Chef Floyd Cardoz Relished Life, and Carried His Excellence With Ease

Jeff Gordinier
Photo credit: Kris Connor - Getty Images

From Esquire

I want to tell you a story about Floyd Cardoz.

I remember a rainy Monday night in March 2017. I was trudging around downtown New York City, enduring a bad bout of depression, when I spotted one of his restaurants, Paowalla, all lit up at the corner of Spring and Sullivan streets. I decided on the spot that if anything stood a chance of curing the blues, it was Floyd Cardoz’s version of Eggs Kejriwal.

Eggs Kejriwal could be seen as hardcore Mumbai comfort food: a gently fried egg on top of cheesy toast with a splash of green chile. That’s all I wanted. That one dish.

But I should’ve known better. As Padma Lakshmi tweeted this morning, upon hearing that Chef Cardoz had died at the age of 59 after being overcome by COVID-19, Floyd had “an innate need to make those around him happy.” Floyd’s face lit up when he saw me slinking into Paowalla that night with wet hair and a scowl—the hour was late and the restaurant was more or less empty—and he proceeded to treat me as if I were a long-lost cousin. He didn’t just bring me the Eggs Kejriwal. He didn’t bring me a couple of extra treats. Floyd wanted me to try the entire menu. By myself. He was proud of this menu and he wanted people to experience it.

Photo credit: Jeff Gordinier

I don’t know when I begged him to stop, but by that point my space at the bar looked like a gridlocked runway at LaGuardia Airport, with 10 or 15 dishes lined up. Floyd Cardoz was like that. Generosity propelled him.

He was a chef whose deftness with flavor practically overflowed. In 1998, in New York City, Cardoz and Danny Meyer opened Tabla, a game-changing restaurant that Ruth Reichl celebrated with three stars in The New York Times.

“For me, it was love at first bite,” she wrote in 1999. “When I tasted seared foie gras with a pear, black pepper and anise compote, I swooned. Foie gras is always magical, but I was experiencing something new, as spice and sweetness went somersaulting through my mouth. Chills went down my back as I tried port-glazed sweetbreads, little morsels teased by the cool juiciness of pomegranate seeds and the crunch of lacy lotus roots. Each bite of spiced Maine crab cakes, wrapped in papadums, topped with avocado and glazed with tamarind, was a wonderful surprise. Yes, I thought. This is what I have been waiting for.”

As that rhapsody suggests, Cardoz was a truly global chef. Born in India, he relished the traditional regional cuisines from back home, and he could cook them for you with élan. He was also a veteran of Gray Kunz’s four-star kitchen at Lespinasse, in New York City, and he could floor you with dishes from the French and Swiss and American canons. On TV, in 2011, he won the third season of Top Chef Masters. With these triumphs, he opened a lot of doors around the country for chefs with roots in India.

Yet he carried his excellence with ease. Whenever I spoke with Chef Cardoz, I picked up an undercurrent of sprezzatura, as if he knew in his bones that he could cook really anything at all and he was casually hanging around, waiting to show you. Among those of us who write about food, he was known for being unfailingly, unflappably kind.

Photo credit: Kris Connor - Getty Images

“He was beyond talented as a cook,” Meyer wrote today on Instagram. (After Tabla closed, Cardoz worked with Meyer again for a while at North End Grill.) “He was a super-taster, big-hearted, stubborn as the day is long, and the most loyal friend, husband, and dad you could imagine. My heart is just broken. … He made monumental contributions to our industry and to my organization, and his passing leaves us with a gaping hole.”

In the summer of 2013 I met up with Floyd and his wife, Barkha, to eat lunch and talk about cooking in the communities of Edison and Iselin, New Jersey, where there is an abundance of great Indian food.

But Floyd being Floyd, we couldn’t settle for just one lunch in the Garden State. We had to have four lunches, one after the other, a moveable feast of bhel puri and dosas and goat-bone soup. My stomach got so full that I became delirious. I was in pain. Not Floyd. In the video that accompanies my 2013 article, the chef is munching his way through the fourth afternoon feast when Barkha, laughing, says of her husband, “He looks so happy.”

As I wrote back then, “It was an insane amount of food, and at some spots the owners brought a merciless series of extras. ‘That’s Indian hospitality,’ Mrs. Cardoz said. ‘If you say no, you have to eat more.’”

I wish I could go back to Paowalla now, on that rainy Monday night in 2017, and see Floyd Cardoz again, and say yes to his radical generosity.

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