"When I decided to do this, the hours were long, the pay was miniscule, and it was a menial job. But I couldn't believe how much I enjoyed it. It was an awakening of sorts."
So tweeted Chef Floyd Cardoz early-afternoon yesterday in regards to the impending storm to hit the city later today.
Cardoz's North End Grill has a vibe about it. His plates are composed with multiple flavors, textures, well-sourced ingredients and international leanings. The expansive space showcases a wall of meticulously chosen whiskeys. The chef is so humble and focused that he gets up mid-sentence to open a side door for an incoming guest, gives his sous chefs two days off weekly, and doesn't grouse when a staff member has to take care of a sick relative... or pet.
Cardoz—like his partner Danny Meyer—focuses on the little things by staying focused on the positive big picture: treat people right, and only a hurricane will stop the party.
You're from Goa and grew up in a family of professionals, with hired cooks all of your childhood. What was that like? Food is a very important part of the culture in India. While we were eating we were discussing food; it was always about the next meal in our home. So for me it was always about that food, and what was going to be on the plate.
Were you active in the kitchen? Not when I was young. As I started getting older my older brother called me "the cook's son" because I would hang out there to get extra things to eat. And I would help the cook by cutting onions or peeling shrimp, that kind of thing.
So it wasn't completely random that you chose food later in life? It wasn't completely random. But it was never a career choice for me.
So when did it become a career choice? I was very intrigued by the whole hospitality world. We used to entertain a lot—every week we were entertaining people and creating special menus to serve at home because my dad was always doing business. So to me it seemed like a grand party, every day, with good food and drinks.
Does it still feel that way? It does, it totally does. It's about wanting people to come and have a party and sit at a table. A good restaurant always has a party going.
You went from getting your Masters in biochemistry to choosing a life as a chef. How was that received? What opened my eyes was that the world was not as embracing of every kind of job. All of my friends and their parents were all well-established professionals, the upper-middle class; we had the best of lives because we could afford everything. And we paid people to cook for us. So when I decided to do this, the hours were long, the pay was minuscule, and it was a menial job. But I couldn't believe how much I enjoyed it. It was an awakening of sorts.
New York can be hard on certain cuisines. Were you worried about introducing a high-end Indian menu with Tabla? When Danny approached me, I wanted to do something elevated, something different. Was I worried it would not work? No. Because in my heart I knew that the flavors and treating of ingredients differently would make more people like them. I showed them that you could have local seafood, local meat and vegetables incorporated and cooked like their counterparts in India that would taste really good and be really fresh. It doesn't have to be greasy, over-spiced or unrecognizable, and it could speak with wonderful flavorings and wonderful ingredients. So I was not afraid.
Your menu at North End Grill is much broader. How do you curate it? At Tabla I had to do everything within this Indian box. But here there's no one style of cooking I do in terms of cuisine at North End Grill. It's all how I feel that day.
What comes into play? It could be a bunch of different things&mdash: seasonal changes, a vegetable or piece of fish, something on the radio triggering something inside me about an ingredient. It could be how it feels outside. The way the sun is shining. The way the heat is coming off the grill. The way someone ate or did not eat a dish. It could be a bunch of stimuli—I don't know what it is that does it.
In this world of flashy celebrity chefs you seem particularly grounded. How do you do that? I tell every sous chef I hire: keep a book of everything that was done to you that you liked, and do more of that. And the things which were done to you that you hated, change. That's what I've done with a lot of my life. When I first came to this country from India, I wasn't given a shot by a lot of people, so whenever anybody comes to my kitchen—no matter their background—I give them a shot.
There were chefs that saw themselves at the center of things—it wasn't about the guests, or the restaurant, or the people that worked there—and that rubbed me the wrong way. So I wasn't going to be that way. A lot of it has to do with my upbringing too; I love my family a lot, and that's important part of me. I think if you have a balanced life you can be that way. Success is great, being a celebrity chef is great, but you have to sleep with yourself every night.
I rarely hear the word "balanced" when I speak with chefs, outside of plate composition. Do you feel balanced? Sometimes no. But it helps when you work for Danny Meyer, because having a balanced life is part of what we preach, and if you preach it and don't do it what good is it? I believe that if you're not happy you can't cook, so if someone has an issue at home and they can't take care of it, they're not going to give you their best work. So I think trying to find that balance is very, very important.
You got introduced to Danny Meyer through a chef you helped out. Did that idea of happiness and balance play into that? This was at Lespinasse. I had people treat me badly at that kitchen. I saw this new cook come in and he was floundering, and the sous chefs weren't doing anything. It irritated me because we're all in this because we love what we do, and if someone is sabotaging you it's not the right thing. So if someone was struggling I would work as a teammate—I preach teamwork in my kitchen. He was making this consommé and the first time he didn't get it right and the second time the sous chef would see him screwing up and not do anything. I stepped into help him out, not for any other reason but because I believe you can learn from anybody; if I teach him something he may teach me something back.
Did you think it would come back to serve you later? Never. When you do something good for people, it's not because you want something good to come out of it; you do it for the goodness of your heart and soul, what your parents teach you to do. I believe that if everybody does their part this would be a better place to live in. New York is not all bad. There are very, many nice people here. And as far as chefs... you know... chefs used to treat cooks poorly. It was a known thing. We got stuff thrown at us, we got cursed at, screamed at, we didn't get days off, we didn't get paid for what we did, but that's what we did. I knew I didn't like that. Having someone throw shit at you and curse at you and scream at you doesn't go with food. I will not do that. You have to really, really piss me off to get me to that. It doesn't happen very often.
About the author: Jacqueline Raposo is a writer and frantic private cook. Chef Floyd taught her how to make a "real deal samosa" (after her interview with Chef Daniel Holzman where he expressed interest in learning how from him) but she couldn't fit it into the interview. Request it in a comment and she'll comment it back. Alternatively baking at www.thedustybaker.com and tweeting away at @dustybakergal.