Floyd Cardoz and Bobby McFarland

Chef Floyd Cardoz’s Living Legacy in the Triangle

In Eat, May 2020 by Bobby McFarlandLeave a Comment

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When people think of French cuisine, they think of nice restaurants, impeccable service and high-end fare. When Indian food comes to mind, many of us think of a folded-up takeout menu with red cartoon chilies to indicate spiciness. 

Chef Floyd Cardoz—an Indian-born, New York-based culinary icon—had a problem with how the Western world perceives Indian food; he also had the dream, talent and gumption to alter this perception.

In late March, the 59-year-old died tragically from coronavirus, but his life’s work remains intact: Cardoz’s vision lives on in the hearts and knife-wielding hands of his contemporaries and peers. His influence is so far-reaching, you can even experience it right here in the Triangle.

I was fortunate to befriend Cardoz following an introduction from a fellow culinary enthusiast. I had watched him winning “Top Chef Masters” and was eager to get into the kitchen with him. He graciously let me tag along as an extra set of hands at a charity dinner. Less than a year later, I became his line cook in Manhattan.

Chef Floyd was more than a great teacher. He taught his cooks to celebrate food at the intersection of culture, history, science and art. He taught us to be thoughtful—even under pressure—to honor our farmers by honoring our ingredients and to treat the dishwasher with the same respect as we’d treat the chef.

Cardoz asserted that Indian food is a powerful voice in global cuisine, the facets of which are infinitely applicable. Although he was classically trained in French cuisine, Cardoz became famous for applying his knowledge and passion for Indian food to the freshest local ingredients. 

Raleigh’s own James Beard award-nominated chef, Cheetie Kumar, shares Cardoz’s penchant for celebrating local ingredients as well as his Indian roots. Although most local restaurant-goers consider Garland—Kumar’s outstanding downtown Raleigh restaurant—an Indian restaurant, Kumar defines it as “seasonal-Southern.” She utilizes flavors and techniques from India and Asia, and she likens the cornucopia of North Carolina agriculture to what her parents used to pick up at the markets in Punjab, but her work is entirely in the context of where she is.

Kumar recalls Cardoz’s influence on her from the inception of her cooking career.

“There was permission in [what Cardoz was able to accomplish],” she says. “Every time you see somebody echo something you’ve thought about, and you thought you were the only one thinking, it gives you a sense of confidence and affirmation.” Kumar paused. “It was the same feeling I would get if I saw a woman playing guitar on stage and slaying,” she continues. “I’d be like, ‘Yeah! We can do this!’”

Executive chef Jason Lawless of Durham’s Parizade spent his early career in Manhattan working under some of the country’s best chefs. Although he currently cooks Mediterranean food, the lessons he learned from Cardoz enrich his kitchen life daily.

“His influence is more than a certain dish,” Lawless says. “It’s technique and layering flavor, with sugar, acid and spices. I remember him telling me, something that makes a chef special is adding [hot] chili. Even if you don’t taste the chili, if it’s there, it will bring a dish to a higher level. Most chefs don’t realize that.”

Chef Floyd taught his cooks to use spice almost like salt—to enhance the flavor of the ingredients without overwhelming them. People already do this, to an extent, by adding salt and pepper to food. Chef Floyd encouraged us to refine this habit by diversifying the heat, using chili oils and finely minced fresh peppers instead of (or in addition to) black pepper. This philosophy, like many others he taught, extended far beyond Indian food into everyday cooking.

Cardoz was also a pioneer as an elite chef in the way he lived outside the kitchen. 

Chef Eric Gabrynowicz, culinary vice president for the Tupelo Honey restaurant group, recalls his early years under Cardoz. 

“Floyd would come into the restaurant early in the morning, work a lunch service, go to the gym for an hour, come back. He’d never throw it in anyone else’s face that he’s taking care of himself, but he was, and you always saw it. When you respect someone so much through food and through your passion and you see the other things they’re doing to keep their mental health and their family life intact—I didn’t realize until later how much that shaped me as a person. Floyd knew to never sacrifice any of the important things and he made sure we were all taken care of the same way.”

Floyd Cardoz is survived by his two sons, Peter and Justin, and his wife, Barkha—as well as by hundreds of people who were lucky to call him “chef” or “friend.” Cardoz also leaves behind a living mission to elevate Indian food to the stratospheres where it belongs and the dozens of beneficiaries of his mentorship who will pass on his uncompromising love of food—and life—to generations of cooks to come. 

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