Across a Table from Chef Floyd Cardoz

 

Photographs by Brent Herrig. Using them without his permission is illegal. And mean.

I am a very lucky lady.

A little less than a year ago a friend pitched me interviewing chef Floyd Cardoz at North End Grill, one in the Danny Meyer family of restaurants. And I said yes.

Evidently she’d given Floyd a talking to before our meeting that ours was to be a “very important interview and he needed to be nice and attentive and not mess this up.” I laughed when she later told me this because, of course, I’m just little ol me with a little ol column.

What followed their talking-to was a joyful hour-long interview. I discovered that Floyd’s family is from Goa, where my godfather is from and which has been largely influenced by the Portuguese (we used to claim a lot of land that wasn’t ours, way back when we were a mighty people who ruled the sea). So we had that in common. And he loves to garden. So there was that, too.

There was also the little sparkle in his eyes that I quickly learned appears when he’s excited or happy or inspired by something, whether it be an ingredient at the market or the idea of fishing on a weekend or the fencing talent of his sons.  And a sense of both pride and humility that he’s accomplished what he has, when it took him so long to be given a chance in the New York kitchen scene. Our talk went on and on, and very little of it was able to fit in the limited word count I had for the original interview. So here it is, in its (almost) full glory.

Since that meeting I’ve seen Floyd often, at his restaurant (though I’m not nearly there enough for how amazing the food is), at events, and in Twitter banter. He does such lovely things with food, like the rooftop-farm-to-table dinner he hosted the other night that I was fortunate to be invited to; guests sipped garden-based cocktails on the roof of the restaurant while Floyd and his team pulled vegetables, and then were treated to an extensive meal highlighting what he’d pulled. It was simple food – vegetables, herbs, oils, acids, heat, smoke – executed with precision and soul. I had a fresh heart of palm for the first time in my life. And had the softest, cleanest beets I’ve ever had. And the most sweet and pungent grilled red onion.

Lucky gal.

Soon I hope to get an off-the-record chat with Floyd and our friend over some caldo verde and mariscos in Jersey. But until that dinner, here’s our full conversation.

Chef Floyd Cardoz is far from India… and we’re the lucky ones for it.

This interview was taken October, 2012.

You grew up in a family of professionals in India, and had cooks employed in your house. What did food mean to you as a child?

Food in India is a very important part of the culture. Depending on where you’re from, you could be more or less food-centric. My family was from Goa, so they were Portuguese influenced. So the Goan psyche of food made food very important in our family; even while we were eating we were discussing food. Before we ate we were discussing food! It was always about the next meal in our home.

We had a couple of cooks in our home growing up, not just one. We, as kids, would come home every day from school for lunch; we never took a packed lunch. So for me it was always about that food, what was going to be on the plate. Coming home from school we would try to figure out what was in our meal for the night. And for me it was always seafood – I love seafood, which is part of me. We had breakfast laid on the table, we came home for lunch and it was laid on the table, you just ate and then left your plate…

So you weren’t active in the kitchen at an early age?

Not when I was young. As I started getting older I would go hang out in the kitchen just because I wanted to get more stuff! My elder brother called me “the cook’s son”, because I would hang out there to get extra things to eat. It helped because if I wanted to eat fish I could tell the cook and she’d go and get fish for the next day. But I would help the cook in the kitchen; cutting onions, peeling shrimp, that kind of thing. And when we would go camping I would inevitably be the guy who would gravitate towards cooking food. In high school I would do barbecues for the neighbors…

So going into food wasn’t completely random.

It wasn’t completely random. But it was never a career choice for me.

How did that change?

Something happened. I read a book, Hotel, by Arthur Hailey. I was very intrigued by the whole hospitality world. We used to entertain a lot. Every week we were entertaining people, every week we were creating special menus to serve at home, because my dad was doing business. And to me it seemed like a grand party, every day. With good food, good beverage.

Does it still feel like one big party?

