Memory can be a powerful thing, especially in the hands of a person like Floyd Cardoz. The New York based chef, a partner with restaurateur Danny Meyer in Battery Park City’s upcoming North End Grill, not only channeled his own childhood memories in the Top Chef Masters Season 3 finale, he also tapped into judge James Oseland’s Indonesian memories to take the title. Yesterday, on the morning after his victory, Cardoz took time to share insights by phone.
What were you hoping to accomplish by competing on Top Chef Masters, other than winning and raising money for Young Scientist Cancer Research Fund?
I went into the show with no expectations. My primary focus was to make money for my charity. I wanted to have fun with other chefs, let my passion show and to do things that were important to me. I didn’t want to be someone I’m not.
How did you decide which dishes to prepare for the finale?
The challenge was food memories. The first one was I had to find a food memory from my childhood. The memory that came to me was the memory that made want to become a chef, a semolina polenta with coconut milk. In India when you came home from school, you’d always have a snack with tea. My happiest days were savory other than sweet. I made an adaptation from that dish, a simple dish, and made it so more people could enjoy it.
The second dish was a rice flaked snapper with tomato fennel broth. When I was 12 or 13, my father worked in Bombay city. I had a day off from school and joined him. He took me out to a French restaurant, Gourdon. It was a restaurant that did prix fixe. I still remember going in and seeing all the forks and…One of the dishes we had was steamed fish in a tomato broth. I don’t remember the exact flavor, but I wanted to create something different and enjoyable.
The third dish was based on a childhood memory from James. When James was a young boy, he went to Indonesia and had beef rendang. Beef rendang is basically a reverse braise, put everything in, including lemongrass, galangal, pandan leaf, lime leaf and chilies. It’s this flavorful dish, and I could see, looking at James, it was taking him to a very happy way. I decided to use oxtail, one of my favorite cuts of meat, and short rib.
You had the opportunity to watch two previous seasons of Top Chef Masters and see other chefs compete in the finale. How far in advance did you start thinking about preparing your Meal of a Lifetime?
You think about it, and I find when you when pre-think a dish and you go to execute it, it does not always work out as well. Cooking good food is based on what you’re feeling at that moment. I did think of something I was going to do, but I did something totally different, based on how I was feeling that day…a little of the oxtail is something that was close to me from my childhood, so I put some of my food memories into his food memories.
How did you feel watching yourself compete on the episodes, after the fact?
After the fact, you know what you say, but you don’t know so what everybody else says, so no matter what’s going on, you don’t know what’s going on. It was good to see what the other competitors were saying. It was also good to see what the judges were saying and the other discussions they have. I go on the Bravo blog, things that don’t make the show, and watched.
What lessons did you learn from competing that you might be able to apply to North End Grill?
One of the things that reinforced – that I already knew – is that for me to be successful, I have to cook with passion, be in a happy place, and care what I’m cooking what…I think I am.
What you look for when hiring a chef to work in your kitchen?
When I hire a cook, I never ask them any technical questions, because you can read a book about that. I ask them about food memories, the best meals they ever had, what they like to do in their spare time…if he tells me about his grandmother’s ravioli, or a piece of food their aunt made, or a fish they caught, or a tomato they grew in their backyard, I know they have passion.