Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Here's to the Mothers: What I Learnt from the Main Women in my Life

For Mothers’ Day, chef Thomas Zacharias of The Bombay Canteen pays tribute to the women in his life. This piece was originally written for the online edition of Conde Nast Traveller in lieu of Mother's Day.

If professional chefs moonlighted as superheroes, many of our origin stories would find their root in our home kitchens. Having spoken with colleagues in the food industry and interviewed countless aspiring cooks over the past decade, a common thread I’ve noticed is how passion for this line of work is most often attributed to those early memories of learning from the women who have raised them. My story isn’t very different either.

Growing up in Kerala, I had two very strong feminine personalities who shaped my upbringing: my mother Cynthia (Amma) and her mother, my grandmother Ammini    (Ammamma). It goes without saying that matriarchs play a very, if not the most, significant role in the kind of adults we grow up to be. In my case, they also deeply impacted and moulded me into the chef I am today, although the lessons I learnt from each of them were very  different.


The pursuit of excellence in life and food   
My mother always believed in pursuing excellence. Why settle for less if you have the willingness and capability  to rise to the top? Whether it was a mid-term exam or a craft project, Amma instilled in me, very early on, the drive to approach things with enthusiasm and resolve. 

Ammamma was an avid gourmand. Part of the local cooking club in Kochi, she even ran her own catering company from the late 1970s all the way to 1990. Once, she even catered a wedding party for 5,000 people with the limited resources of a home kitchen! While she would always experiment with new recipes she came across in magazines or TV shows, she also knew that the most memorable meals were those rooted in familiarity and tradition. That’s something I’ve imbibed in my professional cooking as well. 

My earliest memories of learning how to cook go back to when I could barely reach the kitchen counter. I must’ve been seven or eight years old, spending most afternoons post school in my grandmother’s kitchen helping with simple tasks like peeling onions, washing vegetables or squeezing out fresh coconut milk. How wonderstruck I felt watching her transform simple, everyday ingredients into mind-bogglingly, delicious dishes. It wasn’t just the feasts she put up on special occasions like Christmas or Easter that stood out. Every meal was an event, and every dish including the cucumber and onion salad accompaniment on the table was just perfect. There was a certain magic in even the simplest rice gruel kanji she made which lifted our moods instantly. It was this powerful ability to create lasting memories through her food that really got me hooked onto cooking.  I wanted that superpower for myself. a realization that eventually led to my career choice once I discovered that professional cooking was legit.

How to take pleasure in the small things
Amma was a great cook too, although she didn’t cook often. Even before I reached my teens, she would take me on her daily visits to the local food market. I remember being in awe of the sights, sounds and smells that surrounded us as we navigated through the hustle and bustle of Kochi’s vegetable and meat shops. It was on those shopping runs that I got my first insights into appreciating quality and choosing the best ingredients. The peculiar aroma of ripe jackfruit, and the glossy slime retained on fresh karimeen fish were good signs, I had learnt. I also witnessed first-hand, the respect with which she interacted with the vendors, an act which didn’t go unnoticed and brought smiles to their faces each time.

Ammamma, on the other hand, loved the very act of cooking as much as the end result. She found joy in the little things, like the aroma of curry leaves spluttering in hot coconut oil, or the crackling sound that the tadka made when poured into a pulissery. She taught me the importance of seasonality and cooking with local ingredients long before it became fashionable. There was a certain romance in waiting longingly for koorka, those nutty peanut potatoes, to come into season every summer; or buying sardines at a time when they were so fatty that she would fry them with their scales intact, allowing them to steam in their own aromatic fat. 

The importance of balance 
Amma was an extremely hardworking and busy woman who had to juggle her day job – of being Cochin’s first woman stockbroker, as well as run a house. Like her, Ammamma too was an efficient multi-tasker, albeit in the kitchen, juggling multiple dishes on the stove at the same time. Her beef meatball specialty would be finished with freshly chopped cilantro, while she stir-fried the spicy raw banana olathiyathu on the side. There was something so special about how effortless she made it all seem, although in retrospect, I know how much effort went into her cooking. She was meticulous and purposeful, insisting for example, that the mortar and pestle was critical to coax the best flavors out of the ingredients when making green chilli chutney for the boiled tapioca.

