Happy chefs make the best food. If you step into Chef Floyd Cardoz’ restaurants in India–O’Pedro and The Bombay Canteen–the first thing that will strike you is a warm and lively vibe.
He smiles with his eyes and they light up as he reminisces about his favourite foods from childhood, “My mom’s shrimp curry, my great grandmother’s rice with tomatoes cooked with small clams from Goa and my grandmother’s fish egg curry. These dishes are etched in my memory.” His restaurants have a retro spin, perhaps giving diners a peek into his childhood and the kitchens that fed him and nurtured his creativity.
(Also Read: From Grandma's Kitchen: Goan Samarachi Kodi)
“My mom and grand mom armed me with significant life lessons on the kind of food that I needed to do, see and learn. It has guided me on my journey and even though my style is different, those lessons anchor me. I was taught to waste nothing, cook seasonal, make the most of what we had and always cook with passion and love,” says the 57-year-old Cardoz.
From grilling meats with his family, the chef went on to launch multiple award-winning restaurants in New York and Mumbai, and cooked for Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
He recollects a meal experience with his father in a fine dining restaurant in Mumbai: “This was many, many years ago in a restaurant called Gordon in Churchgate. They had prefixed cutlery. I didn’t know what to do and my father guided me through the meal; that experience left a deep impact and put me on this journey.”
His very first memory of working as a chef was at the Taj in the early 80s while he was a culinary student in Mumbai. “I was an intern and on my first day they gave me 100 kgs of onions to peel. The second day, there was a big pile of brinjals and okra to cut. I thought to myself–what the heck have I gotten myself into! But, I also remember sitting with the cooks and eating this incredible fish curry and rice that they made for themselves. I recall the bonding and the pleasure of cooking food for people,” he says, noticeably changing his pitch from slightly high to a gentle low.
Growing up in India’s most cosmopolitan city, Cardoz had global aspirations. He earned a degree from the Hotel Management Culinary School at Les Roches in Switzerland and soon found himself in the Big Apple. Working at Lespinasse, one of NYC’s foremost fine dining establishments then, Cardoz found a mentor in Gray Kunz who ran the show as the Executive Chef and taught him the fine art of balance and flavours.
A decade later, Cardoz’ creativity led him to explore his entrepreneurial streak. He joined the Union Square Hospitality group and launched The Tabla in 1997 that went on to win several awards. Culinary giants like Michael Romano and Danny Meyer were partners and Cardoz was the Executive Chef. Under Romano's tutelage, Floyd gained hands-on experience to keep his cool while sharing his passion and ensuring that his team is happy.
The entrepreneurial bug had bitten him and he opened North End Grill in 2012 while consulting for a number of restaurants in NYC. He also published a cookbook titled One Spice, Two Spice: American Food, Indian Flavors that breaks down the intimidating complexities of both cuisines for an American home chef.
He came to be known as that Indian chef in New York who didn’t serve butter chicken and tandoori roti. His menu was inspired by the food that he grew up eating at home and on the streets of Mumbai - “Food tells us who we are and every single time I make a dish or concoct a spice mix, I try to tell its story to my cooks and diners. Ultimately, food tastes better when there is a connection to someone or something. It always does and we should not forget that.”
Cardoz's culinary flair is generously seasoned with his personal food memory and it's appetising not just for his patrons, but also American media. He has been repeatedly featured in NY Times, Eater, Grub Street and CBS News coined the term 'inventive Indian' for his cooking style. This potent combination of talent and tastes from home came into play when he won the American reality show, Top Chef Masters Season Three. One of his winning dishes was a upma cooked with wild mushrooms, kokum and coconut milk that harks back to his west Indian roots. The award was a lumpsum of US$ 100,000 that he donated to a cancer research fund in memory of his father, who was called Peter or Pedro in Goan. His father had, unfortunately, succumbed to cancer.
It is most likely that the much loved O'Pedro in Mumbai is named in the memory of his father. This restaurant, dedicated to the lesser known regional cuisine of Goa, is from the house of Hunger Inc. Hospitality which was founded by Cardoz, Yash Banage and Sameer Seth in 2014. The Bombay Canteen is Hunger Inc's first baby and it has gained a cult following with a dedicated team that churns out innovative menu items and takes diners on a culinary journey of regional Indian delicacies.
“Yash and Sam have been my mentors too. They are from a different generation and they help me understand what is happening now. Just like my sons hand-held me to perhaps become one of the most technologically savvy chefs in the States. Reverse mentoring from them is very important to me," says the chef while admitting that he's never too old to accept that he does not know everything.
Long hours are a norm in the restaurant business. But, when Cardoz is not at work, his phone, laptop and iPad are in a separate room and he does not check social media, emails and text messages. If there's something important, people call him. "I look after my garden. When I am with my family, I am with my family," says the chef.
He vividly remembers the food that he relished at his Grandmom’s place in the coastal state of Goa and that has made seafood a permanent feature in his restaurants. How does one cook fish? "The important part of cooking with fish is to respect what it is. Don’t over-handle it. Understand the texture of the fish before you cook. So, if it is a white fish without much fat, don’t cook it for hours because it will break down or cook it on the skin so that it retains its moisture. If it is a fatty fish, cook it slow and slow. Seasoning fish should always be done in the last minute. Because once it pulls out all the moisture it gets dry. I normally dry marinate or I’ll use oils with herbs to marinate. I never put salt or vinegar or lime juice in the marinade because they kill the texture of the fish. So, I sprinkle it on in the last minute before I cook it," he responds.
As time passes, the chef gets closer to his roots. In 2016, Cardoz published Flavourwalla, a cookbook to uplift flavours with simple ingredients, and opened the critically acclaimed restaurant Paowalla in New York. Cardoz has gained mastery in his art, but the names that he chooses for his creations stem from his unpretentious and affable persona. Walla loosely translates as fellow and Pao is the local bread of Goa and Mumbai. Anyone with a need to cook in their pyjamas would willingly lose themselves in a book by the ‘fellow with flavours’ or eat food made by the friendly neighbourhood bread fellow; therein lies Cardoz's genius. It cuts through the stereotypical hallowed halls of fine dining, skips the stark white table clothes, leaps over rigid rules and hits home.
So, what is the 'food connection' he established when he cooked for President Barack Obama? "Obama's ideology centres around respecting the community around you. My philosophy too is whether you are in India or the United States, respect and embrace the community that you are with. For Obama, I used ingredients that are indigenous to the United States but adapted them with cooking styles and spices from India. You know, I tried to make that connection. When you cook something, don’t make it so out-of-the-world that people don’t have any connect with it."
Curiosity got the better of us and when we asked: Please tell us more about meeting Obama and Bill Clinton, he smilingly obliged, "They were different people in terms of their personality and philosophy. Clinton was extremely charismatic and engaging. When you see him, you forget other people in the room. With Obama it was more about a one-on-one. You could be anybody and he makes you feel so important. He has a team which briefs him on things about you and he will mention them when he talks to you. If he sees you again in the course of the evening, he will bring something else up and remember your name. I think for a President to do that while in office is tremendous. You see, Obama is very kind and generous and that’s how everybody should be."
Image Conceptualised by Vartika Pahuja
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