In an episode titled ‘Don’t Call it Curry’ on Ugly Delicious Season Two on Netflix, host David Chang attempts to change perceptions about Indian cuisine.
In it, the late Chef Floyd Cardoz, who was featured along with the team at his famous Mumbai restaurant, talked about playing with regional desi flavours so that Indians “are jazzed about Indian food again”. He emphasised the importance of finding hidden treasures in India: “…because if we passionate food people don’t know about it; how do you expect the world to know about it?”
And that is precisely what he had been doing all his life. Since 1998, when his restaurant Tabla in New York (backed by food mogul Danny Meyer) won rave reviews and enticed people into the ‘exotic’ world of elegant Indian fare, far removed from the five-dollar all-you-can-eat buffets.
To a string of successful restaurants, followed by putting simple upma into the spotlight in 2011 when he won US Top Chef Masters, elevating it into a ‘Wild Mushroom Upma Polenta with Kokum and Coconut Milk’.
While this dish wasn’t on the menu at the restaurant that he came to India to create in 2013, the philosophy of it certainly was.
He lived in New Jersey with his wife and sons, but he’d revisit India often to travel and research dishes with partners Sameer Seth and Yash Bhanage. For him, doing the homework was important and all of his work had a thoughtfulness to it. He was clear. “There has to be a connect to why we are doing something.”
Humble to a fault, he also knew his strengths. “I have a really good palate and understanding of flavours and balance, taste and texture. I can taste something and know what it needs,” he said, as we discussed the importance of using triphala in a proper Goan fish curry at his Goan-Portuguese restaurant that opened in 2017. His excitement over the smallest of ingredients, the passion with which he spoke about them, endeared himself to anyone who loved food and its creation. Every single person sharing their memories of him now speaks of his down-to-earth attitude. He confided to me once, “If you get too serious about yourself, then you’re not on the guest’s side.”
He was close to his roots and proud of his Goan Catholic heritage. He turned the somewhat pejorative tag for Indian Christians into a catchy name for his casual eatery in NYC.
At Paowalla, in the stylish SoHo neighbourhood around Spring Street and Sullivan in downtown Manhattan, he wanted to serve dishes that were light and seasonal to showcase how Indian food need not be greasy as is commonly perceived.
This later morphed into The Bombay Bread Bar before escalating costs saw him shutting it down last September. But it was time for new beginnings.
He was back in Mumbai to celebrate five years of his first restaurant here and to launch a Willy Wonka-style paradise for those with a penchant for Indian sweets with a twist. He was happy with the birth of this sweet baby and looked forward to spending time with his family. Sadly, not for too long. His earlier words to me, “You never know what’s to come,” echo eerily in my mind.