Both Ammamma and Amma believed in the importance of finding balance. I’ve heard fascinating stories from Amma’s closest college friends of how she was always the life of the party and the troublemaker in the group, but still managed to top the university examinations. Balance on the other hand for Ammamma meant adding a little sugar when the spice levels of the egg roast needed toning down, or a splash of vinegar to brighten up her fabulous duck curry.

The power of kindness
For both of them, the family always came before everything else, a value they eschewed deeply in me through years of gentle conditioning. Perhaps, food came a close second. Some of my fondest childhood memories were of road trips we made together. We always went to the same hill station of Kodaikanal, stayed at the same Sterling resort, and bought homemade chocolates from the same shop near the lake. Food was of paramount importance on these excursions, with every meal being enthusiastically planned among us right from thoran and beef fry Ammamma packed for dinner, to the lime juice and snacks she would prepare for the 10 hour drive. Oh! how I long to taste those delicious ham sandwiches again! 

But the everlasting lesson learnt from them is to be kind and compassionate. Their generosity, both within the realms of cooking and outside of it, is something I continuously strive to match up to. 

Ammamma passed away a few years ago, but she lives on in all of us, especially her children. Incidentally, Amma and Ammamma were born on the same date - August 15th. Amma’s now a grandmother to my two nephews, and watching her teach them cooking and showering them with mouth-watering food brings me so much perspective. Life has truly come a full circle. The lessons they are learning today are no different from those I was privy to. And boy, are we all the better for it. Happy Mother’s Day Amma and Ammamma. Thank you for making me who I am today. I am forever grateful.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Learning to Cook Intuitively

What if I told you that you may have gotten it wrong if you’ve been cooking from recipes this whole time  that you need to rethink blindly following precise measurements and instead stick to a more intuitive technique? 

While recipes have been carefully documented in other parts of the world, they have typically evaded our formal archives in India. Our gastronomic heritage and knowledge of food lie tucked away in the minds of our mothers and grandmothers, and in a few cases, in the men of the family too. Without written records, we have primarily relied on the entire culinary heritage of our country being passed on from one generation to the next orally. Sure, there have been countless recipe books on regional Indian cuisines written already — some of them by these very gatekeepers of our heritage  and there will be many more to come as well. But for the average person to figure out which of these documentations are accurate and reliable is a feat in itself. 

Yet you also probably find it frustrating that your mother is often vague about ingredient quantities and cooking durations when trying to teach you your favorite recipe. The fact that she struggles to put into words the amount of haldi needed in the dal or how long to cook the onions for the biryani is reflective of a larger cultural phenomenon that is embedded in the Indian way of cooking. I’m referring to the concept of andaaza, one which has truly stood the test of time. 

Andaaza is an Urdu word that loosely translates to ‘estimation’. But in the culinary context, it's a little more varied. Cooking with andaaza means to cook intuitively. There’s a rhythm to cooking andaaze se, a lovely waltz performed between the cook and the ingredients embracing each other in the quest to create something spectacular. It means to cook from the heart, using all the senses in union -- a sort of antonym to using a rigid recipe. 

Andaaza is not an innate instinct you’re born with, but a learned and accumulated wisdom. The general notion is that it needs to be honed over years of cooking alongside an expert, but I’ve started to realize that you can begin to acquire it even with a few sincere attempts. Having spent the last few weeks of lockdown helping out friends and family with their culinary conundrums over long voice notes, and consciously being ambiguous when sharing quantities with strangers through social media, I’ve noticed that even the most novice cooks start to become more mindful.

This might sound like a controversial statement to make but I’m beginning to believe that the trick to learning how to cook better is to develop your own andaaza. It therefore becomes essential to throw out the recipe book altogether, figuratively speaking of course. 

