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Floyd Cardoz epitomized contemporary rise of fine dining

Floyd Cardoz made it the old-fashioned way, from a time when standalone restaurants in India meant mostly dhabas, and the idea of serving food for a living was looked down upon

File photo of chef Floyd Cardoz
File photo of chef Floyd Cardoz (Photo: AP)

The loss of Floyd Cardoz to the coronavirus deprives India of its most famous and influential 21st century culinary ambassador. Just 59 years old, the highly skilled and ceaselessly innovative chef epitomized the contemporary rise of globally significant fine dining rooted in the food of the subcontinent. He was an impressive path-breaker in New York as well as his hometown, Mumbai. Besides his beloved wife, two sons, his mother and five siblings, he leaves behind countless young chefs and restaurateurs whom he mentored and inspired across nearly four decades in the hospitality business.

Cardoz made it the old-fashioned way, from a time when standalone restaurants in India meant mostly dhabas, and the idea of serving food for a living was looked down upon. In his first cookbook, the excellent 2006 One Spice, Two Spice, he recounts, “I was named after Floyd Patterson, the late, great African-American boxer, even though I grew up on the other side of the globe, in a large middle-class household in Bombay. What’s known in the West as fusion food—different cultures together on a plate—started for me in the cradle, because fusion was, quite simply, a way of life for our family."

One day, the chef-to-be had an epiphany, “Being in the kitchen made me relaxed and happy. I was 20 years old, and having recently come to the conclusion that my degree in biochemistry didn’t mean I had to have a stifling (to me) career in medicine. I was ready to embark on something new. Maybe it was that sense of possibility bubbling up inside that inspired me to recklessly add the unexpected to that pot of curry: rosemary from the farmer’s market and part of a bottle of Reisling."

These were fateful ingredients. Cardoz’s father “declared it the best thing he’d ever eaten" and his son was given permission to attend culinary school in Mumbai—where he met his future wife—then Les Roches International School of Hotel Management in Switzerland. In 1998, Barkha and Floyd Cardoz emigrated to the US. Now the future ‘Top Chef’ started at the unglamorous bottom of the Manhattan restaurant world.

Cardoz’s big break was an entry-level job under chef Gray Kunz at the legendary restaurant, Lespinasse. His new boss (who coincidentally died from stroke earlier this month) had long experience of growing up and working in Singapore and Hong Kong, and was open to using Asian ingredients in high-end French cooking. Over much of his first decade in New York, his Indian disciple worked his way up “from chopping thousands of kaffir lime leaves into a fine powder, to chef de cuisine." When he’d ascended that far, his own India-inspired creations went on the menu.

In 1994, Lespinasse earned four stars from the New York Times, the highest possible accolade in the American food scene. As Kunz’s deputy, the young chef had arrived, and now he was approached by the celebrated hospitality impresario Danny Meyer to create something entirely new, based on Indian influences and ingredients. This was the iconic restaurant Tabla, which opened in New York’s Flatiron District in 1998. Years later, Cardoz would recall “the restaurant created a huge splash right away, thanks in large part to a three-star review in the New York Times."

In that rave, Ruth Reichl accurately pinpointed the new star chef’s trademark style, “This is American food, viewed through a kaleidoscope of Indian spices. The flavours are so powerful, original and unexpected that they evoke intense emotions." Cardoz had grown up with one kind of global food in his Goan household in Mumbai, trained rigorously in another at

Lespinasse, then created something entirely different, which combined all those ideas, influences and ingredients in order to intrigue and please the American palates he catered to in New York.

The results were consistently dynamite. On his day, Cardoz could out-cook anyone else, as demonstrated most memorably during the 2011 season of the American hit television series, Top Chef Masters. With little fanfare, he outlasted the competition, winning the final with the spur-of-the-moment creation of “wild mushroom upma polenta" braced with the very Goan combination of kokum and coconut milk.

The series played on satellite television in India, and now in his 50’s, Cardoz found he had become an unexpected celebrity back home. In 2014, he embarked on what would be the final chapter of his spectacular career, when he co-founded Hunger Inc. with Sameer Seth, Yash Bhanage and the dynamic up-and-coming chef Thomas Zacharias. Together they created and launched the wildly popular Mumbai landmark restaurants, Bombay Canteen and O Pedro (in the 2019 Conde Nast Traveller Top Restaurant Awards they ranked #2 and #8 in India respectively).

This plot twist in his career trajectory gave Cardoz immense pleasure, which spilled over to everyone who encountered him in recent years. Even more than the formal accolades, he loved the diligence with which his team sought out what he called “real food" built on less obvious ingredients, with the weight of cultural history behind it. That pride in his protégés was always palpable, and he was particularly excited about cooking alongside chef Hussain Shahzad of O Pedro, in that restaurant’s long-planned pop-up in New York earlier this year.

While there’s no doubt Cardoz’s absence will be keenly felt in both New York and India’s restaurant universe, his legacy is secure in the hands of the next generation he nurtured with such generosity and kindness.

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