Cyrus Speaks

Open Letter from Cyrus Todiwala

Cyrus Todiwala

I feel compelled to address an issue that has for more years than I care to remember gnawed away at me. I hope some of my experiences and thoughts resonate with your own. I also hope that they can in some small way ignite an issue that all within our great industry need to feel part ownership of.


The Shortage of Skilled Chefs and other manpower within Britain has from the time I first came to the UK and ever since, never been debated properly in my opinion at senior Government Levels. Much and many reasons abound but, as a foreigner as well as a British Citizen I now feel I have a more or less balanced viewpoint, which is both from the inside as a chef and restauranteur as well as from the outside, as a consumer and as one who is passionate about Training and Development of Young People from all walks of life.


What I noticed very early on was that classically trained chefs were few and far between and training and development was generally poor. However this did not only reflect on The Asian Sector but was a general issue, heightened by the fact that training providers mostly produced young keen to work candidates unfit for purpose based purely upon a system that made it so. The Industry had poor links with training service providers and as such there was an imbalance. Besides this the education structure was set on a system of educating, in a way that was not in keeping with industry trends and developments.


In this mayhem we cannot even look at the Asian Sector, for the fact that at that time some nearly ten thousand South Asian restaurants existed and few thousand Chinese, Thai and others, no one was paying any attention to the sectors needs at all. Least of all, The Department of Education in whichever format of Acronym it came under. Somehow that sector did not seem to be important enough.


Traditional methods of recruitment such as word of mouth, poaching and some via work permit applications (including myself) enabled many to recruit and maintain good / acceptable standards. However the industry as well as traditional hospitality offer was changing due to growing demands for Asian Cuisines & was collectively growing faster than it was able to recruit new talent and the strain on standards became all too apparent. The education sector failed to recognise any of this and the then new NVQ structure was designed around Classical Cuisines only based around a tic mark system, having dumped a time tested method of training and practical education.


The standard of chefs circulating within the industry for jobs came from the same set of training and work experience and could not bring in any new skills or techniques and ideas. This was evident in many Asian restaurants having similar or identical menus, which the British Public came to accept as the norm.  The same trend appeared in the Chinese and Thai sectors and stagnation of cuisine occurred.  However the ever diminishing size of the globe for the ardent traveller meant that the British Palate was soon experiencing new tastes, textures and foods from across the world and would soon be demanding a shift in the offering in the UK itself. The British Palate was becoming more discerning by the day and, few were meeting those new demands.


I am fortunate as I did adapt and it worked to my own and others advantage as the reputation of the handful of us chefs who did things differently made headline news and attracted a diverse group of diners.  But what about the future? What about feeding the ever growing industry and its needs? What about advancement and development and showcasing the Asian Cuisines of the world and Britain offering the best of the best?  Upon first coming to the UK we soon realised that the level of training for both front and heart of house was inadequate and my own feelings that Britain would be the best of the best were soon dampened when I saw the standards. We at once embarked on the development of our own team that I had inherited and my friend and I, tried our best to train and develop them into the high standards we were so used to in India. We took English Language coaching, service training and food preparation training. It was very hard work and gains were slow. But it paid off!


Then someone told me that in East London there is an institute called the London East Tec and gave me the number. Here I learnt for the first time that we could avail of training without paying for it, music to an Indian’s ears believe you me.  Well we got in touch and lots of training for language and literacy skills was undertaken. Eventually this led to us forming the London East Training and Business Partnership and we got other restaurants, Leisure Centres, Hotels and Colleges involved and we formed a board. The board then got involved with the local education bodies and wanted to influence the way Training was provided in local FE Colleges.  This then led to us trying to get some form of Asian training included in the agenda and a pilot was launched with Martyn Wagner at Westminster Kingsway College. Upon getting involved in several initiatives including some of us being sent to Holland and France to experience, learn and compare the systems of vocational qualifications and delivery, to compare with what we had here in the UK under the Leonardo Project.


However there was never a chance of any implementation as cultures were so different. In both European countries there was a clear sense of pride in working within hospitality. In the UK in general, like in India, our industry was regarded as a menial profession.  So what could we do to tackle this ever-widening gap in demand and supply? Somewhere along the line we got introduced to the newly opened body called Springboard and we were quite excited that this would help solve our problems. Springboard’s role was slightly different to what we wanted but fitted well into the supply and demand role it needed to play. With, all this happening and my activities getting known, the newly elected Secretary of State for Education Mr David Blunkett asked me to join the NACETT council in 1997. This was the National Advisory Council for Education and Training Targets.