The most important tactic to building andaaza is to avoid following precise measurements or senselessly rushing through a recipe. You need to slow down. It may seem counter-intuitive, I know, and perhaps even disconcerting, but to build intuition, you have to tap into your instincts. Yes, you’ll make mistakes  several of them, perhaps. But fear and self-doubt have no place in the kitchen. Learning how to cook well is a deliberate process that requires patience, observation and perseverance. With time and a little kindness towards yourself, you’ll start to grasp and understand the essence of cooking. 

In fact, there is a stronger logic to support my argument of why exacting recipes are flawed when measured against this instinctive manner of cooking. Firstly, 99.99% of recipes are written with volume measurements involving teaspoons and cups and such to specify the quantity of ingredients. However, as professional chefs know only too well, volume is a highly inaccurate way of measurement when it comes to recipes. A cup of curry leaves, for example, can vary in actual quantity by even 50% depending on how big the leaves are or how tightly you pack it in the cup. Even a teaspoon of turmeric can be significantly different when measured by different people, either because of how dense it is or how heaped or flat the powder is on the spoon.

The most reliable and experienced cookbook authors are aware of this and facilitate multiple rounds of recipe-testing conducted by amateurs as well as experts, after which the data is edited based on a weighted average. The relatively more accurate alternative to volume measurements in recipes is using weight  measuring ingredients in grams and kilograms. But even with this method, there are too many variables because you’re still working with something as organic as food that constantly varies in its composition. For instance, even the most exacting weight measurements do not account for the variations in sourness or sweetness of a lime, the ripeness of a tomato, or even the saltiness of salt.

The certainty of a written recipe can be comforting in the beginning, but be cautious of getting trapped in its perils and inaccuracies. Besides, what the andaaza approach lacks for in tangibility, it more than makes up for in its sense of discovery and adventure. 

Is there a way to find middle ground then, between an ancient, more instinctive approach and a modern, measured one? Well, I’d say there is and that one way to tackle this lies in observing the professional kitchen. Although standardized recipes are imperative in restaurant kitchens for consistency, cooks are also trained to use their judgments to a certain extent, using constantly honed recipes as references. Once the dishes are complete, it is tasted and checked by the chef and feedback is given on what could’ve been done differently, if any. In this way, the cook is able to learn and apply that knowledge the next time around, thereby improving his or her culinary aptitude and expertise.

If you are new to cooking and yearning to find joy in it, I’d recommend that you try an approach similar to this. Even if you are following a recipe, use it merely as a starting point. Begin by reading it a few times and understanding what the author is trying to convey. Follow this with listing down the ingredients in the order in which they’re meant to be added and then put away the recipe. 

At this point, let your own andaaza  however underdeveloped it may be  take over. Try to remain in the moment, observing how the ingredients react and respond to stimulus, like say the pressure of the knife or the application of heat. If it goes well, pat yourself on the back and relish your wonderful creation. If the result isn’t what hoped it would be, swallow your pride and trust that it will be better next time.

By using your existing andaaza and sharpening it over time, at least you’ll be putting a little of yourself into the food you’re preparing, instead of blindly following someone else’s strict instructions. In a way, you’re striving to make the dish your own.

Honing your andaaza will take time and a certain amount of relentless pursuit laden with frustrations along the way. But I promise you that the journey is as rewarding as the destination. Learning to cook more intuitively is filled with its own kind of addictive romance, rewards and exhilarations. And as someone who enjoys cooking with andaaza, my sincere hope is that you discover it too.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Locking Down Your Quarantine Pantry

Let’s face it. The chances are that you’re barely stepping out of your homes right now. Your grocery runs are limited to once a week, if that. Figuring out how and where your next meal is coming from features high up on your daily radar. So, regardless of how challenging or easy preparing food is at the moment, keeping your kitchen pantry and refrigerator well stocked is a good idea and will alleviate the burden of uncertainty at least within the kitchen.

Now when I decide what to keep in my “quarantine pantry”, I can’t help but put on a chef’s thinking hat - dividing ingredients into categories so that it’s a reasonably exhaustive list and consciously making smart choices about my purchases. Given that the predicament you’re all in couldn’t be too different, I figured a catalogue like this might be helpful for some of you, at least as a starting point for how to put together your own pantry wish list.

