The late chef brought a new dimension to Indian cuisine and inspired a generation of restaurant leaders.
In looking back over the life of chef Floyd Cardoz, it’s difficult to fully capture his impact on restaurant peers, friends, and food lovers alike. It’s not a concrete legacy contained in four walls, but rather something less tangible and much more pervasive.
While COVID-19 has devastated the restaurant industry in myriad ways, Cardoz was the first well-known chef to pass away after contracting
the virus. In early March, he was in his home country of India, filming an episode of the Netflix show “Ugly Delicious” with actor Aziz Ansari when he fell ill. After returning home to New Jersey, Cardoz admitted himself to the hospital. Although he apologized via Instagram for “causing undue panic around an earlier post,” the chef passed away a week later at age 59.
“He was truly a wealth of knowledge and had an incredible palate and understanding of food. He did an amazing job teaching that,” says chef Dan Kluger of Loring Place in New York City. “If you followed this tragic situation and saw some of the posts on social media, I think you can get an idea of what kind of person he was and how generous he was.”
As chef and later a TV star, Cardoz paved the way for a richer and more nuanced interpretation of Indian cuisine, one steeped in family traditions but also modernized to fit American tastes. He rose to public prominence in 2011 when he bested such legendary chefs as Traci Des Jardins and Hugh Acheson in winning the third season of “Top Chef Masters.” But beyond his role as a culinary and cultural ambassador, Cardoz was a mentor and a friend. The list of people who count themselves fortunate enough to have worked with or been influenced by him reads like a who’s who in the restaurant world, from restaurateurs extraordinaire Danny Meyer and Will Guidara to renowned chefs Meherwan Irani and David Chang.
“I was making a list the other day of people that I’m still in contact with here and there who have come through his kitchen or restaurant. I just find it amazing how many people are still cooking away and still in the restaurant business. I think that says a lot for the talent he was able to inspire,” Kluger says. Long before he opened Loring Place, Kluger worked alongside Cardoz in the late 1990s. He was cooking at Union Square Café while Cardoz was developing the menu for soon-to-open Tabla, both under Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group. When Tabla debuted in 1998, Kluger was part of the team under Cardoz.
Right out of the gate, the restaurant earned three stars from none other than Ruth Reichl, who was then The New York Times’ food critic. “This is American food, viewed through a kaleidoscope of Indian spices,” Reichl wrote. “For me, it was love at first bite. 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. … Yes, I thought. This is what I have been waiting for.”
Tabla was revolutionary not in bringing forth authentic Indian fare, but rather in showing that it was an adaptable cuisine that could be elevated to a fine-dining scale and blended with French, American, and other world flavor profiles.
Cardoz led Tabla through its dozen years in business, and Kluger was there for seven of them, working his way up to chef de cuisine. He wasn’t alone; Mohan Ismail (now executive corporate chef for The Cheesecake Factory’s RockSugar and Social Monk) also stayed on board for about seven years, and another chef de cuisine, Ty Kotz, worked at Tabla for a decade. In an industry riddled with quick and frequent turnover, the lengthy tenures of so many employees were a testament to Cardoz’s leadership.
“It was all about the experience with him. When you think about a cook and a chef today, the average cook works somewhere for a year or year and a half and then they’re out the door,” Kluger says. “He created an environment where everybody stayed a lot longer.”
Cardoz was held in high esteem beyond his immediate colleagues and partners. Even competitors who vied against Tabla and Cardoz’s later restaurants for customers admired him. Four-time James Beard Award nominee chef Meherwan Irani is the founder of Chai Pani Restaurant Group, which operates various concepts across Asheville, North Carolina, and the greater Atlanta area. In a letter published by Bon Appétit, he recounted the complex but ultimately positive influence Cardoz had on him as a fellow Indian-American chef, even though the two only met in person a year ago.
“Floyd was my competition. But he was also my muse, my ideal of what an Indian chef could accomplish,” Irani wrote. “I knew that the man I respected from afar could be a man I loved up close. I figured we had time to fall into that closeness.”
Although Tabla may be the restaurant Cardoz is best remembered for, the chef did explore other ventures in both New York City and Mumbai. Last year he spoke with FSR about his newest concept, Bombay Bread Bar, a more casual iteration of another restaurant, Paowalla. “I thought about Einstein’s quote, ‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.’ That’s when I decided it was time,” Cardoz said of the rebrand. Bombay Bread Bar closed last September, but given Cardoz’s irrepressible spirit, it’s almost certain he would have conceptualized a new restaurant before long.
Kluger wishes there were a restaurant, something tangible, that would remain as a sort of legacy. As wonderful as Tabla and his other concepts were, Kluger says, none of them quite matched Cardoz’s preeminence. Instead, his legacy is a more personal, far-reaching one.
“He was at my wedding; he was one of the first people I called when my daughter was born. That happened for a reason; not because he was just some friend. He played a really big part in my life and many other lives,” Kluger says. “I think we were all kind of waiting to get that next piece of advice from him.”