I accepted knowing only too soon that I was a misfit, I was sitting amongst a group of intellectuals who were unwilling to listen to a rather uneducated chap from India. Anyway it taught me a great deal about how decision-making took place and how the debates were held. At times very frustrating for one like me because the decision makers were so far removed from the reality of the situation as well as having zero knowledge of our great industry and its ever growing needs.  However it was here that I also met a lady called Ruth Spellman who was then asked to lead a new initiative called Investors in People and we at once embarked on getting accredited. This led to several years of involvement and encouraging others to take up the process of achieving better training and development of their staff to achieve greater successes. I ended up becoming a Non Exec. Director of IIP UK.


Café Spice Namaste did become the first stand-alone restaurant to win The National Training award and Second in The Millennium Training Award besides,

  • The Investors in People Standard
  • The first to be an IIP Champion (As an Independent Restaurant)
  • And the first to be an IIP Gold Champion (As in independent Restaurant)

Now Investors in People has lost the momentum that Government wanted and demanded and I do not see much harped of it as other independent industry standards came about.  Before The National Tec Council was abolished and The National Learning and Skills Council was founded the TEC launched a programme called ‘Breaking the Log Jam” designed to understand why education perhaps was failing industry needs in various sectors. Whilst it was an eventual waste of time, it gave three of us an idea to launch our own school and to see if we could initiate the delivery of practical education designed to fit industry needs.


An Idea was taken to The Government Office for London, which eventually sanctioned a grant of £700,000, secured no doubt in many different ways and, we set up the very first Asian and Oriental School of Catering in Hackney in 2000. Sadly even though it was successful the Skills Council shifted its focus and we eventually had to shut the school down losing a lot of personal money as we had personally guaranteed the banks an overdraft.  That ended our hope but I was still always keen to set up something that will help to enthuse budding young British chefs to take up Asian Cuisine as a first choice career. Though it is virtually impossible at this stage with no Role Models for them to follow and desire to emulate.  I thought a competition at a national level might do the trick but no one was interested as several competitions existed and whilst they were distorted they also looked more at the professional and a little less on the student so as to get them well exposed to Industry demands and standards.  In Asian Cuisine this simply did not 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 and is now gone into its fourth year.


My dream is still to have an institute of the highest calibre where a young person is industry ready. Where a student is willing to contribute towards his or her study and industry to also become equally involved. That is the only way it can work. Government funding is too sporadic. Government has never known what our industry as a whole wants and it never wants to. It has never, and neither has our industry, properly raised the profile of the most dynamic sector within any industry. Little is understood of Britain’s second largest employing sector and the diversity and ability to employ one and all.


Ours is the only industry open to one and all unwise or smart, black, blue, white or green, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, language no barrier, age no barrier and yet we fail to raise our profile and scream about our successes and our achievements sufficiently. The Nation knows that whatever trade it does be is tourism or be it industry it needs our industry to support that and yet we suffer from image.  The present situation with the unleashing of a partial embargo on work permits and the deliberate difficulties created to make an application is clearly showing that successive governments always gets it wrong. Also we as an industry need to make things happen for ourselves and develop a strong force for the future such that Britain remains at the cutting edge of creativity and standard setting.


The Industry needs to get off its backside and get involved head on and tackle Britain’s chef and wider hospitality and catering HR problems for the future. We have enough Senior HR executives in our industry who each face their share of the nation’s woes, who could lead the debate with government.  If the industry is to keep growing we need to seek charge as well and dictate how education and training needs to be woven into everything that we do. This includes bringing back Home Economics programmes in secondary schools. Cooking lies at the heart of every job within hospitality. How else can we meet and exceed the diverse and fast changing needs of today’s customer?


Asian food is set to take off further so unless we can build a strong work force we will not see the success we richly deserve.


Zest Quest Asia is a sure way of showcasing what we need. The difficulty however is trying to win over sponsors, supporters, colleges, tutors to make it a bigger success. We try our best and my begging bowl is ever-ready and, extended for support. This can then lead onto opening an Institute of Excellence, which delivers the best Asian and Oriental Training anywhere in the world. This is to be manned by leading master chefs from across all the major Asian cuisines delivering excellence to students that are ready to join our great industry. This is a dream I hope I can fulfil someday.


Yours sincerely

An Open Letter to our Industry from Cyrus Todiwala OBE, DBA, DLCyrus Todiwala OBE, DBA, DL