I woke up to a text message from a dear friend with the tragic news. Our mutual friend, the celebrated Indian chef Floyd Cardoz, died in New Jersey earlier that day of complications related to Covid-19. I sat there stunned on the edge of my bed holding my phone rereading the text again and again.
Since receiving that message, I find myself thinking back to the last time I saw Floyd in person. It was a cold winter evening a couple of years ago in NYC at Floyd’s restaurant Paowalla in Soho. Floyd greeted me and my family with a round of his signature tamarind margaritas and a warm bear hug. Course after delicious course filled our table, a never ending spread of dishes he was excited for us to try. Floyd would peek over from the kitchen occasionally and you could see a big grin spread across his face as he registered our reactions, enjoying seeing the pleasure spread across our table with each bite.
I first met Floyd about 20 years ago when I worked as a stage at his groundbreaking Indian fusion NYC hotspots Tabla and Bread Bar. He graciously let me join him in the kitchen for months—even though I wasn’t in culinary school and really had no business being in his kitchen, but just because I was curious and asked if I could learn to cook from him. I was relatively new to New York and growing up I hadn’t paid nearly enough attention to my mother when she cooked. I had recently discovered I had a love and talent for cooking, and I wanted to learn from the best. Floyd was so excited to share his passions for Indian fusion cooking with the world that he even let me, a lawyer with no professional culinary ambitions, crash his award winning kitchen—a place he ran like a finely tuned orchestra.
Floyd started with gentle hazing, having me peel TUBS of garlic for days. I eventually worked my way up to being in charge of making pumpkin rasam for the amuse bouche each night and frying up his signature onion rings coated in a spicy secret chickpea flour mix (the real work was left to the real chefs). Occasionally he entrusted me with grinding up the fresh spices for a dish he was working on. Walking into the spice room at Tabla one knew you had been handed the keys to the special safe—where the good stuff was kept. That meant Floyd liked you. And that he thought you could be a decent cook one day. Working at Tabla gave me a lifelong appreciation of what goes on behind the scenes to make a great restaurant, especially under the guidance of a passionate chef like Floyd.
I was humbled to be asked to write about my memories of Floyd and what he meant to me and my Indian and industry friends in NY because honestly, I didn’t know him all that well…but like so many New Yorkers who crossed paths with him over the past 20 years, he had a way of making you feel like a long lost friend. Whenever we ran into each other, I still called him “Chef”, which made him smirk that sweet gracious smile each and every time. We laughed about how we each had very important “Zias” in our lives now (his sous chef is named Zia…ironically, so is mine in the form of my 10 year old daughter, Zia).
Floyd spent his career introducing NYC and the rest of America to the flavors we grew up with, getting people to embrace the flavors of our homeland with mixed success. But he never gave up. He was determined to showcase the flavors of his heritage in ever inventive ways. And he did so until the end.
Ironically, my last meal out before NYC slowly started shutting down over Covid-19 was just over two weeks ago…with a group of my NYC-based Indian girlfriends at Floyd’s pop up in New York, O Pedro. It was a magical evening over delicious and, yes, inventive food. I feel lucky to have that recent memory of his passionate cooking.
My heart goes out to Floyd’s family and friends, and all the people in the industry whose lives he touched. May he rest in peace.