He sat at an outer table, quiet and unobtrusive, eating dinner with his two companions at the then newly launched Farzi Café in Gurgaon one monsoon evening in 2014, when someone pointed him out to me as the chef behind Tabla, New York.
Till then, I had known Floyd Cardoz by reputation alone. To those of us who wrote on Indian gastronomy, he was a well-known name — the Mumbai-raised, Goan chef who had put Indian food on the map in the U.S., marrying regional flavours to local produce to come up with contemporary plates.
Chef Cardoz died of COVID-19 on Wednesday. He had tested positive on March 18 and was being treated at Mountainside Medical Centre, New Jersey. He was 59.
A chef par excellence, Cardoz was the co-founder of Hunger Inc, the company that runs restaurants such as The Bombay Canteen and O Pedro.
The loss is unbearable, stunning all of us in the world of food in India, a community that for all its squabbles and differences is also closely knit. Just in the beginning of the month, when Cardoz was in Mumbai for the launch of the Bombay Sweet Shop (also by Hunger Inc), he had attended events with much of the restaurant and writing community in attendance. He flew back to New York, and according to his Facebook post admitted himself to a hospital in New Jersey on Mach 18 after feeling feverish.
My abiding memory of Cardoz will be of that monsoon evening in 2014, when Floyd had come back to India, having earned his accolades abroad, on a mission to push the envelope even further. That evening as he and his two dining companions, Yash Bhanage and Sameer Seth, sat at Farzi Café, they had been discussing their plans to start a new restaurant in Mumbai.
Bhanage and Seth had been mentored by Cardoz as young hospitality professionals in the U.S. Now, with their guide and father figure in tow, it was fitting that they should plan a passion project meticulously.
A year later, the trio launched The Bombay Canteen and invited me over.
Many of the dishes — devilled eggs flavoured with Goan masala, arbi tuk (colocasia) and kamal kakdi (lotus stem) chips — paid a tribute to Cardoz’s memories of a Bombay he had grown up in. His stories about feema (kheema) pao at the St. Xavier’s College canteen, the crab curry and Goan sausage at home had obviously seeped into the spirit and cooking of the restaurant. As he sat remembering things past, two young men were manning the kitchen, executing his dishes, passing food out through a small service window. Chefs Thomas Zacharias and Hussain Shahzad were being mentored by Cardoz.
The two are leading restaurant chefs in India today; their own dishes define the menus of The Bombay Canteen and its sister outlet O Pedro (that opened in 2017). And their creativity is independent of their mentor’s. But both did start out under the able guidance of Cardoz, a chef and man, whose most remarkable ability may have been not just to cook in inspired ways but to mentor younger creative people. There was a generosity in letting them soar independently, unshackled. It is a testimony to Cardoz’s talent and leadership that all his protégées have carved out creative niches for themselves and are taking his legacy forward.
For all his soft spokenness, Cardoz didn’t mince his words. When I asked him to write a piece for my blog, he wrote with passion and candour as to how the standard of restaurant cooking in India needed to be much higher. Few chefs would have publicly called out low quality in the industry.
His own cooking was strongly rooted in his roots though sometimes, dishes could stop you in your tracks with their ingenuity. The dish I will always remember him for is a red snapper sol kadi ceviche. He had initially conceptualised it for Paowalla, his Soho outing that unfortunately shut. The konkani flavours of sol kadi replacing the acidity of lime, was a stroke of genius. That genius is now lost to the world of gastronomy.
(Anoothi Vishal is a Delhi-based food writer and author)