It does. It totally does. Today it’s about wanting people to come and have a party and sit at a table. A good restaurant always has a party going. So I enjoyed that. I was reading the book and intrigued by the general manager, the waiters, the chefs, what they did and how they kept going. The more I read the more I thought maybe this was something I should do.

Were you scared to shift careers?

You know, when you’re young, nothing scares you. If I did that today I’d be terrified. When you’re young you think you can conquer anything, you think you can do anything. And it’s always about what speaks to you. I knew I loved being around food, I loved being around beverage and I loved entertaining, because that’s what we did. So it was nothing foreign to me. I didn’t think it would be a “job”. It kind of opened my eyes that the world was not as forgiving or not as embracing of it as a job – and by the world I mean India. All of my friends and their parents were all well-established professionals, upper-middle class; we had the best of lives. We had a great life because we could afford everything. And we paid people to cook for us. And so when I decided to do this the hours were long, the pay was miniscule, it was a menial job.

What kind of program did you go into?

I started a course where I had to do a stint in the kitchens. And I realized after all the years of playing at home I had a natural ability and palate to do things that I never thought was possible. I was a natural. But it still didn’t strike me at the time that I was going to be a chef.

What did you think you were going to do?

I thought I was going to be in front of the house as a general manager somewhere. I had to do my internship in the various departments as part of my course and I chose to do the kitchen part first to get it out of the way. And I couldn’t believe how much I enjoyed it. It was, for me, an awakening of sorts. And then I got to eat whatever I wanted in the kitchen, which was even cooler, you know!

Did your background in science give you an edge in the kitchen, understanding how temperature and time change things?

I don’t think it gave me an edge then, but it gives me an edge now. Because I understand food-science a lot better now than I did the last 10-15 years. I understand the reactions of proteins and vegetables to outside stimulation – acid, base, salt, sugar, heat. I can understand the way certain things react the certain way, even before I do a dish I can figure out which direction I’m going to be going in.

Shifting a bit to later in your career here. When you started at Tabla, did you see a lack of high-end Indian cuisine in the city as a challenge?

The reason why I did Tabla is because I have always had the belief that Indian cuisine could be taken to a different level by combining with different ingredients and showcasing what it is. The Indian cuisine I grew up with – Goan, from Bombay – was very different than cuisine in Indian restaurants.

How so, specifically?

The Indian restaurants served north Indian, Moguli food, most of the time. You could not get something different. The formula was chicken tikki masala, lamb saag, tandoori chicken, and those kinds of things. But those are a small part of Indian food. It’s very seasonal, it’s very in. And I knew I didn’t want to do another Indian restaurant, because people had pre-conceived notions. So when Danny approached me with the idea I was intrigued, but I wanted to do something elevated, something different. Was I worried it would not work? No. Because in my heart I knew that the flavors and treating of ingredients differently would make more people like them. There was such a vast palate to choose from, that I was not afraid. I did get some push-back initially, but then people embraced it. Because I showed them that you could have local seafood, local meat and vegetables incorporated and cooked like their counterparts in India that don’t have to be greasy or over spiced or unrecognizable, and could speak with the wonderful flavorings and the wonderful ingredients. So I was not afraid.

By the time Tabla closed, do you feel we achieved a greater understanding and open-mindedness for high-end Indian now?

I’d definitely say yes. I think Tabla opened the door for a lot of Indian restaurants and for a lot of people to venture into regional food. As far as really high-end Indian, the issue is that people believe that Indian (and Chinese) are inexpensive cuisines. They don’t understand that in India and China there are noble people – rich, wealthy, aristocrats – who have their own cuisines and are used to serving it in a fine way. But those ingredients cost a lot of money and people don’t want to pay that. New York is slowly changing, and I hope it keeps changing even more because there are so many things that we can’t do.

Such as?

Indians love liver, but here you can’t sell liver in an Indian restaurant because people won’t buy it. Brain, fish on the bone, meat on the bone, all those kind of things are very, very ethnic, and they taste so much better. Hopefully it’s opening up to that.

