On a quest

On a quest

As the noise around skills shortage grows louder, be thankful that there are veterans of the industry out there doing all they can to teach and train.

I meet Cyrus Todiwala OBE on a cold October morning in the dining room of his famous restaurant, Café Spice Namasté. The lights are off and his team of chefs are just arriving for the day – all is understandably quiet given the hour.

The pre-service silence is quickly broken as Mr Todiwala bounds out of his kitchen and into the vibrantly decorated dining area. He emerges, wiping his hands on a tea towel, apologising for the delay. There are 300 guests due at his restaurant that day and he has been prepping the menu since the early hours.

I’m there to talk about Zest Quest Asia, the project launched by Todiwala back in 2013 to promote the cuisines of Asia to UK resident catering students as an outlet for their culinary skills and a platform for a potential career in Asian cookery. If you put it like that, it sounds simple enough, but in reality the history is a little more complex.

In the beginning

When Todiwala arrived in the UK in 1991, he began cooking in a restaurant not far from his beloved Café Spice Namasté. A kind review from the Evening Standard’s Fay Maschler allowed the people of London a greater understanding and appreciation for the authentic Indian cuisine that he was cooking. Prior to that review, things had not gone well. People missed masala, craved kormas. According to Todiwala, it was that review that changed the course of history and allowed him to truly focus on dishing up food that the UK had so far not been exposed to – true tastes of India just north of the Thames.

“But I never realised there was a massive skills shortage, because I was cooking full time,” he explains, nursing a fresh cup of chai tea. “Others would learn and work with me and one of my chefs from Goa. We started to train our staff to speak English and how to talk to people and how to present themselves. At this point, I had no clue that there was funding available for training, but London East Tech came to the restaurant and said they could help us… for free. In India, nothing is free; there is always a catch. We moved to this place and very quickly our training needs became bigger.”

Todiwala is a passionate man. After I ask him to tell me about the foundation of Zest Quest Asia, 20 minutes pass before he pauses for another sip of chai. A lot happened between 1991 and the launch of Zest Quest Asia in 2013 – he partnered with various East London training facilities to teach troubled youths about Asian cooking; he worked with Further Education colleges and Westminster Kingsway; and, in 1997, was even asked to join the National Advisory Council for Education and Training Targets by secretary of state for education, Mr David Blunkett. All this while battling the Home Office, who, at the time, wanted Todiwala to leave the UK. A hard-working talent dedicated to furthering UK businesses was being pushed out of the country – sounds remarkably familiar, doesn’t it?

He eventually co-founded the Asian and Oriental School of Catering in Hackney in 2000. Despite its success, the Skills Council shifted its focus and the school eventually had to shut down, resulting in Todiwala and his partners losing a lot of personal money as they had guaranteed the banks an overdraft.

“I thought a competition at a national level might be the answer,” he remembers. “In Asian cuisine, this didn’t exist. There were several competitions but none dedicated to encourage and develop for the future. Eventually, through the committee of The Master Chefs of Great Britain, we were able to launch the Junior Asian Chefs Challenge, which is now Zest Quest Asia.”

Phew. Have you got all that? I hope so, as my version is far more clumsily condensed than the memories Todiwala so eloquently accounts in person. One point that effortlessly stands out is the fact that he and his team put 960 troubled youngsters into full-time work in five years.

“Zest Quest is here to motivate young kids,” he continues. “I work with schools and colleges and try to motivate them and raise the bar of Asian cooking, get them to see it as a full-time career option. Zest Quest was designed to give us that pedestal, gradually. The prize has to be massive – it couldn’t be just working with me. So now we send a catering team and their tutor to an Asian capital city. Next year, we’re trying for Hong Kong to show them all sorts of different cuisines and bring them back inspired. Last year, Milton Keynes went to Bangkok; another team has been to Delhi. We want their education to be of a high level so they can realise where they can reach. The foundation is gaining strength and we’re hoping that at some point someone will offer me a £5m package to open a school again. I would love to do that.”

