Celebrated Indian American chef Floyd Cardoz talks about his restaurants, his favorite Indian dishes and how food strengthens relations.
Celebrated Indian American chef Floyd Cardoz has restaurants in both India and the United States, including the critically acclaimed Paowalla in New York City and The Bombay Canteen in Mumbai. He was the winner of Season 3 of “Top Chef Masters” in 2011 and was also named among the Top 50 Most Influential Global Indians by GQ Magazine. Chef Cardoz recently visited India to connect with some of his counterparts, and discuss the food and beverage industries in the United States and India. He also had interactive sessions with Indian students and mediapersons on culinary diplomacy.
Excerpts from an interview.
When and how did you become interested in the culinary field as a career?
I started my career thinking I would be a doctor. And then, it was a research scientist, a marine biologist, a vet, a tea garden plantation manager—all these things went through my head. One day, I read a book while I was studying biochemistry—Arthur Hailey’s “Hotel.” I was intrigued by the whole hospitality world and decided that’s what I want to do. So, I went to a hospitality school and loved cooking. Because I was good at it, I decided to go to the kitchen.
I landed up in the United States in 1988 for college and job, and stayed. Here I am, 28 years later, having spent most of my life in the U.S.
What inspired you to start The Bombay Canteen?
I was very successful at Tabla in New York, where I did Indian food through the eyes of an American. It became very popular, and I slowly started growing closer and closer to Indian food. After 12 years, we closed the restaurant down. We opened The Bombay Canteen a year-and-a-half ago.
We had been planning for two years. On my trips to India, I realized that Indian food is not being celebrated. Indians were rather going for multicuisine, for other cuisines and forgetting their own. I thought, what if we made a restaurant that is fun, approachable and inexpensive, with great hospitality, just like restaurants in the United States. And we did! I am happy that The Bombay Canteen is doing well and people are loving it.
What are the most popular dishes at the restaurant?
There isn’t one most popular dish because we change our menu often, like restaurants in the West. One of the issues that I have with Indian restaurants is that they never change their menu. People get tired of it and the food isn’t even improved. So we decided that we are going to have an ever-changing menu.
What are your plans for Paowalla?
I feel that Indian food in the U.S. is not where it should be. We don’t recognize regional food; we don’t push the envelope enough. Indian restaurants in New York are like restaurants back here—the menus never change. I have been traveling to India over the last three years and have seen so many different cuisines. I feel that nobody exposes those cuisines. My hope is to take these cuisines, use local American ingredients, make them popular and make them approachable to everybody.
What kind of Indian cuisine is preferred in the United States?
Indian cuisine in the U.S. today is like Italian food was 30 years ago—white sauce, red sauce, pizza. That’s not Italian food as we know today. Indian food in the United States today is mainly chicken tikka masala, saag paneer and chicken makhani and naan. We all know that’s a small part of Indian food. There are so many regions that are different. That being said, people here love it. There are also people who hate it, who hate curry and have no idea what they are talking about.
With trade and with foreign nationals in Indian and American companies coming to India, people are exposed more and are traveling a lot more to India. I think they are ready for something different, something more exciting, something more fun, something approachable. So that is why I decided on Paowalla with that concept.
Do you think food plays a role in strengthening people-to-people relations between countries?
I think food is a very important part of culture. Food is what brings people together wherever they are. They always say, “Let’s break bread together.” You sit at a table, you talk and you enjoy a meal together. Introducing food and flavors from different countries to a new country always helps bring people closer because one of the most personal things you can do is eat together. Having two different cultures and using that to bring people together is just fantastic.
Please tell us about your favorite Indian dishes and what you like about them.
Oh boy! My most favorite characteristic of Indian food is its mix of sweet, sour, spicy, salty, bitter…the “chatpata” character. That’s what I like immensely about Indian food, which people don’t get to see very much.
Is there a cuisine I prefer over the other? Not really; I like them all. If I say I love fish curry over chicken chakoti, I would be lying because I like to eat them both. Biryani, kosha maangsho, raan, rogan josh, masala dosa—they are all so varied, so different. I love them all.
What are the most difficult ingredients that you have worked with?
I don’t think there are any difficult ingredients. The issue is more how people treat them, understand them and store them. If you understand and respect an ingredient, you can make it work for you.
What are the most underrated ingredients in American and Indian kitchens?
In Indian kitchens, the most underrated ingredients, for sure, are all the local ones because people don’t understand how good they can be. The underrated ingredients in American cuisine are the lesser cuts of meat. Everybody wants tendon, but they don’t really look at oxtail, short rib, shoulder, neck or tongue. These are really underrated because people don’t recognize them. I think they are amazing ingredients.
What defines comfort food for you?
Comfort food is something that takes you back to a place where you are happy. For me, its Goan fish curry and rice because that’s what I had while growing up. My grandmother used to make it for me, that’s what my cook would make for me at home and that’s what my mom makes now.
What are some of the challenges that you have faced as a chef in India and the United States?
One of the biggest challenges that I faced in the U.S. was people not thinking that being an Indian chef, I could do what I wanted. A big challenge that I face in India is that people don’t understand the breadth of Indian food and what can be done with it.
How similar or different is the business side of being an entrepreneur in India and in the United States?
Being an entrepreneur in the U.S. and in India is pretty similar yet pretty different. All go through the same issues—high costs, low revenues and high investment costs. However, in the United States, labor cost and rent cost are pretty high. In India, these costs are really low. In both countries it’s a human business, so you have to give that personality to the business.
What’s the one cuisine that you haven’t explored yet, but are keen to experiment with?
I’d love to learn cuisines from the East Coast of India, Assam, Odisha, coastal Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. I don’t know those cuisines and I would love to learn those.
I had a chance to eat Assamese food long ago. I didn’t have a chance to eat it recently, but would love to. Any chance to be exposed to something you have never seen is very exciting for me. I’ve heard there are game birds like ducks, pigeons and swans, which you don’t get anywhere else in Indian cuisine. In Assam, there are fermented rice, fish curries and dried meat that you don’t normally see anywhere else. It’s kind of interesting to see that.
What advice would you like to give to aspiring chefs?
The biggest piece of advice I would give is to follow your heart, be passionate about it and learn as much as you can. Never believe that you have learned everything you need to because the learning process should never stop. Being a chef, you’ve got to learn the basics; to cook something you should be able to fix. Spend your time, pay your dues and learn how to be a cook before you become a chef. Just being in the kitchen doesn’t make you a chef. Being a chef is about running a business, about cooking food, about taking care of your staff, taking care of your guests…it’s a bunch of things which take time to develop and learn. How do you know what your skills are? You don’t. You learn it over the years, with practice and by working with different people.
Please tell us about your forthcoming book.
My new book is called “Flavorwalla.” It’s about connecting my culture, my two sons, my home and wife, how I cook for them and how it affects me in my personal American life. I believe everybody has stories and being able to show these stories through food is very important.
Suheil Imtiaz is an information assistant with the U.S. Consulate General in Hyderabad.