieved from nothing and our knowledge now as well as our bank of loyal customers and a fabulous loyal team of staff. Our time is yet to come I feel.
RG-Did you always want to be a chef and have a restaurant or did you dabble into the profession as an extension of a hobby? What piece of advice and encouragement would you give budding chefs?
CT- I had no clue what i had wanted to do. Even after leaving school I was undecided and it was agriculture I had sought to do. Found my way into Catering which i loved too from a very young age, but had no idea what a career being a chef would mean. It was not glorified nor did we have any role models at the time in India and nor was there any guidance available. You just took up a job and you got on with it. Business of my own I had always wanted as I was dabbling in bits even during college days. I made and sold cakes, jams, candied peels and wine. We had contacts with Catholic wedding caterers and in the season made hundreds fo fruit cakes etc etc plus the wine which was an added bonus. That taught me a lot.
Later in the seventies and early eighties the GULF BOOM attracted a lot of staff to leave and go for the money. Later when the Australia boom happened Indian Hotels and especially Indian Hotels Company i.e. Taj opened their eyes a bit more to to realise that chefs were leaving and this time it was the senior chefs. That is when Chefs started to get recognition in India, until then we had a surplus feed and no one cared.
But yes Business of my own was always an attraction and still is.
For young budding entrepreneurs the one thing everyone must learn is never to fear. DO some homework and do it well, let your mind work rather than your heart and then go in with all that you can give it if you wish to do it. The idea is to start somewhere get a very good foundation, try and learn the ropes of how that business operates, its positives and negatives and then venture out. Be sure you have enough financial backing in todays world of severe competition. Always have a USP and bang on about it for a while as that will buy you initial custom until you get established and your greater skills get known.
But so long as you have a skill FEAR NOT. If you fail there are hundreds fo great jobs on offer today. Give it your best and give it with all your might and passion and you will see success. If you do not have passion on the other hand- FORGET IT. Don’t venture!
As a budding chef my sincere advise is to be patient. The faster you may climb the greater may be your fall. Learn diligently, build your foundation rock solid as that is the only thing that will stand you through the test of time and then aspire for greater things. Always aspire but keep it hidden initially. Listen, learn, Ask, keep your mouth shut and never show how clever you are.
RG– What can diners expect in terms of the whole experience from cafe spice Namasté when they visit?
CT- Diners the visit Café Spice Namasté have come to expect the unusual too. They now understand that they will get the best possible produce procured from the most ethical sources and cooked non conventionally but yet Indian at its core. They know and understand the passion that delivers it, but not to expect anything fancy or poncy in appearance. Many do get disappointed as they still expect the Standardised Indian Fare but by and large we get people who appreciate good food and come to the right place for it. The trust that our customers have in our sourcing policy makes it a given for them to not bother to ask where the products come from. We have though been voted Britain’s Most Ethical Sourcing restaurant. Diners do know to expect unusual things on the menu from across the board of availability and that is often one of the draws too.
RG– Tell us about the decor, interiors and creatives of your restaurant – where does the ambience take its inspiration from?
CT– The interior and decor was all Michael Gottlieb Ideas. He is a genius and has an amazing eye for detail. He wanted to create an Indian restaurant that was unlike the norm at the time. Heavily carpeted floors, Flock wall paper, dim Lighting etc. SO Colour it was. Then finding this building to do a restaurant in gave it the character it has.
It was mocked at as saying Cleopatra meets Sultan and whether it is Egyptian or Indian or Mexican or Caribbean but its purely INDIA. India is bursting with colour wherever you go so why not every colour you can think of, though the BLUE is very Moroccon.
The original designer Steve Thomas was the same person who had designed the Abbey Studios for The Beatles and though he was quite a Prima Donna he did a great job of the decor.
RG– Who has been your biggest supporter in this journey of massive success of the last two decades in the business?
CT-Who else but this woman called Pervin, my wife. If not for Pervin first of all I oddly would not have ventured into Business here. Our survival depended on her joining me. It was due to her tireless effort and hard work that I had nothing to worry about and did what i did best and continued on our journey of creativity and offering the very best we could. Without her support life would be difficult and all the things i love to do within the community and beyond would not be possible. There are others of course who helped us along the way but my pillar is my wife.
