The ever-young Cyrus and Pervin Todiwala have set up a new home for Café Spice Namasté on the Royal Docks in London, ready to roll out their brand of modern Indian cuisine along with a cookery school and deli. Lisa Jenkins meets them.
Perched on the outer tip of the Royal Albert Wharf in East London, among the weekender boats, overlooking London City airport, is Cyrus and Pervin Todiwala's new restaurant.
The couple, who have been married for 37 years, have been set adrift recently following an unceremonious ejection from Café Spice Namasté in East London's Whitechapel, which they had leased for 25 years. Now, three large units at the Royal Albert Wharf are their new home.
The restaurant started life on Prescot Street in 1995, and Pervin remembers their opening night: "We have so many memories of that place and I still remember the first service we did, on 14 November 1995. The restaurant opened at 11am for lunch service and we'd never used computers before or an EPoS system. It was a total disaster! We were afraid that some customers wouldn't get fed. That evening, in walks Ms Fay Maschler. Her glowing review made all the difference to our lives and to the success of the restaurant.
Twenty-five years later, in January 2020, the lease for Café Spice Namasté was bought by a new landlord, who at once notified them that he would not renew it.
"He hit us with innumerable notices of failure of compliance and the pressure simply built up to a frenzy," explains Cyrus. "Then Covid hit and our circumstances changed again, making matters even more difficult for us. Hence the retreat and eventual surrender."
The hub for the Todiwalas' reimagined business at Royal Albert Wharf will see a smaller Café Spice Namasté rise from the ashes, and more if all the necessary funding can be raised.
The main three-storey site will house Café Spice Namasté bar on the ground floor (designed and overseen by their son Jamsheed Todiwala), a 30-60 cover restaurant and the kitchen, with a proposed opening date of June.
The mezzanine level will combine Mr Todiwala's Academy with a new Brandt kitchen and demo area for training, private dining and corporate dinners. Equipment has been provided by Gaggenau Appliances, a long- standing supporter of the Todiwalas.
This floor also provides space for a small production kitchen and a preparation and packaging facility for the family's pickle and spices enterprise. The top floor, with its magnificent views of the Thames, provides a staffroom, a tech room and space for preserving, pasteurising and dry stores.
Two more units alongside the restaurant site are devoted to a central production business fulfilling orders from various hotels. There are also plans for a delicatessen to capitalise on the relationships the chef has built with many independent suppliers and producers of meat, seafood, fruit and vegetables, many who will only supply via him.
Like many businesses during the lockdowns Café Spice Namasté has pivoted to provide meal kits and food boxes, delivered nationwide. "Our website saved us," admits Pervin.
The business developed three boxes: the Parsee and Goan boxes include three starters, a main, five accompaniments and a dessert, with cooking instructions and oven temperature conversion guides. The most recent Vegan box also has three starters with four main dishes, rice and two accompaniments plus dessert.
"The boxes are £70 for two people but would probably satisfy two or three people for a couple of days," laughs Pervin.
Cyrus adds: "Pervin is my backbone and always has been. She has her finger on the pulse working with our accounts executive and is always on top of service, and now that the chilled food boxes have taken off, she manages that too.
"My role can be anything, including online cookery classes – and in-person, when we can – demonstrations, visiting our other restaurant sites, manning the prep kitchen, actually cooking, doing special menus and many events. But I am not clever when it comes to the money management, which she oversees.
"When Mr Todiwala's Academy kicks off, I will be quite busy with that and as the other sites reopen I will spend a couple of evenings each week going from one to another."
Mr Todiwala's Academy started as Adventure Gourmet with the late Peter Hazzard, who was food services director at Sodexo from 1995 to 2004.
"With Peter we established a series of classes for chefs by chefs that we held in a barn near Hitchin just outside Cambridge, which later moved to Café Spice Namasté. They were very popular and successful. After Peter sadly passed away, some of those classes ground to a halt as we had no one working on them," recalls Cyrus.
Later, with sponsorship from Gaggenau Appliances and Poggenpohl kitchens and with the basement space at the previous Café Spice Namasté, the newly kitted out Mr Todiwala's Academy was formed. "Here we did classes for our customers, for chefs and for various companies who wanted me to share my skills with their chefs," adds Cyrus.
Education of young people in the industry is a subject very close to the Todiwalas' hearts, particularly if it means keeping Asian chefs and Asian skills in this country.
"We set up the world's first ever Asian and Oriental school of catering with Holland Kwok of Good Earth restaurants and Atique Choudhury of Yum Yum Thai restaurant. The school had a lot of success under the leadership of Damien Nolan, who previously worked for the Hospitality Training Foundation, and we put 960 young, so-called ‘misfit students' into full-time jobs.
"Sadly, the then director of the Learning and Skills Council did not understand the importance of hospitality and its value to our society and, least of all, the Asian culinary arts, which were deemed insignificant even if the sector is worth over £4b. The plug on our funding was pulled and the school closed."
