Full name: Cyrus Rustom Todiwala
Role: Chef Patron of Café Spice Namaste, Mr Todiwala’s Kitchen, The Park Café and Assado, Author and TV Personality
DOB: 16th October 1956
Birthplace: Mumbai, India
Fun Fact: Cyrus cooked for the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh as part of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations
Don’t piss off the wait staff
I’m quite excited by the chance to meet Cyrus Todiwala, OBE, DL. He is, by all accounts, a very fascinating man who’s done a lot for the wonderful world of food and drink. I’m headed to The Cafe Spice Namaste, his restaurant and defacto headquarters, located in Whitehall.
The building in which the Cafe lives is formidable, as is my welcome. I am buzzed in by a dark skinned Indian looking man who looks more than a little suspicious of this scruffy looking stranger showing up before the restaurant has even opened.
I am ushered into an almost empty restaurant which seems to be building up energy and momentum required for another typically high speed day in the restaurant world.
Cyrus’ people are either prepping the bar area or strategising (I think?). I’m due to meet the man himself at 1200 – so am seated at a long table surrounded by Eastern/Eurasian looking decorations and motifs, wondering where the fuck my notepad has wandered off to (again)
Whilst I wait I ask for an Americano, which confuses the guy who’s serving me. I clarify: ‘Can I have a black coffee with some water in it?’ ‘OK’
And with caffeine in my veins I am ready for almost anything…
A wild Cyrus appears!
Whilst I’m still looking for that bloody notepad, Cyrus shows up quite suddenly – he’s smaller than I expected. His distinctive, almost mousy face is instantly recognisable, as is his thick Indian accent and the embroidery on his chef’s whites (which are actually black) – which mark him out as the boss here.
He’s just come off the back of a few hours of interviews with national press in India (he’s very popular there) – “we’re going international” he remarks with a laugh – before going on to explain that he’s taking his chefs to India for a British food festival they’re having out there.
Now that things are getting into full flow, he’s continually looking over his shoulder at the kitchen and the coming and goings of his chefs. He greets various members of staff and ‘miscellaneous people’, including a woman with an American accent who shouts ‘nice haircut!’ at me in passing. It’s not a ‘nice’ haircut damnit.
The man looks a bit tired, he yawns a lot. Today he’s got by on 3-4 hours sleep and will plan a 15 minute catnap at lunch (seriously? Fuck man). For Cyrus, napping is as easy as sitting on the chair and closing the eyes for a few minutes, at which point he’s ‘dead to the world’
One day in the life
Asides from what sounds like sleep deprivation, I want to find out what a day with Cyrus is like. “Who knows what the day will bring?” he shrugs and smiles. Cryptic won’t do, NO SIR! and so more questions are called for..
Cyrus rises early, with 05:00-08:30AM being set aside for ’email time’. He then heads down to the restaurant (he lives above the cafe) around 9 to get things going.
4 hours sleep though? Is he some kind of serious workaholic? He claims not to be. “You have to find time to relax, it’s dangerous to try and be working all the time” – a problem I imagine you can face when you live above your workplace and work multiple timezones.
I ask him how he does it – apparently 4 is enough, and there’s no special technique involved…
Living with the tellybox
So yeah, asides from running the restaurant empire – what about all those media commitments? They come and go. “I don’t want to be a big TV star, I got into TV by chance, though it was never my intention.”
Cyrus doesn’t see himself as a ‘TV Chef’ – more a chef that’s on TV. That’s not to say he doesn’t enjoy being on TV – he sees it as an opportunity to raise awareness.
But what’s the awareness he wants to raise, exactly? Cyrus wants to ‘promote Britain to the British public’ Which to him means showing people how easy and great Indian food can be, and how much Indian food has lent itself to British culture.
At one point curry was voted as the UK’s favourite food, though I don’t know if this is still the case.
Oh, the things you can do (with a bag of turnips and 5kg of protein powder)
In fact, last week Cyrus was out doing a little outreach/education in Milton Keynes – showing people how to cook more healthily on a very tight budget, using rice and vegetables, instead of buying cheap ready meals.
Sheeeeeeyut, I could show people how to do that. Almost a decade on and I’ve completely retained the ‘student mindset’ when it comes to buying things to cook at home. The 5kg tubs of unflavoured protein powder are a testament to that…
Anyway, back to Cyrus. He believes there’s not nearly enough awareness of the traditional British vegetables like parsnips, turnips and carrots. Raising his profile allows him more opportunities to help people discover how healthy, economical and delicious that foods like these can be. Awesome.
