Floyd Cardoz has been the executive chef of Tabla since it opened in 1998. His ability to synthesize Indian and Western flavors and techniques, creating original but rooted food, is matchless in New York. Tabla recently merged its two entities–Tabla and Bread Bar—into one, and offers an à la carte menu combining the strengths of each.
Cardoz trained at fine dining establishments in Mumbai and Switzerland, and then moved to New York, where he worked under Gray Kunz at Lespinasse for five years.
We caught up with Cardoz about the Goan food he remembers from his childhood, and the trials and tribulations of an apprenticeship at Mumbai’s Taj Hotel.
Check back here later in the day for the second half of the interview, including Cardoz’s thoughts on why there aren’t more fine dining Indian restaurants, and why he won’t go to 9 out of ten Indian restaurants in New York.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Bombay.
And is your family Goan?
Yes, my family is Goan. We would go down to Goa twice a year and spend time with the grandparents.
What foods do you remember most from your childhood?
I remember the fish curries, the seafood dishes–local mackerel, pomfret, or kingfish. I remember this pork stew with pork, pork liver, pork blood, and we would eat it with steamed rice bread called sanna.
And who did the cooking?
We had a cook who would cook for us.
I imagine that if you have the same cook for most of your childhood, you must get very attached.
Oh, most definitely. When she left we were all devastated. She came with us on vacation, she was there every single day.
Did she often cook Goan-style food?
Oh yeah, we would have Goan food at least four out of seven days. And then one day we’d have what we called Continental food, which was some European rendition of some dish.
How would you describe Goan food for those who aren’t familiar with it?
Goan food is definitely influenced by the Portuguese, so we have pork and beef in our cuisine. And it’s very seafood-heavy, being by the coast. It also has a fair amount of coconut and tamarind, and is usually eaten with rice or with Portuguese-style bread.
Yes, pav came to Bombay through the Portuguese, through Goan immigrants who came to Bombay.
And is wine used in Goan cooking, as it is in Portugal?
Not wine, but the local brew called feni, which is fermented juice of the coconut palm.
So you did your apprenticeship at the Taj Hotel in Mumbai. Was it your first time in a kitchen?
It was my first time in a professional kitchen. I was always hung out in the kitchen at home. As a kid, you’re always looking for snacks. I would do barbecues in the neighborhood; we’d go fishing and cook the fish, grill chicken. So I used to do that when I was young, but that was my first time in a professional kitchen.
I was a culture shock: No one spoke English, and I was one of the new educated people there. It was hard. I was speaking Hindi, something I wasn’t fluent with. The heat was tremendous. I thought: Oh my god, what the heck have I done. My first day I had to peel fifty kilos of onions. It was not easy.
What made you decide to stay?
See, when I went to hospitality school, part of the curriculum was that you had to spend time in a kitchen, so that you understood what it meant. And I felt natural, comfortable in the kitchen, and I knew it was an option for me. So I thought I’d wait it out to see what happened, and if I figured out in three months that it wasn’t for me, at least I’d have tried it. That’s why I wanted to do it.
Was it particularly difficult because you were educated, and at that time, one might not expect someone like you to work in a kitchen?
Oh, yes. In India, it’s so different. It’s not a done thing. Middle class people wanted their kids to be professionals—to be doctors and dentists. No one wanted their kid to go work in a kitchen, and that was really hard.
What does your family think now?
Now, they’re very happy. It’s been good because I’ve opened the door for a lot of other Indian kids because I’ve been able to achieve success. It always makes it easier because they see it’s not so bad after all. You get a big name, people know who you are. So it sounds good to people.