While compiling this, I have considered not just the versatility of individual ingredients but also how a combination of these could expand your world of culinary possibilities during this quarantine. The reason I have broken the ingredients down into different groups is also to help make your own buying decisions easier.

Here’s a confession. I do secretly wish I could sneak into our kitchen at The Bombay Canteen right now and smuggle out some of the more harder-to-source ingredients like kodampuli and Goan sausage, or even get my hands on the bounty of summer veggies like jackfruit seeds and turmeric leaves--which would’ve been in abundance in the markets at this time. However, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I need to be content and grateful for what I have. So I’ve skipped out on the really hard-to-source stuff. 

This list might feel very ambitious right now but it’s meant to be an optimistic one, and we could all use a bit of hope in times like this, right? It is unlikely that you’ll be able to source everything that’s suggested given that most local shops don't stock up on all of them. And that’s okay. Honestly, I don’t have every single one of these ingredients in my pantry either. It’s meant to be a master list, a framework of reference for when you do get lucky and chance upon these items. And I certainly hope you do.

Thinking Through the Pantry

Let’s start with the essentials. Apart from rice and wheat flour which I assume you already have, diversifying your stock of beans and pulses is a clever idea. A combination of rajma (kidney beans), kabuli chana (chickpeas) and a split lentil like moong dal should do the trick, but feel free to go crazy with this one because they typically come cheap. For your breakfast fix, you could conjure up a dozen options with just rava (semolina) but things like poha help break the monotony every now and then. Eggs are probably my favorite thing on this list, not just because of its countless applications but also because I’m a sucker for breakfasty food at all times of the day. Once you supplement these staples with some super versatile ingredients like onion, potato, tomato, ginger, garlic and green chilli, you could cook up a whole lot of simple but wholesome dishes. Coconut milk and yogurt may seem like non-essentials currently but given their adaptability and their contribution to the world of curries, stews, marinades and sauces, I’ve included them in this category. 

While many of you will have a basic vegetable oil at home, investing in a few different cooking mediums helps change things up with each meal. Ghee is fantastic not just to make curries and biryanis but also to cook eggs with and sauté greens. Best of all, unlike butter it doesn’t need to be refrigerated, and we all know how precious refrigerator space is at a time like this. Apart from this, flavorful cooking oils like mustard oil and coconut oil act as great substitutes for vegetable oil when you want to alter the flavor direction of the dish.

Next, it’s time to think of flavor boosters and balancers. If your essentials are going to form the bulk of your food, then this category is going to make sure that your dishes continue to be unique, exciting and delicious. Herbs and spices are going to be your best friends until this tides over. Cilantro and curry leaves are must-haves for me but if you can get your hands on aromatics like spring onion, basil and rosemary, you’re golden! If you’re going to be cooking a lot of Indian food, then whole spices like black mustard and cumin as well as spice powders like turmeric, red chilli, coriander, cumin, hing and black pepper are a must. I also keep what I call ancillary spices - bay leaves, kasturi methi, star anise, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom - if I’m going to be making pulaos or biryanis. Apart from these, condiments can do wonders to spruce up a stir-fry, salad or even some grilled vegetables but since they don’t usually come cheap, you could avoid them. I’m a sucker for a good soy sauce, a small bottle of fish sauce, a nice lime pickle and of course, Sriracha. Thank god for Sriracha!

Most dishes you cook will beg for some form of sourness to either elevate it, so having a stash of limes, some dried tamarind or kokum, and a bottle of vinegar – apple cider, red wine or even just the synthetic kind - will come in quite handy. These are particularly crucial if you want to balance out your curries and bakes with lighter salads during the week. With acidity comes a need for sweeteners. If stocking up on honey, jaggery or brown sugar seems like a luxury, you could use plain white sugar which should also do the trick in most cases.