The best of the Zest

Now in its fourth year, Zest Quest Asia has seen 41 colleges apply to take part in the competition for 2016/2017. In its first year, it had just six teams step forward. Todiwala and his team of judges will now pick six top entries based on their written entries – the criteria is made up of menu ideas, research, mixture of cuisines, sustainability, costs, what restaurant they’re designing, and a 20-minute presentation to the judges as well.

“The aim is to get the finalist colleges to work for a top restaurant for a week or 10 days,” says Todiwala. “That will help them further understand where Asian food is heading in the country. From the 18 kids that make it to the final, if only five get inspired, that’s victory for me.”

What does ‘inspired’ mean in the fast-paced environment of hospitality careers? Does he want his Zest Quest graduates to head for the scrupulous pressures of fine dining kitchens? What if they ended up cooking in branded Asian businesses found in the casual dining circuit? Busaba Eathai, for example. If a 2016 Zest Quest chef found a job working for that expanding Thai restaurant business, would that still be a victory for him? Or Giggling Squid. Or wagamama. Or Yo! Sushi. Or Dishoom. There’s plenty to choose from for aspiring Asian cooks.

“I’d like to partner with Busaba Eathai,” he says. “They’re growing at a rapid pace and it’s an avenue. The problem is that we’re now under-skilling because businesses are pre-making things – there is no skill. We need to make sure that skill levels remain high. “People like Dishoom must be outsourcing from a skill base to keep the momentum going, but the students can aspire to do anything. They could work in a top-end restaurant, and then, once they leave, they could look after three Dishooms! It’s how a chef has to be in their life. I started in a five-star hotel and all those skills stay in your mind.”

It has to be those skills that have made Todiwala the personality he is today – ‘personality’ probably being the most fitting word to describe the chef. He is engaging, fanatical and dedicated. His on-screen work has seen him labelled as a TV personality. He’s an author, a mentor, an ambassador. Café Spice Namasté is regarded as one of the finest Indian restaurants in the country. He has seen competitors in the area come and go, but his beloved site remains strong after 21 years in operation. I’m sure many restaurateurs would like to know how such longevity is achieved.

“Passion is important,” he says earnestly. “Consistency, sustainability and passion. The guest must be welcome and there has to be a constant evolution. I have people who come here four times a month. One loyal guest came here 210 times last year. If he can do that, what do I owe this man?”

However, as you’d expect, Todiwala faces the same daunting realities as any other restaurant operator. Rents are on the rise, as are the salaries of loyal staff. What’s more, he is very wary of the unnerving implications of Brexit. No, he’s not being asked to leave the country again, but he is already seeing the knock-on effects of Britain’s decision to leave the EU.

“Brexit hit us – the pound changing has hit us hard,” he says. “We’ve lost a lot of revenue, but we have to keep our heads up and keep plodding on. Many places will be facing the same difficulty, as the cost of raw materials has skyrocketed. Salmon jumped £4 per kilo. If feed goes up for a farmer, the cost of his produce goes up. We use 300 kilos of onions a week. If a sack of onions goes up 50p, that’s £150 a week gone already. Multiply that by 52. Those things add up. Britain is on a rough ride for a few years to come. I wish I could make the landlords understand that.”

Despite the solemn path our conversation takes, it doesn’t take long for a man possessing Todiwala’s enthusiasm to lift spirits and focus on the positives. Ultimately, our chat revolves around the importance of Asian cuisine in this country and how that segment of the food and drink industry needs and deserves a prominent pool of top talent, no matter the operation in question. Before we say our farewells and he hurries back into the kitchen (the 300 people must be on their way by now), I ask how the increasing food knowledge of today’s consumers might influence his mission of adding to the skillset of Asian-focused chefs in the UK. Will there be more or less demand the more clued-up people become?

“You’ll always have people who want that takeaway level of food – that should never go,” he states. “They provide comfort food for people who can only afford that level. Then you have the British people, who are travelling everywhere. The British public have the most discerning palates in the world – they want an experience. I put Dorset snails on my menu in a curry tartlet – in Goa we eat snails in the rainy season. I thought I would sell a couple of portions, but I sold out every time we put them on the menu. We now get to feed people who are willing to try something different – Britain is that place today.”