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Great chefs like Floyd can excel at anything they do

It’s been five years since The Bombay Canteen opened to spectacular success, rave reviews and suggestions that it had re-invented the restaurant genre in India

(which it had, despite being located in one of those ugly Parel developments built on the shattered lives of the city’s mill-workers).

 

I may have been the only person not to have been surprised by the rapturous reception the restaurant received. A year before the Canteen opened, I met Sameer Seth, one of the founders and was incredibly impressed by his vision. Sameer had worked in New York, but had started out in Delhi as manager of Shalom (he has now defected irretrievably to Mumbai, alas) and understood the Indian market. Yash Bhanage, his partner, was proud to have started out as a waiter at Cellini, the Italian restaurant at the Grand Hyatt Mumbai.

 

   These were young guys with no great family money backing them (they raised funds from investors) and no great reputations to fall back on. All they had were passion and vision, which I hoped would be good enough to make The Bombay Canteen a success.

 

   And yes it was.

 

   In the early days, such was the mania around The Bombay Canteen that nearly everyone wanted to go there. I remember watching Aneesha Baig visiting the Canteen to do a show with Rishi Kapoor who did what he does best (eating). Rishi commented on the coincidence that the restaurant’s tiny plate starters (Chintus) shared a name with him.

 

   Individual dishes at the Canteen became the talk of the town. At one stage, more upper middle class South Bombay types had heard of Eggs Kejriwal than had heard of Arvind Kejriwal.

 

   The first time I met Sameer, he had come highly recommended by mutual friends, but one reason why I took him so seriously from the start was the Bombay Canteen’s third partner.

 

   I had never met Floyd Cardoz but I was familiar with the legend of Floyd.

 

   A Goan from Mumbai who had worked at the Taj, Floyd made his name in New York where he was second-in-command to Gray Kunz at Lespinasse, then one of the city’s best French restaurants. In those days, chefs were not household names but every foodie knew about Lespinasse and I remember being faintly shocked when I was told that the star of the kitchen was a young Indian chef.

 

   Then, Floyd tied up with restaurateur Danny Meyer (well known in New York in those days but not yet the globally famous restaurateur he would become after the success of Shake Shack) who wanted to open an Indian restaurant in New York.

 

   In the end, they opened two separate restaurants in the same building. The first was Tabla, which was the first Indian restaurant in America to get food critics to sit up and take Indian food seriously.

 

   While Tabla was high-end and influential, Floyd also opened The Bread Bar on the ground floor. This was a more affordable and more typically Indian restaurant. At both places Floyd used American chefs in his kitchen arguing that a great cuisine could be cooked by a good chef, regardless of nationality. And Indian was certainly a great cuisine.

 

   Eating at Tabla was a revelation for me. Floyd did not do Frenchified presentation like the Indian restaurants in London. He let his spices speak and the flavours shone through.

 

   Several years later, Danny Meyer gave up the lease to the property that housed Tabla. (This was around the time that Meyer sold Eleven Madison Park to its manager, Will Guidara and its Chef, Daniel Humm, so I am guessing that as Tabla and EMP were neighbours, Meyer had to surrender the Tabla lease once he had sold EMP.)

 

"As much as I love the Bombay Canteen, O Pedro is one of my three favourite places in Mumbai. The others are Soam and Americano, since you ask."

   Floyd then tried various things, from running an American cuisine restaurant called North End Grill to winning Top Chef Masters, (where he cooked a variation on upma in the final) but it became harder to keep track of him.

 

   So when Sameer told me that Floyd was the third partner and would be Culinary Director for Bombay Canteen, I just knew that the food would be inventive and delicious.

 

   Floyd (who I finally met a year after The Bombay Canteen opened) has always been good at mentoring young chefs and soon handed over full culinary responsibilities to Thomas Zacharias (who created the chutney that makes Eggs Kejriwal so memorable) who has taken The Bombay Canteen to new heights and is truly the one chef to watch in India.

 

   But even as the Canteen continued to be talked about, Yash and Sameer opened something new. I guess the inspiration came from Floyd’s Goan heritage but they were also fortunate to tap into the creativity of another young chef, Hussain Shahzad, from The Bombay Canteen team.

 

   I get stoned for saying this but I don’t believe that Goa has a great cuisine on par with say, Kerala or Lucknow. (I will now pause while you guys all mutter things like “What does he know? This guy has never been to the right places in Goa.” I have. Believe me. Before you went, probably.)

 

   But what the Catholic food of Goa lacks in complexity or subtlety, it more than makes up for in flavour and the sheer joy that emanates from the dishes. (The Hindu cuisines are more complex and perhaps less joy-filled.)

 

   I am sure Floyd does not agree with me but it is interesting that the overwhelming theme at O Pedro is fun. This is a restaurant where a first rate chef turns out wonderful food that makes you happy. You always leave more joyous than you were when you entered.

 

   As much as I love the Bombay Canteen, O Pedro is one of my three favourite places in Mumbai. (The others are Soam and Americano, since you ask.) I have never had a bad meal there and everyone I have taken to O Pedro (such as the Gaggan kitchen team – which included a Portuguese chef who knew the originals of many of the Goan-Portuguese adaptations) has come out raving.

 

   I later asked Floyd if the joyousness of O Pedro was part of the original conception. He said it was. Food he argued, is about joy and he wanted every dish at O Pedro to celebrate the happiness he felt when he was in Goa.

 

   The logical thing to have done after two great successes would have been to replicate them. O Pedro would work anywhere in India. A Delhi Canteen would be brilliant. But the three partners were determined to keep doing new things.

 

   Their latest venture, which has just opened in Mumbai came from a thought that Yash had while transiting through Istanbul airport. He noticed how the duty-free shops were full of boxes of Turkish Delight and pre-packed baklavas.

 

   Why, he thought to himself, could we not do something similar with mithai?

 

   From that germ of an idea came a full-fledged concept. Why not create a mithai factory like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory? (From the Roald Dahl children’s book.) Why not create an adventure playground full of fun and wonder, a place where you could eat delicious mithai while watching it being made?

 

   Then, the partners and their chefs got to work on the mithai itself. They considered many of the complaints they had heard about Indian sweets: they were too sweet, they were so hard to finish because they were too heavy, the texture of the kulfi could be too hard, and so on.

 

   Their latest venture, the Bombay Sweet Shop in Byculla, incorporates all their ideas and takes into account all the complaints. Nothing is sickly sweet. The pedas and laddoos are smaller so you can easily finish them. Some of the kulfi is made in a kind of Softy Machine.

 

   And like all Indian mithai shops, there is a savoury chaat section with tables and chairs. (Order the Burmese bhel – I kid you not!)

 

   I loved it.

 

   So I guess does the rest of Mumbai because it was completely full when I went. The success of Bombay Sweet Shop demonstrates that great restaurateurs don’t need to editionalise. They create.

 

   And great chefs like Floyd can excel at anything they do: from French food at Lespinasse to mithai at the Bombay Sweet Shop!

 

 

CommentsComments

  • RB 26 Mar 2020

    Chef floyd passed away due to coronovirus.

  • Akshay 26 Mar 2020

    Thanks for this lovely post. With his shock death, this reads like an obituary.

Posted On: 21 Mar 2020 11:05 AM
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