People don’t really associate quail with Indian food, or venison with Indian food. My grandfather used to go hunting for deer meat. But most people would tell me “Indians don’t eat beef and pork”. I have Portuguese influence in my family, which is the reason why there’s pork and beef. There’s pork in every major celebration.

You have a lot of freedom with your menu now because you’re not limited to one kind of cuisine. Where does inspiration or focus for a dish start for you?

It could be a bunch of different things – it’s never one trigger that does it. Seasonal changes are what most often make it happen. It could be from me seeing a vegetable or piece of fish, or listening to something on the radio that triggers something inside me about an ingredient.

What triggers something inside you about an ingredient?

It’s the way it looks, the way it tastes; it could be a bunch of different things. I could see a tomato today and get totally excited about it, and see the same tomato tomorrow and not have anything to do with it. I never pre determine any dishes; nothing is predetermined. I’ll be in the kitchen and I’ll walk into the cooler or be talking to my fish purveyor and say, “Bring it in.” “What are you going to do with it?” “I have no idea, just bring it in.” And when I look at it, it triggers things in me. It could be how it feels outside. The way the sun is shining. The way the heat is coming off the grill. The way someone ate or did not eat a dish. It could be a bunch of stimuli. I don’t know what it is that does it.

Is there a dish on the menu that’s personally comforting for you?

The strange thing is, the way I cook for myself is the way I cook at this restaurant. And I love that.

How would you define that?

At Tabla I had to do everything within this Indian box. But if you go home with me and have a meal every day with my family for a month, you’ll realize there’s no one single style of cooking that I do in terms of cuisine. My food will always have multiple textures and flavors (sweet, sour, spicy, bitter, hot) playing off each other. It will always have a decent amount of vegetables in it. But I could today cook a steak that’s Japanese influenced and tomorrow cook a steak that’s Italian influenced. And there’s nothing to stop me from doing that – it’s all how I feel that day.

I don’t predetermine what I make in a day – I go to the store and walk first by the vegetables, and then the protein. I see a vegetable that’s going to tell me what I’m going to cook, or I don’t. Then I’ll walk to the protein section and see a protein, then walk back to the vegetable section, and then start picking my ingredients, things that are going to speak to each other. I know it sounds very hokey. I could see a chili pepper….

Some days I walk through Whole Foods past the chili pepper section and the poblanos will say nothing to me. Another day it’s like, “That’s what I want to eat today.” And I’ll pick up the poblano and choose everything else around it, because that’s what I want to cook. Sometimes my wife volunteers to go shop because I’m “too busy” and asks for my grocery list. And I give her a list and invariably I’ll use two things she brings and she’ll get mad with me. But I can’t do that – I don’t “shop”.

Does your wife cook?

My wife and myself went to hospitality school together in India and bumped into each other by chance in the United States. So she does cook, she cooks very well. She made goat meatballs last night, which were amazing.

In this world of flashy celebrity, you seem particularly grounded. How do you achieve that?

When a chef I’m hiring asks me, “What should I do to be my own chef?” I always tell them this: keep a book of everything that was done to you that you liked, and do more of those. And things which were done to you that you hated, change.” So there could be things in my kitchen that you don’t like and are going to change, but keep it in your book. And that’s what I’ve done with a lot of my life.

When I first came to this country from India I wasn’t given a shot by a lot of people. I was a foreigner and I’d never cooked in New York, and so people didn’t think that I could. So that always…. I knew that whenever anybody were to come to my kitchen I was going to give them a shot no matter their background.

There were chefs that didn’t treat people right. There were chefs who were always about them; it wasn’t about the guests, or the restaurant, or the people that worked there. It was always, “Look at how great I am! Let me show you how great I am.” And that rubbed me the wrong way. I saw that I wasn’t going to be that way. A lot of it has to do with my upbringing, too. I love my family a lot, and that’s an important part of me. And I think if you have a balanced life you can be that way. I make a conscious effort not to be nasty to people though sometimes they irritate me. I try to always be nice. When people come into your restaurant they want pictures, they want to say hello to you. It takes courage to ask for that. So I try to be nice to people. The nicer you are to people the nicer they are to you. And, you know, success is great. Being a celebrity chef is great. But you have to sleep with yourself every night.