When it comes to veggies, go with your gut instinct or favorites unless you’re feeling extra experimental. The more versatile the vegetable -- like say baingan (eggplant), cauliflower or capsicum (green bell pepper) -- the better. I’ve been eating cabbage, karela (bitter gourd), bhindi (okra), cucumber and green beans just because my local sabziwala has them in abundance and in suprisingly pristine quality. If you’re low on refrigerator space, invest in more sturdy gourds, sweet potatoes, and pumpkins which can be kept out for weeks without spoilage. Make sure you try to include leafy greens like spinach, or even better, things like methi (fenugreek leaves), lal math (red amaranth) and poi saag (Malabar spinach) which are in their prime in the months of March and April. Mushrooms are precious at a time like this when our protein supply is limited yet still crave those meaty flavors.

Speaking of meaty, if you’re not a vegetarian, chances are that you’re likely to be craving meat and seafood, now more than ever. Supply chains and sources for these are a little more challenged right now, so my advice is to take what you can get. The easiest to find should be chicken. I typically buy only chicken legs because they’re more flavorful and end up being juicier in practically every cooking application of poultry. Do not waste your time on the breast. If you can find shrimp or mutton, grab them! If you’re looking to be prudent, now is a great time to be cooking less expensive fish like sardines and anchovies, offals like chicken gizzards and liver, and less popular meat cuts like goat trotters or nalli.

If you’re looking to bake with all the free time you now have, your pantry should have baking powder, baking soda, yeast and butter at the very least. Cooking chocolate and heavy cream will be a nice addition too.

In case you’re one of the lucky few that has some certainty of a steady income over the next several months or are willing to splurge, there are a few things you can get to prepare that one-off, fancy schmancy meal.  If you like Italian or European food, try finding some pasta (any pasta), extra virgin olive oil, good cheese and maybe even salumi and olives. I get cravings for Thai curry every now and then, so I try to get my hands on a decent curry paste or even Thai aromatics like lemon grass, limes leaves and galangal so I can make my own. For that salad dinner I alluded to earlier, hunt for whatever lettuce is available like iceberg or romaine. English vegetables like snow peas, baby corn, bok choy, broccoli and fennel are particularly apt if you’re making roasted veggies, pasta or to top that pizza you’ve been aspiring to make. Dry fruits like prunes or dates and nuts like peanuts and almonds will add a really lovely contrast to salads, stir fries and even in dessert, not to mention doubling up as great snacks through the day.

Here’s the entire list in decreasing order of usefulness. Happy cooking!

The Full Quarantine Pantry List

Cooking mediums
Vegetable oil
Mustard oil
Coconut oil

Flour or atta
Pulses & legumes - rajma, channa, moong dal
Breakfast – rava, poha
Onion, potato, tomato, garlic, ginger, green chilli
Coconut milk

Flavor boosters & balancers
Cilantro, curry leaves, basil, spring onion, rosemary

Powdered - turmeric, red chilli, coriander, cumin, hing, black pepper
Whole – black mustard, cumin
Ancillary - bay leaves, kasturi methi, star anise, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom

Sauces & condiments 
Soy sauce, fish sauce, pickle, sriracha or some red chilli sauce

Sour punch
Limesdried tamarind or kokum, vinegar (apple cider/red wine/synthetic)

Honey, jaggery, brown sugar

Eggplant, cauliflower, capsicum, cabbage, karela, bhindi, cucumber, green beans, etc.
Gourds, sweet potatoes, pumpkins
Spinach, methi, lal math, poi saag

Chicken legs (on or off the bone), shrimp, mutton
Sardines, anchovies
Chicken gizzards, chicken liver, nalli

Baking supplies
Baking powder
Baking soda
Cooking chocolate
Heavy cream

Pasta or noodles
Extra virgin olive oil
Cheese, salumi & olives
Thai curry paste or thai aromatics (lemon grass, galangal, lime leaves)
Salad lettuce – iceberg, romaine
English vegetables – snow peas, baby corn, bok choy, broccoli,  fennel 
Dry fruits – prunes, dates, peanuts, almonds

Friday, April 3, 2020

Cooking in the Time of Corona

In these daunting times, as many of us shift between trying to make sense of everything and figuring out how to comfort ourselves, I found my biggest solace in the kitchen.

