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The beating heart of London's food scene

The beating heart of London's food scene

Cyrus Todiwala, famous for his trademark style of blending traditional Indian techniques and flavours with more unexpected ingredients, shares his thoughts on New Covent Garden Market

Cyrus Todiwala OBE DL was born and brought up in Bombay (now Mumbai) and graduated in hotel administration and food technology before rising to become corporate executive chef of the Taj Group in Goa. He moved to London to run the Namasté restaurant in the early 1990s, where he developed that trademark style. Today, he is proprietor and executive chef of the Café Spice Namasté group (Café Spice Namasté, Mr Todiwala’s Kitchen 1&2 and Mr Todiwala’s Petiscos).

Cyrus was one of the team involved in the NHS Better Food Programme chaired by Loyd Grossman. In June he was appointed Group Chef Ambassador for The Clink Charity, having been a long-time supporter of its work to reduce reoffending and previously chef ambassador for The Clink Restaurant at HMP Brixton, frequently hosting masterclasses as part of the training received by the prisoner students.

He first came to New Covent Garden Market in 1983 and has been a regular visitor and customer over the years. As a member of the London Food Board though, he worked with Dame Rosie Boycott to develop a vision for food across the capital, which had markets at its heart.

We caught up with Cyrus recently and it was there that we started:

Your connection to our Market goes back several decades, but could you remind us about the work you were part of in 2009 to establish a roadmap for London's food supply chain?

“The vision was to enhance London’s food scene, to make London more sustainable, and to help revive all of its many markets by making them busy and frequented once again. We were also exploring the possibilities of a greener London that produced more of its own food.

With the Olympics on the Horizon many initiatives and projects evolved to significantly increase the number of green spaces used for growing food in London and make food production more sustainable and environment-friendly. Capital Growth was also born, a project aimed at putting all the measures in place to ensure London has a healthy and resilient food system.

At the time, New Covent Garden Market was facing several challenges and many vendors were losing business, often through not having adequate access to the massive growth in the food business across London. It was clear that new life had to be brought into the market to maintain the iconic status it had built up over centuries of serving the city.

CGMA’s CEO and Marketing Director were both involved and we laid a plan. We held several market events, from breakfasts, to talks to gatherings, and brought big names in to give the market a boost. New buyers were introduced to the traders using our contacts, cookery demos were done and so on and so forth.

In 2012, Her Majesty The Queen celebrated her Diamond Jubilee and I was given the honour of cooking the very first luncheon, which set the pace for the celebrations. That menu used a variety of vegetables donated by traders at NCGM and we fed 420 people. It was a great chance to tell the world that the market had provided the vegetables for such an historical occasion.”

What does New Covent Garden Market mean to you and London?

“My first experience with the market was in 1983, when I worked for a few months at the Hilton Park Lane. I visited the market with the Executive Chef and was amazed at the produce. Coming from India, I could only yearn to see such amazing vegetables coming in daily from Rungis and around the world.

For me, New Covent Garden Market is simply the beating heart of London’s fine food scene. To the many restaurants that believe in sourcing specialised and sometimes unusual fresh produce, this is the place to come to. To me, it has always been about checking on seasonality, fresh in-season produce, sourcing things you could not get elsewhere, amazing vendors with amazing connections.

It gave me great connections too and took my career in new directions. This is where I met Gregg Wallace and Charlie Hicks and that led to us doing a regular programme on BBC Radio Four called Veg Talk. It was an amazing programme – they blindfolded me and then pulled a combination of “strange” vegetables out of a bag that “this Indian bloke” had never seen! I was then supposed to cook these on a live programme with listeners asking me all sorts of questions and me doing my very best to promote the vegetable and where they could buy the product. That is how important the market was and I, as well as the listeners, were often in awe of what was available.

There was a time when if you wanted to eat a real 'greasy spoon' breakfast, New Covent Garden Market was the place to go and I have had some fabulous breakfasts there munching also on raw asparagus, fine beans carrots etc.

So, for London, the market is a landmark, a real jewel in the crown of the capital and it needs to remain so. There is no other wholesale market so central to London.

But Londoners still need to know more about it, talk about it, know what can be sourced from it and so on. More also needs to be done on a few things. I think the market could: a) be more accessible to more people, b) be more affordable to more restaurants, instead of often being labelled as exclusive, c) host more chef events, and d) get more involved with chefs like me to display more of the vast array of great British produce. It’s good to be exclusive, but sometimes, it also pays to step down a bit from that prestigious perch to compete better with online sellers and other larger markets where things can be cheaper, but also of great quality.”

Thanks so much for those thoughts, Cyrus. Finally, what is your favourite thing about the market?

I’m going to give you three!

1) The ability of the market traders to source amazing produce from across the globe.

2) While you’re buying that amazing produce, it’s a working, running mad place to meet and greet, to make friends and to enjoy their company over a cuppa or a bite to eat.

3) It may have been moved from its original home and it may be being redeveloped again now, but it still retains its appeal for many and is still going strong. Best of all, it has the ability to keep reinventing itself to stay relevant and strong.

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