However, it is from this setback that the Zest Quest Asia competition was born in 2013. The student competition is managed and run by the Todiwala Foundation and aims to discover the next generation of talent within Asian cuisine. Thanks to its sponsors, which include Hilton, Tilda, Panasonic, Regale, Bidvest and Cobra, the competition usually includes a prize to an overseas location for the winning chef or team and their college lecturer.
"It is hoped to someday create a corpus of funds that we can use towards bursaries or scholarships for young students," says Cyrus, "It is for those who cannot afford their education and need a helping hand to complete their studies with just the promise that they will give Asian cuisine their best shot."
Down but not out
The closure of their restaurant has been felt keenly by both of them. Pervin says: "We've been working in hospitality for nearly 40 years, and I can safely say that the industry is very much part of our lives. We have built great friendships, with our staff, suppliers and other people who consider our industry their lifeblood. That's why it's so painful to see other businesses closing and suffering, like ours, because of the pandemic. We feel emotionally invested in hospitality and we are all in it together."
It's so painful to see other businesses closing and suffering, like ours, because of the pandemic. We feel emotionally invested in hospitality and we are all in it together
They are lucky to have loyal customers who started a Friends of Café Spice Fund to help the couple through the previous few months. Pervin says without their support they would never have dared to take on their new adventure. "Had it not been for them and the generous donations which came in, we would not be standing here today," she says. "Money comes and money goes, but keeping the people we love and care about is what really matters."
So the Todiwalas prevail, determined to continue to be part of the UK hospitality scene, and to arm its future chefs with the best start for a career in the industry.
The restaurant portfolio
Mr Todiwala's Kitchen, Lincoln Plaza London, Curio by Hilton, 2 Lincoln Plaza, London
Reopening Late July/August
Mr Todiwala's Kitchen, Hilton London Heathrow Terminal 5
Mr Todiwala's Petiscos, 75 Queen's Road, Buckhurst Hill, Essex
Reopening 19 May
When Cyrus met Pervin
Cyrus and Pervin Todiwala met in Mumbai, India, in 1981 when Cyrus was working at the Chambers, part of the Taj Group, and Pervin was doing work experience in the kitchen.
Soon after they met Pervin graduated as a silver medallist from the Institute of Hotel Management, Catering Technology and Applied Nutrition in 1982. She joined the Taj Group as a chef de partie that same year.
Cyrus moved to Goa in 1982 as senior sous chef for the Taj Group and then became executive chef for the group in 1984, the year the couple married. Soon after, Pervin became a catering assistant with the Taj Group of Hotels. "You know the old saying about too many cooks in the kitchen!" quips Cyrus.
His reputation as a chef meant he was being courted by a restaurateur in Pune in India. Then, while out locating mountain goat for the hotel, Cyrus fell into an illegal quarry and tore the ligaments in both of his ankles, leading to a long period off work with both of his legs in plaster. The restaurateur swooped in, and following Cyrus' recovery, the couple moved to Pune.
While the restaurant shot to fame, the partnership was not successful. Back in 1983 during a Commonwealth heads of state summit, Cyrus had looked after the then prime minister of Australia Bob Hawke's diet, which led to an open invitation for the family to live in Australia. They visited in May 1991, with a view to staying, but changed their minds and instead chose the UK.
"The family came lock, stock and barrel," says Cyrus. Along with Pervin and their two boys, Jamsheed (then five) and Hormuzd (one and a half) the family moved to London on 2 August 1991. "We brought everything with us: bags, saucepans, pots, bedsheets, a pressure cooker, pillow cases, blankets, the lot," says Cyrus. "It was a gamble, but it was well worth taking."
It was a difficult start for the family, living temporarily with a friend in a one-bedroom apartment in London's Fulham. Cyrus went away to work and Pervin was left with the two boys. A few months later the family found their own home in Hackney and have not left the area since.
In 1993 Cyrus opened the original Namasté restaurant on Alie Street, East London. The chef's second site, Café Spice Namasté, was set up with funding from Michael Gottlieb in 1995, with the Todiwalas as minority partners.
The original Namasté restaurant went through some challenges due to the recession in the early 1990s, with Cyrus also experiencing several difficulties with his work permits. When taking over the Café Spice Namasté business, the chef unknowingly changed his status from an employee to an employer and fell foul of the Home Office.
"This led to many issues for us and there was deep panic in our hearts," he says. Ironically, the chef sat on the National Advisory Council for Education and Training Targets and was a non-executive director of Investors in People at the time. "I never had the heart to ask the secretary of state or the board of the investors in people to intervene."
Todiwala on the TV
Cyrus is modest about his TV presence: "I would not call it a TV career," he says. "I am very much a chef who frequently does television and I think that I have missed and messed up many opportunities as I am still a full-on hands-on cook. But I suppose The Incredible Spice Men with Tony Singh on BBC Two and also my documentary for Discovery Asia called Mr Todiwala and the Galleons of Spice would be the highlights."
The chef was also recently named the Wagon Wheel champion on Channel 4's Snackmasters with Fred Sirieix.
Photography by Laurie Fletcher
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