picture by Nitin Kapoor

Having survived the trauma of the last 18 months, Cyrus Todiwala OBE DL is plotting the reopening of the famous Café Spice Namasté in London's Docklands. But that's far from his only concern.

Cyrus Todiwala OBE is probably best known to the UK public as a regular feature on BBC's Saturday Kitchen, brightening up Saturday mornings for millions of viewers. It's not his only show - he's also a regular on UKTV Food's Market Kitchen, ITV's Daybreak and Channel 4's Drop Down Menu - while those who really know their onions will remember him as the man who cooked for the Queen and Prince Philip at the Diamond Jubilee in 2012.

Todiwala is, though, something of a reluctant celebrity, and his journey to the front of the cameras has its roots in a love of cooking mixed with a hefty serving of entrepreneurship. "When I was less than 10 years old, we lived in a joint family in Bombay (now Mumbai)," he recalls. "My mother's sister's family lived on one side of an apartment and we lived on the other. Because I was the youngest of my cousins and brother, I came home from school earlier than they did. I would steal chapatis from both houses and caramelise them. I'd sell them to my cousins when they came back from school."

His chapati-caramelising progressed into shopping for neighbours, who would show him how to select the best vegetables, meat and fish, and he later joined a catering institute. "I was pretty good at baking and that was my first love," he says. "A teacher asked me and a friend whether we would be able to make cake for Christian weddings. So we made cakes, and with the leftover peel I started doing candied peel and selling it back to the college and other people." He also started making wine after realising there was no Indian wine at the time, with most wines imported from Goa.

After leaving college, he started his catering career with Taj Hotels, where he rose to become executive chef in Goa, before opening a restaurant with a friend in Pune. The venture failed, and Todiwala decided to head to the UK to work in a London restaurant called Namasté. The business would run into difficulties but when Michael Gottlieb, the owner of Smollensky's restaurants in London, sought out a chef for a new Indian restaurant, Todiwala's name came up, and the duo went into partnership with Café Spice Namasté in 1995.

Second helping

While the restaurant was developing a strong following and reputation from its Whitechapel location, Todiwala was reluctantly pursuing another venture. During his time at the old Namasté restaurant, he had started developing his own pickles and chutneys, after being unimpressed with the standard on offer in the UK. "You got one standard mango chutney, and two pickles, just the mango and the lemon lime," he says. "I wasn't happy because they were not of the best quality although the British public had got used to them. I started making my own chutneys and pickles with different vegetables and different foods."

One of the regular customers - a prosthodontist by the name of Dr John Besford - pressured him into selling them; something that was picked up by the food critic Charles Campion, which resulted in a double-page spread in the Sunday Times Magazine with the headline ‘The Chef, The Dentist and The Pickle'. "I started asking friends to help me to see what the bottling process was, and how the pickle would remain in a bottle and not spoil," he says. "It took off from there. We didn't market it, and we still don't market it highly. We sell it on the website." The range now includes bird and game pickles, and trades under the name Mr Todiwala's, which also sells recipe books and spice blends.

Mr Todiwala's is also the brand for three further restaurants: the Mr Todiwala's Kitchen outlets in two Hilton Hotels at Heathrow Terminal 5 and the Curio Collection in Canary Wharf - both of which currently remain closed - as well as Mr Todiwala's Petiscos in Buckhurst Hill, Essex. "Petiscos is the Portuguese word for small plates for tapas," explains Todiwala. "People have taken very nicely to the concept and it has now been voted the best restaurant in Buckhurst Hill, and number three in Essex."

Lockdown hit all the businesses hard, with the restaurants forced to shut and the business in the wrong location - and of too high a price and standard - to be able to offer takeaways. One strategy was to develop gift boxes, preparing food which could be sent to people looking for an evening in, along with other items. "It took us a bit of time to get contracts in place with the courier company and to work out how we would supply and where we would supply to," he says. "But that really helped to bring a little bit of revenue in."

The boxes will remain part of the Mr Todiwala offering, he adds, although demand is already starting to fall as the hospitality sector has reopened. "It looks like that is the way to give people that little extra element so they can enjoy being at home at the weekend," he says. "You got great food, great wines and your own atmosphere. It's relaxed, casual and you can drink as much wine as you want and go to sleep. We are doing it with the Wine Society this month, and 100 boxes are going out."

On the move

The biggest blow, though, was losing the lease on the original Café Spice Namasté restaurant, housed in a former courthouse near Tower Hill. After much searching, Todiwala hit on a new location in East London, at the Royal Albert Wharf, and has been busy preparing for its reopening. "We will have to build up a new clientele because we have moved to a very different location," he says. "We will have to learn, as we learned before, what the people over here want so in our usual style we will ask, learn and create. It's a new location with people who may have heard of us but don't know us or our cuisine. We have to create all of that, and that's going to be exciting."

