Beloved chef and restaurateur Floyd Cardoz, 59, died earlier today at a hospital in New Jersey.
For many, Cardoz is best known as the chef who introduced Indian food to the mainstream—those who thought they already knew it and those who had never ventured beyond chicken tikka masala. As he told David Chang in an episode of the Netflix series Ugly Delicious, “Indians have to tell the story that our cuisine is amazing, and it doesn’t have to be thought of as something that’s pedestrian, or cheap."
Chang, who considered Cardoz among his earliest supporters, took to Twitter to express his remorse: “Easily one of the most beloved people in the business. He was criminally under-appreciated, introduced so many new flavors and techniques to America.”
In the Ugly Delicious episode titled “Don’t Call It Curry,” Chang said of the Mumbai-born chef, “Floyd was the first Indian chef that was running, arguably, the best restaurant in the world, Lespinasse.” The camera cuts to a photo of a young Cardoz, in the middle of a group of (mostly white) men in chef whites, smiling puckishly at someone off to the side.
Though he originally had his sights set on becoming a doctor, studying for a master’s degree in biochemistry, Cardoz realized his interests were in the kitchen. “I always liked to eat, and when I’d go camping with my friends, I was in charge of food. That was not common. Indian males didn’t do that,” he told the Times. He switched courses and enrolled in a hospitality school in Mumbai, where his passion for cooking solidified. Afterwards, he attended Les Roches, a hospitality and culinary school in Switzerland.
In New York, Cardoz made a name for himself at the legendary French establishment, Lespinasse, where he worked his way up from salad cook to chef de cuisine in just three years. But it wasn’t until he opened his own restaurant, Tabla—with Danny Meyer in 1998—that he invented his own culinary lexicon. The bold restaurant immediately earned critical praise. As then New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl exclaimed:
“This is American food, viewed through a kaleidoscope of Indian spices. The flavors are so powerful, original, and unexpected that they evoke intense emotions. Those who do not like Tabla tend to dislike it with a passion.” Leaving no doubt as to which party she belonged in, Reichl wrote, “For me, it was love at first bite.”
Though Tabla closed in 2010, its housemade bread remained mythical.
The culinary community is both heart-stricken and stunned. After returning from a trip to India on March 8, Cardoz had reported feeling feverish and admitted himself to a hospital as a precaution. He was diagnosed with COVID-19, which was the cause of death, as reported by Indian news outlet Scroll.
On Twitter, cookbook author and Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi wrote that Cardoz “made us all so proud. Nobody who lived in NY in the early aughts could forget how delicious and packed Tabla always was.”
Food and Wine restaurant editor Khushbu Shah remembered him as “a kind, groundbreaking chef who paved the way for so many South Asians.”
More recently, Cardoz had opened Paowalla in New York City, which later became the Bombay Bread Bar (and closed in 2019), as well as the Bombay Canteen and O Pedro in Mumbai. Ranked No. 1 on Conde Nast Traveller’s Top Restaurant Awards list, the Bombay Canteen was a crossroads for the country’s varied regional cuisines, or as Cardoz described it, “universal Indian.” As the chef-owner said, “Our goal is to take stuff like this and make it mainstream, because we don’t all eat chicken tikka masala.”
He was a chef, friend, mentor, and surrogate father to young chefs; a trained biochemist; and a lifelong collector of flavors.
Cardoz leaves behind his family, wife Barkha and sons Justin and Peter, and countless food professionals whose lives he touched—not to mention a culinary landscape that he forever changed.