RG- In 2012 you cooked for the Queen as a part of the diamond jubilee celebration- how was that experience and how did it make you feel representing Indian heritage while curating the menu and meal ?
CT- When I was first approached to cook for the Very First Diamond Jubilee celebration Luncheon it felt a bit scary. Then it was also put upon me to seek the venue as well, a venue where her Majesty seldom went and then to organise the entire event around that. SO first the venue and the over coming of the fear and then the excitement. The work involved was massive. I not only had to select the place and convince the people that Their Queen would dine there, I also had to find the money and the sponsorship to provide for the food and everything else. There was no money either from The State or the Palace and we had to cook for four hundred and twenty people.
SO first things first it had to be Indian Inspired. It was an Honour that here is an Indian cooking for Her Majesty The Queen on one of the most important phases of her reign as monarch and what will i cook.
So Mutton was selected. Mutton in Britain means a Yew that has gone past its fertility period and cannot give birth anymore. Not as in the use of the Indian word for Mutton. Her Son HRH Prince Charles had started the Mutton Renaissance Movement of which I am a part and so I felt mutton it shall be.
Then it was how to and what as I know for a fact that she could not tolerate chillies. So I thought of The Country Captain perhaps the oldest Fusion Food between British and Indian cuisines created in various Gymkhanas across India during the Raj and many differently. My mothers family hailed from Rajasthan and there in the clubs it was Goat meat not chicken as chicken was more precious. So we did MUTTON COUNTRY CAPTAIN the Indian version of THE SHEPHERDS PIE but it was cooked without any chilli, other masalas yes but no chilli.
That to me was a proud moment and the keeping of this as a total secret and a complete embargo on telling anyone made it ever so difficult. The support I received from suppliers, farmers, chef friends etc was simply amazing.
The experience over all was amazing because it is one thing cooking for Royalty, it is another thing altogether to cook and to organise and to execute to perfection and precision. Thats what makes for a great event. And then to top it all. GOD decided to help out as well on that day 29th of March 2012…The Spring Sun came out in all its glory and the day was bright and beautiful and he gave us a perfect INDIAN SUMMERS DAY.
SO we set the pace for others to follow and what a pace indeed it was.
RG- Do you have any other projects in the pipeline that you are working on apart from and along with your work with cafe spice Namasté ?
CT– Yes indeed. Very soon we will open up our wine bar and mini bites offering in our Garden area. I am recreating great Portuguese Tapas with the Goan Influence. Things that the Goan people have all but forgotten and reviving a cultural heritage that India no longer wishes to embrace. SO its VINHOS E PETISCOS. Wines and Small Bites. This if it works we will take it into a permanent setting some day.
Then two new books to work on which is quite stressful to fit into a very busy and loooong day. A new Mr Todiwala’s Kitchen to open in September at South Quays in Canary Wharf. A Ninety seat restaurant. So yes hands full. Lots to make and create and execute and do!
Chef of Genius
From ‘chef of genius’ʹ to ‘creator of the classiest curries in the City’ and in 2014 ‘BBC Food Personality of the Year’ this Bombay-born Parsee chef has been called all manner of good things, but the Chef Patron of Cafe Spice Namaste, Mr Todiwala’ʹs Kitchen, and The Park Café in Victoria Park East still has his feet very much on the ground…running.
He cooks, teaches, writes, runs successful restaurants and does more than his fair bit for charity and the community, butCyrus’ restless, entrepreneurial soul means he’s never going to stand still. He’s never said no to a challenge, whether it’s leaving a secure Executive Chef role in the Taj Group of Hotels in Goa 21 years ago to start all over in the UK, or bravely daring to combine flavours, spices and ingredients in ways no other Indian chef has done before.
He appears regularly at top food festivals around the world, including Taste of London, The BBC Good Food Show, Ludlow Food Festival and the Abergavenny Food Festival in Wales.
Photo credits: Nitin Kapoor