The Taste with Vir: Renowned chef Cyrus Todiwala’s culinary journey, his restaurant Café Spice Namaste’s closing and possible revival amid coronavirus pandemic
In this week’s The Taste, Vir Sanghvi writes of the legacy of renowned chef, Cyrus Todiwala. From the chef’s early days at Taj Aquada in Goa to currently crowdfunding to reopen his well-known restaurant Café Spice Namaste in a new location, read on….
If you watch food shows on TV — or if you are a dedicated foodie – then you will know who Cyrus Todiwala is. Even if you missed The Spicemen, the show he co-anchored with a Scottish sardarji in a kilt, the chances are you have read his cookbooks, which are simple to use and packed with foolproof recipes.
I have known Cyrus and his wife Pervin from 1981/2, when they were both at the Taj Aquada/Holiday Village complex in Goa. Those were simpler and happier times. The people who came to the Taj (especially the Village) tended to be professionals from Mumbai and the super-rich had not yet decided to create a ‘Goa scene’. There were no imported ingredients available so Cyrus developed first, a kitchen garden and then, even tried to breed pigs. (In those days, commercially-available pork in Goa was not always safe.)
His food was excellent. He had come from the Mumbai Taj so he understood Western food .Partly because of his own ethnic background but mainly because he had been made to cook for the Tata directors at Bombay House, he was a master of Parsi food. In his years in Goa, he also immersed himself totally in the local cuisine. By the end of that decade, Cyrus had vanished from Goa and when I next heard of him, it was in London. He had opened Café Spice Namaste, which, along with the Taj’s Bombay Brasserie, became the most influential Indian restaurant in the UK. Last week, Cyrus announced that he was closing Café Spice Namaste after 25 years. The news created such a stir that The Caterer, the journal of the British F&B business, led with the story and all over the UK, foodies were left sad and despondent.
The news is not all bad, though. I spoke to Cyrus after The Caterer story caused a stir and he told me that he hopes to open another avatar of Café Spice Namaste soon. Three regular guests at the restaurant, (they have been coming since it opened), Nick Gooding, John Minton and Howard Townson, have set up a Friends of Café Spice Namaste fund to help with a move to a new location and donations are pouring in. Cyrus reckons that if all goes well, they could open a smaller version of the existing Café Spice Namaste somewhere else by next spring.
So why, if it has so many loyal customers, is Café Spice Namaste closing? Well, partly it is because the building where they were located has new owners who want to keep all of the space. But the closing is also a consequence of the crisis that afflicts all restaurants everywhere during the pandemic.
In the UK, though the government has tried to help, nearly every restaurant has run up huge losses (and they are closed again now as part of a second UK lockdown) and many have quietly gone into liquidation leaving creditors holding bills that may never be paid. Cyrus has two restaurants at hotels, at Heathrow and Canary Wharf, both of which are shuttered for the lockdown. And a small suburban Goan-Portuguese place he owns, which was doing okay, has also had to close. All in all, he reckons, he has missed out on 800,000 pounds of revenue since the pandemic began, which should be the kiss of death for any small business.
Obviously, I sympathize with him and hope that Café Spice Namaste will open again soon at a new location. But I am also —- speaking as a friend — quite proud of Cyrus when I see how loyal his customers are and what a big deal the fate of Café Spice Namaste has become in the UK.
Many top Indian chefs work in London’s high priced West End but Cyrus has been content to stick to an unfashionable part of East London, convinced that his customers will come to him. He has refused to play the Michelin star game (though Café Spice Namaste has had a Bib Gourmand — marking high quality at less fancy places — for as long as I can remember) and while TV has made him well-known, he is clear that he is not a celebrity chef.
His contributions to Indian food abroad are phenomenal. At a time when India was represented in the West by a version of Punjabi food, he introduced Goan, Maharashtrian and Parsi flavours to his menu, keeping alive the spirit of Mumbai. He was the first Indian chef to take high quality ingredients, from freshly-shot game to the best pork and show that they could still shine through from under all the masalas. The British establishment has recognized his commitment to quality ingredients. He is a patron of the British Lop Society (a Lop is a famous British pig breed), Ambassador of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, Chef Ambassador of the Shellfish Association, etc.
In all the years I have known him, I have always admired Cyrus for his commitment to Indian flavours and techniques. If I post a picture of a Goa chorizo sandwich on Instagram, he will immediately WhatsApp to say that I should mix potato with the sausage (it sucks up the oil) . And when it comes to the food of Mumbai, there is no greater expert. He is, of course, the most famous Parsi chef in the world, the JRD of Parsi cuisine, something that I often feel is not recognized enough.
Given the huge outpouring of public affection, my sense is that Café Spice Namaste will open again and soon. But will it be as influential as the first Café Spice Namaste?
I know what Cyrus and Pervin are capable of. So I am betting that it will.