Ironically, I have barely cooked in my apartment over the past decade. If I tried really hard, I could probably recollect every single, non-professional meal I’ve made since I moved to Bombay in early 2011. In fact, I can literally count on my fingers the times I’ve cooked solely to feed myself. Contrary to what you might assume, this isn’t because cooking at the restaurant kitchen tires me out or makes me reluctant to participate in an activity I already do a lot of. Cooking for others - either for work or socially - brings me immense joy primarily because I get to feed people happiness, elevate their moods and perhaps leave them with a lasting memory.

Somehow, I’ve struggled with the notion of cooking for just myself though. It feels odd and depressing even though both my rational and emotional mind tells me how silly this worldview is. I’m fully aware of the importance of self-nourishment and to have this peculiar stance is clearly all kinds of wrong. Yes, I do have a strange relationship with food. 

However, in the midst of this global crisis and soon after I started isolating myself in my apartment, I overcame those psychological barriers spontaneously and rekindled my personal culinary prowess. I have been cooking incessantly, not from any specific recipes, but freestyling using my own instincts and whatever is available in my pantry and refrigerator. At a time like this when I have to fend for my stomach anyway but am also craving nourishment for my broken soul, being an expert at cooking feels like a blessed skill.

Covid-19 has put us all in unique predicaments we’ve never really had to deal with before. It’s going to be a while before we fully recover from this crisis even once the virus subsides. Perhaps the silver lining, if any, is that the situation we’re currently in is forcing us to examine our priorities, lifestyles and even our daily choices. Each one of us is having to make changes to cope both physically and mentally, whether we like it or not.

During this lockdown, with restaurants being closed, home delivery options being limited, and having so much time on our hands, our relationship with food seems to have changed drastically within the span of just a couple of weeks. Many of us are having to think hard about where our next meal comes from. We’re suddenly looking at cooking—a primitive human skill of using heat to transform ingredients into something wholesome—like we’ve never done before. While some of us have naturally steered towards cooking our own food, others don’t really have a choice. The chances are that we’re also trying to be frugal with our food expenses. 

Nevertheless, while navigating this new version of normalcy, cooking serves to at least briefly remind us of the good not-so-ol’ times. Cooking, as I’ve learnt to appreciate once again, is an intuitive act that not only feeds us but is also a great way to keep our minds busy. It is a great exercise in feeling productive, something we’re sure to be missing during these Covid times. 

Depending on the unique situation you’re currently in, you’ll need to adapt your approach towards food and cooking. Some of you may have large families to feed and need to be both smart and efficient with your meal plans, while for others in complete isolation like myself, the food we consume needs to supplement the void from not having another person around. If you fall in the lucky category of having someone cooking for you - like say a parent, spouse or sibling - making the effort to pitch in with the cooking duties and easing some of their workload in the kitchen will go a long way. Empathy and kindness is truly the need of the hour and it needs to begin at home. 

It’s safe to assume that for several of you, having no choice but to cook for yourself might just be one more reason for stress in your daily lives. It’s probably a good idea to at least attempt to embrace it. Sure, you’ll make mistakes, burn a bunch of things and probably be subjected to some pretty nasty food as you start out. But like a lot of other things, if you do give it some time, stay curious and persist, I promise that it will grow on you. Maybe, just maybe, you might end up creating something truly delicious, and when that happens you too will know how special it feels. After all, the only thing better than feeding someone else is being fed. In my case, feeding myself.

Monday, March 30, 2020

A Tribute to My Floyd


            With memories and anecdotes pouring in from across the world over the last few days, it is hard to ignore the countless lives that Chef Floyd must’ve touched deeply in his time. Whether you were his childhood buddy growing up in the bylanes of Bandra, a fellow classmate in Dadar Catering College, a line cook in the banquet kitchen at Taj Mahal Palace, perhaps even a teacher at Les Roches in Switzerland where he studied hospitality management, or one of the many cooks honed in his kitchens at Lespinasse, Tabla, North End Grill, White Street or Paowalla, the chances are that he left a lasting impression on you. For a man whose life took him across various continents and with a career that spans close to four decades, I doubt I could do justice writing about his life before I knew him. So I’ll keep this one personal. This is my Floyd story.

