Earlier today, we brought you an interview with Tabla’s executive chef Floyd Cardoz on Goan food and the trials of starting out as a young chef in Bombay.
Here, in the second part of the interview, Cardoz talks about why there aren’t more fine-dining Indian restaurants, misconceptions about Indian food, the idea New York should take from Singapore, and the stealth additive that’s going into food at restaurants around town.
Why aren’t there more high-end Indian restaurants in the United States?
It’s like Chinese food. For the longest time, until we came around, Indian food was from Indian restaurant culture, which was Mughlai, north Indian. They didn’t really care about the quality of the ingredients, unlike in Indian homes. They were only about making money, using inexpensive ingredients to make a profit.
So people associated Indian food with inexpensive food that wasn’t too good. And they associated it with indigestion. That’s changing slowly. People are realizing that Indian food is vast. It’s not a cheap cuisine. In season, local, and organic products cost money. You could have the $5.99 buffet, but who knows what went into it or even when it was cooked.
Even Indians would rather go to Per Se and spend 300 bucks a head than come to Tabla and spend 100 bucks a head, and that’s a bad thing.
My Indian in-laws rarely want to go out for Indian, because they assume it won’t be good.
And nine times out of 10, they’re right. I know Indian restaurants, I won’t say their names, but they get chicken once a week and lamb once a week. How can you run a restaurant like that? I only go out for Indian vegetarian, because most of them are doing it because they love it and care about it. So they get the best vegetables and cook it fresh.
Which Indian vegetarian restaurants do you like?
There’s one in Queens, Dosa Hutt, by the temple. I love that restaurant.
I read an article in Salon recently, in which an Indian-born professor predicted that Indian food won’t really enter the American mainstream until 2065, because that’s 100 years after the first big wave of Indian immigration to the US. Do you think that we’re that far away?
I hope not. I don’t know, I don’t think so. I think Indian food is much more popular than it was 10 years ago, and it’s growing exponentially. So I would like to differ with that. And I just read an article calling Indian food the next big thing, so…
What’s the biggest misconception about Indian food?
That it’s over-spicy. That it makes you sick, and gives you indigestion.
And that’s a little offensive.
What’s the worst mistake you’ve ever made in the kitchen?
In India, was steaming baby taro, and I used the potato peeler to peel them and then put them in water to wash them with my hands. And there’s some chemical in taro that reacts with the body that makes you itch. And my hands just started itching–it was so unbelievable that I’ll never forget it. I think that was the biggest mistake I’ve ever made.
What’s the last book you read?
The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard Morais: It’s about an Indian chef. It’s a fictitious story that he’s written, but the strange thing is that it parallels my life. I told him: It almost seems you’ve written my story. But I’d never met him. There are things in that book that most people don’t even know. It’s not released yet. [It comes out in July.]
What’s the last movie you saw?
The Hurt Locker.
Did you like it?
I did. I liked it, but it depressed me.
What’s missing in the New York restaurant world?
I’d love to see more Asian street food in one location like they have in Singapore. Like the street markets. I think that would be very popular.
How are customers reacting to the new menu at Tabla?
It’s extremely popular. We’ve been full all the time. I’m surprised at the dishes people are ordering now–like fish curry on the bone, things we couldn’t sell before, people are ordering now.
Why do you think that is?
I don’t know. People were afraid–the prix fixe somehow made the afraid, but now they’re willing to try a lot more stuff. And I can change the menu more often now, so it’s great.
What’s the most under-appreciated ingredient?
Spanish mackerel. It’s got all the good oils for your body. It’s very flavorful, but people are just afraid of it. It’s absolutely delicious, raw or cooked, or even braised.
Most overrated ingredient?
Xanthan gum. Every chef is using it these days as an emulsifier. It’s an additive that doesn’t belong in food, that’s my opinion. They use it instead of reducing stocks down, or so sauces don’t break.
What are your favorite restaurants in your neighborhood?
I live in Verona, New Jersey, and there are a couple of good ones. There’s Sichuan, Chengdu 1. We go there four times a month, and order from there, too. And we have a bagelry that makes bagels everyday. Saturday is our bagel day. We get them hot out of the oven. DiPaolo Bakery has the most amazing breads and apple pie, and those stuffed Italian breads. Every time I go to a ballgame, I take a couple of them. In West Orange, there’s Mark and Julie’s homemade ice cream.
What’s the strangest request you’ve ever gotten from a customer?
Occasionally people ask for tomatoes in the middle of winter, or berries, which I consider strange.
What do you say?
I say unfortunately we don’t have them in-house.