Floyd Cardoz may have grown up “catching fish and barbecuing with friends—things kids do,” but he never dreamed of becoming a chef. Instead, the Bombay native coveted the more conventional career of doctor. But after an apprenticeship in the kitchen of the Taj Mahal InterContinental Hotel, everything changed: “I realized I was pretty good at cooking,” he recalls.
Energized by his newfound passion, Cardoz took a detour to Switzerland, where he attended hospitality school to immerse himself in hotel management courses and classic culinary technique. After paperwork snafus stalled a trip to Australia, he ended up in New York City, where the only gig he could get was at an Indian restauran. It was a start, but his dreams were bigger than churning out cookie-cutter renditions of chicken tikka masala.
Cardoz’s big break into the world of fine dining came at Lespinasse in the St. Regis New York Hotel, where the legendary chef Gray Kunz presided over the kitchen. “I didn’t really know who he was and I joined without expectation,” Cardoz reflects. “But Gray was a master at French-Asian cooking.” Long fascinated by the idea of melding Indian and Western flavors, Cardoz left Lespinasse five years later, having worked his way up to executive sous chef. His distinct culinary imprint, marked by bold, sophisticated flavors, finally got its own stage at Tabla in 1998, when he teamed up with restaurateur Danny Meyer and Union Square Hospitality Group.
You don’t ever forget your cooking, you just adapt it to the setting.
At Tabla—and the more casual Bread Bar downstairs—Cardoz changed New Yorkers’ perception of what Indian food can be with his tandoori flank-steak naan sandwiches and black cumin rice pilaf. When the restaurant shuttered 12 years later, many mourned its loss but followed the chef to his followup venture with Meyer, North End Grill. But that second collaboration was short-lived. Cardoz left to open the brand-new White Street in Tribeca, where the menu decidedly more global, with dishes ranging from tamarind-glazed sea bream to chickpea and quinoa cakes.
“People missed my style of cooking—the textures, the spices,” he says. Amid the onslaught of New York’s more informal restaurants, White Street, with its curvy banquettes and white tablecloths, also proves that fine dining hasn’t fallen to the wayside. “But it’s not pompous dining,” Cardoz points out. “You don’t ever forget your cooking, you just adapt it to the setting. Whether they are eating the roast chicken for two or a flatbread in the lounge, the guests need to be happy.”
Surely, they will be.
From a Goan seafood curry to mind-blowing Spanish oysters, here are 10 of the dishes that capture Cardoz’s polyglot approach to cooking.
Chicken Curry with Rosemary and Riesling
I had started cooking in hospitality school and was curious why no one had mixed Indian with Western food. One night—I must have been 23—I was home in Bombay with my dad making dinner and saw a bottle of riesling. Inspired by what was available, I created my first dish marrying these two cuisines while respecting both. (Photo: Liz Barclay)
Lamb Sandwich at Tabla Bread Bar
We were in school, up all night cramming for tests, and at midnight we’d take a break at this one cart that served a flatbread sandwich with grilled lamb and potatoes. It was gigantic and so satisfying. The sandwich was special as it is connected to a period in my life with my high-school friends. This was before I started cooking. I believe all memories, for me, are centered and connected to food. I feel that tastes and smells are the easiest ways to transport you to a good place in the past. The memory is not of the cart per se, but of enjoying the meal with people who mattered. It was the inspiration for a dish that became a fixture on the Bread Bar menu, with pulled lamb and mustard mashed potatoes. People still come up to me and ask when I’m going to make it for them. (Photo: An Effing Foodie)
Halibut with Watermelon Curry at Tabla
I was cutting my son’s mid-morning snack of watermelon while he sat on the kitchen counter, asking innocent questions about his grandfather and his eating habits. He asked if everything “Papa Peter” ate had spice, and I started thinking about watermelon curry. Every summer, I made watermelon juice spiced with chilies and served it with halibut and watercress at Tabla. (Photo via T Magazine)
Fricassee of Shellfish with Fennel at Pierre Gagnaire (Paris, France)
I was in Paris, at Pierre Gagnaire, and one of the dishes I had was a fricassee of shellfish. It was pristine seafood, all cut the same size, with just olive oil and fennel. It was so simple, but executed so well. It reminded me of the importance of treating ingredients properly. (Photo: Les Airelles)
Fish Head Curry at Samy’s (Singapore)
My grandmother warned us to not waste food, and I’ve always tried to follow her advice. When I was in Singapore, I ate at a place called Samy’s. They made a spicy curry served on a banana leaf utilizing fish heads. They didn’t waste anything and it amazed me that, just by treating it right, they could take such a pedestrian ingredient to a different level. (Photo: sethlui.com)
Braised Oxtail at Lespinasse
I’ve always loved using the unconventional parts of an animal, like the oxtail stew we made at Lespinasse. I also made a sweet, spice-braised oxtail at Tabla, which was loved by many guests and was extremely popular. I love those flavors but find that oxtail is best enjoyed in the heart of winter. Because of its full flavor, I feel the braised short ribs with grits at White Street (pictured) are a good substitute. (Photo courtesy White Hall)
Seafood Curry in Goa
My great grandfather’s home in Goa always reminds me of seafood. Our cook walked to the fish market daily and brought in the morning’s catch for lunch. There was no refrigeration, so it had to be fresh and cooked that day. There was always crab, squid, and clams, among other things. Because of the lack of refrigeration we always finished the seafood first, and we had leftover curry for the next day that was reduced and eaten with bread and eggs. The squid-ink bucatini with lobster and coconut milk at White Street (pictured) is an ode to that curry. It has the same flavor, but instead of eggs we have pasta. (Photo courtesy White Hall)
Steamed Gooseneck Barnacles at O’pazo (Madrid, Spain)
When I was in Madrid, I ate gooseneck barnacles at O’pazo. I had never heard of them before, but they were steamed in brown butter and lemon juice and were delicious. I understood then that even the most mundane things can be brought to life when you find the way to cook them well. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Papaya Salad at Pok Pok
I love the papaya salad with fermented black crab at Pok Pok. Andy Ricker is not afraid to take the road less traveled when it comes to traditional Thai cuisine, and that’s inspiring to me. He is a master at combining sweet, salty, sour, and spicy, and this dish has it all. (Photo: Pok Pok/Facebook)
Grilled Oysters at Etxebarri (Atxondo, Bizkaia)
I went to lunch at Etxebarri, in Spain, with Danny Meyer and we had many great dishes. But there were these oysters that were barely cooked, just touched by this incredible smoke. They were so freaking good, it was worth the drive. (Photo: Foodspotting)