Although I did spend three years in New York from 2007 to 2010, studying at the Culinary Institute of America first and then working at Le Bernardin, I never met Chef Floyd who’d already been a long time resident of the city. Incidentally, my stint at Le Bernardin was in the same year that his magnum opus Tabla shut its doors. I had never eaten there and upon hearing the news of its closing, I decided to grab my last chance to try the place. I remember sliding onto a stool at the casual Bread Bar on the ground level of the restaurant on a pleasant fall evening in late 2010. I couldn’t quite afford the upstairs dining room on a line cook’s salary in NYC and the Bread Bar was known to be more approachable and fun. 

To be completely honest, as a young, naïve 24 year-old cook sitting there sifting through his menu, I didn’t quite understand the food at Tabla. Chef Floyd’s menu of Indian-inspired American fare, or was it the other way around, seemed alien to me. I was raw, unseasoned and brainwashed like most other aspiring Indian chefs into thinking that classic and modern Western cooking was the Holy Grail. Indian food wasn’t worth indulging your career in, chimed peers and professors alike. I failed to recognize - let alone appreciate - the new language he had created for Indian food in mainstream restaurants. His philosophy involved adapting and evolving the cuisine without taking away the integrity and soul of the source inspiration, not very different from the way food cooked in home kitchens across India had evolved over decades. My ignorance aside, it was indeed a mindblowing meal although I didn’t end up meeting him that night.

Fast-forward four years to early 2014. I had just returned from a four-month long sabbatical eating my way through Europe to my sous chef job in a modern European restaurant in Mumbai. A trip that was meant for inspiration changed the course of my life thanks to a moment of epiphany I had while dining at the world renowned Osteria Francescana. Suddenly, in a moment of clarity, I knew I needed to shift my career focus towards Indian. Meanwhile, almost serendipitously, there were three gentlemen who were conspiring to open a modern Indian restaurant in Mumbai and needed an executive chef to helm the kitchen.

The city was already abuzz of this upcoming restaurant opening. “A touted Indian chef from New York (we’re not at liberty to reveal his identity) in partnership with restaurateurs Sameer Seth and Yash Bhanage (they’ve set up places in Delhi and Singapore) is looking to open Tiffin Club here by August,” one article reported. The original inspiration for The Bombay Canteen came from the clubs and gymkhanas of a bygone era of Bombay, hence the first name idea of Tiffin Club.

I had already put in a three-month resignation notice at my job when they approached me through a headhunter. Five minutes into my first conversation with Sameer, I was sold on his pitch. When I found out that the touted chef was Floyd Cardoz, I was a little intimidated. I had heard of Chef Floyd’s reputation as being a tough, hard-to-impress industry stalwart and with my limited experience cooking Indian food professionally, I wasn’t sure I even had a chance at bagging this role. But I so badly wanted it. I knew this would be my big break.

I remember the first Skype interview I had with Chef Floyd in April 2014. Something about his demeanour made me feel instantly at ease. I wondered if the years had softened his rough edges or if people had just falsely assumed that he was tough. Our conversation was mostly casual with no technical questions whatsoever. I remember being surprised to see the childlike sparkle in his eyes as he spoke about the potential of celebrating underrepresented regional Indian food through this restaurant we were about to open.

Over the next several months, the four of us business partners - Floyd, Sameer, Yash and I - spent a lot of time together, traveling, eating, recipe-testing and bouncing ideas off each other for what was to materialize into The Bombay Canteen. I even made a trip to New York to spend some quality time with Floyd. While half of this visit was dedicated to his kitchen at White Street to understand his operating style, it was the remaining time as his house guest that got us close. Not just did we test recipes in his home kitchen, but I also helped clean, walk his dog Shadow, and went out on grocery runs together. With this new role as Executive Chef of The Bombay Canteen, I was pretty much thrown in the deep end but Floyd was there as a guiding figure every step of the way to help me swim.