He admits the business was "on its knees" during the pandemic and is grateful to a group of customers who came together to raise cash to help ensure the restaurant could reopen in a new location. "That's when we knew that we had people who really cared about us," he says. "They came up with the idea of collecting money for us to help us move, and it meant we were able to relocate everything and rent spaces for holding our equipment. We're looking forward now to restarting but in a better way." The business still employs 28 people, he adds, excluding those working in the Hilton restaurants.

The extra space provided by the new location means it will be more than just a restaurant. As well as being a prep kitchen to help with the boxes, the facility will act as a training centre, with an academy on the mezzanine floor. "I'm already working with some apprenticeship companies," he says. "We want to focus on training young people in Asian, Oriental and Indian cuisines. That's the problem we've got [in the UK]; we haven't concentrated on scaling our own people up." In time, he hopes to take on 10-12 apprentices to work in his own business, he adds.

Training is a cause close to Todiwala's heart, and one that led to him receiving the MBE in 2000 (he would later go on to add the OBE for services to the hospitality industry in 2009). "When I came here I realised that there was a total lack of training in this country, much against what I thought Britain would be," he says. "The lack of knowledge of the English language among the ethnic groups that we worked with really scared me because the people we employed couldn't speak English."

Todiwala set about training his own staff, which soon attracted the attention of the local technical college. "They said they could help me," he recalls. "I said no, because in India we pay for everything. But they started to help and our staff started to get qualifications." In 1995, the business was the first independent restaurant to win the national training award, and in 1997 Todiwala was asked by the then Secretary of State for Education David Blunkett to join the National Advisory Council for Education and Training Targets, advising around how to get more people from ethnic backgrounds to engage with education.

All the while, his own profile was steadily rising. "In 1992, I was voted best Indian chef in the UK, and for the next three years we got voted as one of the best Indian restaurants in the country," he says. "Those things came with a lot of media attention and it grew from there. I was one of the first Indian chefs to give a couple of television interviews but when these things actually started to happen I was not interested. I could have gone down that road, but my passion for cooking dominated so I didn't grab that opportunity. But I'm happy in a sense, because I would have been a complete television chef and not one who was grounded. And occasionally things would come my way and I would take them."

Royal approval

When he was offered the opportunity to cook at the Diamond Jubilee, to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the Queen's accession to the throne, there was no hesitation. "In 2007 I was made deputy lieutenant of Greater London because I was involved with the Lord Mayor and all these committees to help small companies get into education," he recalls.

"At the time Buckingham Palace was struggling with equality in its staffing, and we had a meeting in the Palace with the Master of the House. We were in this meeting, and a message came through that they had this celebration coming up for the Diamond Jubilee and would I be interested in doing the first luncheon. It was a great honour." There was a catch, though; nothing had been arranged and Todiwala was given the brief to find a location in north-east London which the royal family had not frequented, with the final location being Waltham Forest Town Hall.

After almost three decades in the UK's catering industry, his advice to others thinking of similar ventures is to be patient. "You need to persevere, and to have faith in yourself and be confident," he says. "People give up too easily, and they don't look at it as a long-term project. A business in our industry is never short-term. A business will turn around in three to four years, and you have to have the patience to keep that going. People need to be bold, energetic and to take the risk and just go for it." He's made plenty of mistakes along the way, he says, but the important thing is to learn from them.

Sustainable sourcing

Unsurprisingly given the intense nature of the catering industry, Todiwala has little time to himself. But he's involved with a number of initiatives that are linked to the industry, promoting the concept of sustainability and responsible farming. He's currently the only chef Ocean Ambassador for the Marine Conservation Society, works closely with the Rare Breed Survival Trust and is patron of the British Lop Pig Society.

"The British lop pig is one of the rarest pigs in the world, and the idea is to make sure that our rare breeds survive for the future," he says. "Unfortunately Britain is becoming this place where the public demands cheap, rubbish food, rather than wanting to eat good, healthy food, but less of it. We need to make the British public more aware of eating good, locally grown, healthy, sustainably sourced food." All his own ingredients are sourced locally where possible, and where this isn't possible he will substitute products; langoustine instead of prawns, for instance.

Over a long and varied career that has taken him halfway round the world, and a long way from caramelising chapatis in Mumbai, Todiwala pulls out two achievements when asked of what he is most proud. "We are the longest-listed Michelin-starred and Bib Gourmand [awarded for value for money] restaurant in the guide," he says. "No other restaurant in the world has retained the Bib Gourmand for 23 years. Secondly, we have created things and worked with people like nobody else does, including small farmers and producers across the country. We do things that are unusual for most restaurants."

With the new restaurant about to open, that story is set to continue. "If everything falls into place, it will become a focus point as Café Spice Namasté always has been," he says. "It will become a destination place, but it's one step at a time."