Floyd Cardoz’s passion for food is practically an inheritance. His family in Mumbai (where he grew up) and Goa (where he vacationed) was made up of foodies across the board. “Conversations would always revolve around food. We’d discuss the next meal while eating the current one,” he says. “Growing up, I always hung out in the kitchen. I loved food so much I loved being around it all the time.” And, yet, he never once thought of becoming a chef.
So, what happened? In his twenties, while pursuing biochemistry at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, Cardoz made a small but fateful decision: he read Arthur Hailey’s Hotel. Inspired by the behind-the-scenes world of the titular St. Gregory Hotel, Cardoz ditched his books, stressed out his family and joined Dadar Catering College. “I had to try every department for internships. I did my first internship in the kitchens and I enjoyed it,” he says. From there, he went on to do chef programmes at the Taj, Oberoi and, later, at Les Roches, in Switzerland. In Europe, he gained experience cooking French and Italian food at restaurants and, in the late 1980s, moved to New York, where his story really took off.
In New York, despite his training, the only place he found work was at an Indian restaurant (where else?). Two years later, he met Chef Gray Kunz, who hired him as a salad cook at the then newly opened (but now closed) Lespinasse. The position was a step down, but a perseverant Cardoz worked his way up to executive sous chef. Then, an ex-colleague introduced Cardoz to Danny Meyer, who was looking for a collaborator for Tabla, a restaurant that would bring western cooking techniques and Indian flavours together. Cardoz, who had long harboured the same dream, was a perfect fit.
Cardoz’s 17-year-long working relationship with Meyer was as fruitful as it was long. In her glowing first review of Tabla, food critic Ruth Reichl wrote, “This is American food viewed through a kaleidoscope of Indian spices” — a quote that may as well be on Cardoz’s business card. After Tabla’s successful 12-year run, Cardoz joined Meyer’s North End Grill, an American place with a focus on seafood. Then, fresh off his Top Chef Masters win (in which he famously served the judges upma in the final round) in 2012, Cardoz edged closer to his own new venture, White Street, in New York. “Eat here and you get an idea what I’m about and how I flavour food,” he says. Cardoz also recently made headlines for creating dishes for the film The Hundred-Foot Journey (a story that has much in common with Cardoz’s), based on the book written by Tabla regular Richard C Morais.
Cardoz is also finally opening a restaurant in Mumbai, called Bombay Canteen, by year-end. He won’t be the chef, choosing instead to leave the reins in the capable hands of Thomas Zacharias, former executive chef at Olive Bar & Kitchen, and partner Sameer Seth. But, Cardoz does plan on being involved. “The food’s going to be my menu. It will have my stamp on it.” Besides which, he’s not limiting himself to a single annual visit. “I’ll be coming down to India a lot more. I’ve already come down twice this year, and the restaurant’s not even open.” He’s tight-lipped about the menu, “All I can tell you is that it’s going to celebrate all things Indian.”
What may give you a better idea of what to expect are Cardoz’s experiences eating out on his recent trip to India. He was served rotten fish at one place and spoiled sauce at another, which he blames on big menus. “You can’t realistically go to a restaurant that has 100 items on the menu and expect them to make each one fresh. In the West, if an item’s not available, it’s because the ingredients didn’t come in or they’ve run out of something. But, you never go to a restaurant where five to ten items are not available. What’s the point?” Two exceptions, he found, were Alex Sanchez’s The Table, a Mumbai restaurant that puts a premium on freshly sourced ingredients, and Delhi’s Café Lota, whose Chef Rahul Dua is “celebrating Indian food like very few people are”.
Another observation he made was that there is a lack of innovation. “Everybody wants to copy, say, Rahul Akerkar of Indigo. Nobody’s innovating, finding things or changing their menus.” When asked if he’ll come and shake things up a bit, he’s quick to say he has no interest in being the “messiah”. “If I move the needle even five per cent, I’ll be happy.” In other words, he doesn’t want to rock the boat but is more than happy to make some waves.
While stating that “the thing that excites me the most is to see that Indian cuisine is not dead”, he does rue the lack of love Indians show our indigenous ingredients. We find common cause over a shared hatred for basa — the awful way it’s reared, its general tastelessness — and he is finally ready to divulge something about the menu, “One thing I can tell you for sure: we will not have basa on our menu. That you can quote me on.”