Celebrated gastronome Cyrus Todiwala OBE DL on sharing the joys of Indian cuisine with the world.
By Ashima Sethi
Whether it was cooking for his mother, first- time customers or HM Queen Elizabeth II for her Diamond Jubilee in 2012, renowned celebrity chef Cyrus Todiwala’s unique approach to Indian cuisine has won over the hearts and stomachs of many. During his 42-year career, he has established four successful restaurants, owned a line of popular condiments, penned numerous cookbooks and regularly appears on British television, radio talk shows, and judging panels for competitions like Zest Quest Asia, which he co-founded with The Master Chefs of Great Britain. Beyond the culinary sphere, Cyrus’ achievements are just as admirable thanks to his commitment to education and the environment, which earned him the title of Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) and won him a Craft Guild of Chefs Special Award. However, like other pioneers who have spent decades carefully honing their crafts, his career had humble beginnings.
Growing up in Mumbai, Cyrus often missed school because of his acute asthma. “I was very mischievous, so my mum would let me help her out in the kitchen in order to keep me busy at home. That marked the start of my interest in cooking,” he fondly recalls. As time went by, his passion grew and it led him to study Hotel Administration and Food Technology at Mumbai’s Basant Kumar Somani Polytechnic.
After graduating in 1976, Cyrus joined Taj Group, where in 15 years he climbed the ranks to become an executive chef at 11 restaurants across the country, cooking for esteemed guests such as Indira Gandhi, Pierre Trudeau and King Hussein of Jordan. “At the time, I saw it as just a part of my job,” he says. “It’s only now when I reflect back and think, wow!”
During his tenure, Cyrus spent extensive time as chef manager of three properties in Goa. “My achievements there helped mould me into the person I am today, as I started getting involved with sustainable practices,” he recalls. “Back then, the area was underdeveloped, so I had to set up systems for purchasing, procurement and delivery from scratch. I also grew produce, distilled alcohol onsite and built a poultry farm and piggery.” Moreover, he established two bird sanctuaries that still stand today. “I was the first person to be made an honorary Wildlife Warden of Goa and I still have my license!”
In 1989, Cyrus left Taj Group to restart a famous restaurant in Pune. However in 1991, an opportune call from an old friend resulted in his most famous chapter. “I was invited to help run a restaurant called Namasté in London,” he reveals. “When I moved there, Indian food was so out of place, so when I changed the menu, people stopped coming. They wanted the British version of Indian cuisine, and because we no longer served it, the restaurant suffered for a long time.”
Throughout the struggle, Cyrus refused to lose hope, and his perseverance eventually paid off, as a string of positive critic reviews began luring customers in. Years later, the establishment, now known as Café Spice Namasté, has received noteworthy accolades from prestigious institutions. Most notable is the Michelin Bib Gourmand award, which they have held for 21 years. “I have always believed that despite ever-evolving culinary trends, the centuries-old traditions of Indian cooking aren’t going to end anytime soon,” he sincerely says. “When I’m away from home, I crave daal or aloo paranthas, because nothing beats food with a touch of love, and that is what my restaurants are all about.“
Since establishing his first restaurant, Cyrus’ ability to fuse together regional Indian recipes with local British produce has led to three more restaurants across London; Mr. Todiwala’s Kitchen at Lincoln Plaza London by Hilton and Hilton Terminal Five, as well as Mr. Todiwala’s Petiscos in Central London. “We serve flavourful home-style food because simplicity is the best way to anybody’s heart. We’re also very particular about what we procure, so we have our suppliers listed on restaurant doors to encourage customers to read about them and buy from them if they wish.”
As a firm advocate of the environment, Cyrus is deeply involved with the British Lop Pig Society, Rare Breeds Survival Trust, Mutton Renaissance Campaign, Marine Conservation Society and Shellfish Association of Great Britain, among countless other causes. “We must be particular about where food comes from, how it was caught and whether fertiliser was excessively used,” he explains. “A supermarket’s goal is to generate wealth rather than promote ethicality, so it’s better to support local producers who survive on what their ancestors did for decades.” Cyrus has also received praise for his dedication to training young people. As he puts it, “education is imperative. I grew up in a time where chefs were considered dirt and people laughed at my father when I became one. It’s vital to motivate younger generations because they are key to improving the industry and its image.”
Beyond his culinary prowess, Cyrus is also a savvy businessman with successful ventures that include his line of spices, marinades, chutneys and cookbooks. However, despite his multi-faceted career, Cyrus’ mission was, and will always be, to demystify Indian cuisine so that everyone can enjoy it. “All of my experiences have taught me invaluable lessons. Earlier in my career, I was protective of my knowledge. But as you mature you realise that if you don’t share, you won’t leave a legacy behind.”
So what can he share to first-jobbers who dream of making their mark? “This industry can take you on a journey you can’t even imagine, so keep your eyes and ears open,” he genuinely advises. “Never assume you know anything because it’s all about proving yourself, not flaunting your qualifications. And finally, be patient, as the most impressive buds can take a long time to blossom.”