The topic meanders onto history – and here I get something of an idea of the man’s spiritual side.
I ask him where his name comes from. Is it, by any chance, something to do with Cyrus The Great, founder of the Achaemenid Empire and all around supercool guy?
Cyrus’ eyes light up again and he asks me, in a manner that reminds me of Mr. Frost, my old history teacher (hey Mr. Frost!), what I know about this period of history? I know a fair bit – but damn, he knows more.
Cyrus’ ancestors were Zoroastrians who fled religious persecution in the area around Greater Iran a little over 1400 years ago.
The Muslims weren’t too keen on it, whereas apparently the Hindus were more tolerant.
Cyrus explains Zoroastrianism’s ‘Seven Eternal Laws Of Nature’, which he practices today. These include
Vohu Mana – The ‘Good Mind’ – ‘Use your good mind to enquire and learn’
Asha Vahista – The ‘Ultimate Truth’ – ‘Good mind and enquiry leads you to ultimate truth’
Lash Atra Vairya – The ‘Good Rules’ – ‘With an understanding of the ultimate truth you can create good rules to live by’
There’s four more, and like the above they’re all sequential. I’m kinda lazy and low on space so I’ll leave it at that for now.
Cyrus also suggests a that the three wise men / Magi who came to visit Jesus were actually Zoroastrian priests, not Kings. I google around a little (though not too much) and there seems to be something to the idea.
Early days and motorbikes
From there, topic meanders onto his childhood. Cyrus’ dad was the first Indian to work for the AA in India. Consequentially, Cyrus spent a lot of time around motors, and a lot of time around bikes particularly.
In fact, he grew up in the golden age of British motorbike manufacturing. You see his face light up as Cyrus recounts tales of those older bikes – the ones that people would take apart and repair/modify themselves – the Vincents, Triumphs and Nortons – “they were built by craftmen, not machines”.
Cyrus doesn’t ride now after too many bike accidents in the past, but says the experience of tinkering with machines helped develop his interest in tinkering with recipes and spices.
“No bike in the world compares to the thump of a British bike”
Every conversational topic that we end up on, he’s got plenty to say, geopolitics in Classical era Eurasia, traditional Japanese blade making, unusual styles of Indian cooking and the motorbike industry in 60s Britain? All covered. It’s not like any other interview I’ve done recently…
Getting to today
So how did Mr. Todiwala end up where his now then?
He trained as a chef in India, initially having no intention of coming to the UK. He arrived here in 1992, expecting that everybody in the UK would be skilled to a high level, and would speak English (neither of which were the case.)
Cafe Spice Namaste was established with investor help in 1995 – and Cyrus bought out the other guys a few years later so that he could retain control. He describes (with the look of a veteran) what the experience of dealing with investors was like:
“…your agenda has to become part of their agenda – and you better be ready to listen to them and work on what they ask of you. If you invite investors, bury your pride – your ego must go out the window”
Still, he got through that and today the Cafe is in a happier place. But how does he keep it going – where do the ideas come from?
“Suppliers, food fairs, markets, watching. Always ‘looking around’ – lots of talent out there and a lot of people with great ideas”
How to succeed (in less than three paragraphs)
Inevitably I have to shoehorn a few business questions in here to try and make this an ‘educational’ article. After all, the guy’s been enormously successful running his own business, has a TV career, plus the OBE and DL (etc etc).
So, how do I win at life Mr. Todiwala? What is success anyway?
“I’m not successful – I don’t know what success is, but money is not a motive. Honesty is most important. I had no aim in life. I probably should have” (I interrupt and tell him that doesn’t seem to have stopped him)
He claims that it’s all a matter of choice.
“The amount of targets you set define the clarity of achievement you want.”
And why do you do what you do, I ask? Because he is fundamentally curious
“Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it’s done me no harm. Be a child at heart and the whole world will look exciting. Approach everything with that curiosity. And have fun, that’s the thing!”
Before I leave I will drink all of your coffee
Before parting Cyrus seems concerned, asking if I have enough material and if the conversation has not been too tangential. Then some more questions. Do you really need to use flash? (in reference to my taking a shot of him) Do you want some more coffee? (in reference to my obvious preference for consuming all the java in the building)
I leave with a head full of ideas and a stomach full of delicious Parsi cuisine. I feel inspired – firmly believing that being around people who’re doing amazing stuff leaves a little of that amazingness as a residue on your soul.