I rarely hear the word “balanced” from chefs other than when they’re talking about what’s on their plates. Do you feel balanced?

Sometimes it goes the other way. Right now my life is totally way out of control with my professional life and I need to start bringing it back in; this restaurant is only one year old. And it also helps when you work for Danny Meyer, because having a balanced life is part of what we preach, and if you preach it and don’t do it what good is it? I give my sous chefs two days off. I never call them on their days off, never ever. Because I believe that you have your two days off to make your connections with your life. If my staff have personal issues in terms like someone’s sick or they need to take care of their sick dog I’m always understanding, because I believe if you’re a cook you have to be happy, and if you’re not happy you can’t cook. So if someone has an issue at home and they can’t take care of it and you’re telling them they have to work, they’re not going to give you their best work. So I think trying to find that balance is very, very important.

Where did you learn to not want the antithesis of that?

Lespinasse was a very French kitchen, and it was not…. I had people treat me badly in that kitchen. I was a line cook then, and I saw this new cook come in and he was floundering, and the sous chefs weren’t doing anything. It irritated me because we’re all in this because we love what we do, and if someone is sabotaging you it’s not the right thing to do. So I would make it my job to go and help people. So he was making this consommé and the first time he didn’t get it right and the second time the sous chef would see him screwing up and not do anything. So I stepped into help him out, not for any other reason but because I believe you can learn from anybody. I can learn today from my staff. So if I teach him something he may teach me something back. Never ever ever thinking something good would come out of it. When you do something good for people you don’t do good because you want something good to come out of it: you do it for the goodness of your heart and soul, what your parents teach you to do. That’s why you do it. That’s why I did it. I believe that if everybody does their part this would be a better place to live in. New York is not all bad. There are very, many nice people here.

And as far as chefs go… you know… chefs used to ill-treat cooks. It was a known thing. We knew that and we went into the kitchens. We got stuff thrown at us, we got cursed at, screamed at, we didn’t get days off, we didn’t get paid for what we did; but that’s what we did. I knew I didn’t like that. I didn’t like those things happening to me. Yeah, you make a mistake once and if someone doesn’t teach you then you don’t know. But having someone throw shit at you and curse at you and scream at you, it doesn’t go with food. And I made a point not to do that. And I will not do that. You have to really, really piss me off to get me to that. It doesn’t happen very often.

Does having your garden on the roof help you relax?

I have this big house and when we moved there my wife promised she would take care of the garden, but then with the kids she didn’t have time so I naturally went and took care of it. And I like it. I liked seeing what I could do with different plants and flowers, and then I started growing vegetables. And I learned the more you grow and understand what happens – the process of why it grows a certain way or tastes a certain way – it makes you a better chef. I’ve done it now at home for the last 10 years and I’ve done it here for the last year, and I think I’m getting the most out of the ingredients. Why did the cucumbers taste so good when I cut them this morning? Why are beans so tender? Why do tomatoes crack open when it rains? What does excess sun do to tomatoes? What do a bunch of things do to what you’re growing?

I think it makes you a better chef because it makes things both simple and more complex, because you can see things happen both ways. And my garden, my kids used to say I was crazy, because I go out every morning with my coffee cup and weed and do things. Like, right now, my wife thinks I’m crazy because I moved all the herbs inside so now half of my floor is covered in plants. But it is what it is, and I think it’s great for every cook to do that because of that connection. Like if you go fishing and you catch your own fish it means a lot more. It goes back to the hunter-gatherer part of all of us. You can buy a fish and slice it and waste half of it, but I waste nothing. I believe in wasting nothing. So if I catch a fish I take the bones and make a stew out of them, I take the collars and grill them. If you catch a fish and take it out of the water you see that it gave its life for you and you want to respect its life, you respect the ingredients and the process of the meal. It’s almost like a reverence. It just makes the experience so much more enjoyable, and you kind of connect a bit with good food and good life.

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