In the years that followed, I got to know and understand this celebrated chef better, but also quite differently from how the rest of the world perceived him. Whether during our weekly update calls or on one of his quarterly trips to Mumbai, the four of us partners became a close-knit family. The way we conducted ourselves around each other was more like high school besties rather than business partners or colleagues. In spite of the age difference--the three of us in our early thirties and Floyd in his late fifties-- it just felt so right. In fact, if anything, Floyd was always the mischievous teenager in the group cracking jokes to lighten the mood or bursting with his contagious energy. 

Chef Floyd was an emotionally expressive man who always wore his feelings on his sleeve. He could be really stubborn about things he believed in, but opinions around the table were always heard. He saw the bigger picture but also cherished the finer details. Despite living in a different continent, Floyd loved to be continuously cued in to what was happening at Hunger Inc in Bombay. In fact, he insisted on wanting to be a part of not just the bigger decisions but also knowing the most trivial daily occurences at the company. He was more proud of what we had achieved through The Bombay Canteen, O Pedro and Bombay Sweet Shop than the remaining three of us combined, and always pointed out how we don’t take enough credit for our laurels.

Floyd and I have traveled together on food trips far and wide. From Goa to Portugal or Kolkata to Cochin, culinary adventure was our common addiction. In November last year, I had the honor of cooking alongside him at the prestigious James Beard House in New York, an opportunity of a lifetime really. Soon after, we spent a whole week together presenting at the CIA Worlds of Flavor conference in Napa spreading that same message of celebrating traditional Indian food. I was in awe of this man who showed no signs of fatigue talking up Indian food for nearly 25 years, and still continuing to sing praise of our country’s rich cuisines with the same vigor of someone who’d just discovered its potential.

It’s not often that you get to cook alongside a legend, and with our relationship maturing into a unique blend of friendship interspersed with mentorship, it was all the more memorable. That same week found us eating in some fantastic restaurants, downing wines at local vineyards, and just going on long beautiful drives in the countryside. I remember making a mental note that despite all the ups and downs in his life, Chef Floyd seemed so truly happy and content. What really took me by surprise on this West coast sojourn however were the reactions he got wherever we went. I was aware that he was a well known figure but the respect, adulation and love he got wherever we went from local bakeries to high end restaurants was nothing short of revelatory. I couldn’t help but smile at what a legacy he had already left behind.

Floyd was deeply fond of teaching and mentorship, so it’s only fair that I use this opportunity to talk about some of the lessons that I took away from him.  Don’t be a No person. There will be multiple challenges and opportunities that are constantly thrown at you in life, and instead of turning them down immediately, analyze and introspect before making decisions. Keep your childlike wonder because there’s a lot more joy you can derive from the world than you would imagine.Stand up for what you believe in and be true to yourself. He was a total no-bullshit kinda guy. Believe in the team.“Building a stronger team will make you stronger as a chef,” he’d once said. Moral values have their place everywhere, even in the kitchen. You can nurture people into cooking good food without being an asshole to them. Be the bigger person, when people or situations turn against you. Floyd was a vocal proponent of balance in food through textures and flavors, but he also demonstrated that in his personal life, leading by example and being as much a family man as he was a chef. 

On the night of his passing, after a few hours of delirious crying and screaming in the lone confines of my apartment, I walked into my kitchen, pulled out a stash of Goan choriz I’d been saving and just cooked freestyle. That was my way of coping, I guess. All our times together flashed before me as I smelt the smokey goodness from the sausage filling up the room. I added some dried beans, onions, garlic, and bay leaves and it turned into a sort of delicious Southern American chili but with Goan choriz instead of meat mince. Topped with a couple of fried eggs and some braised poi saag I’d made earlier, this was my attempt at a tribute meal. Floyd would’ve loved this, I thought. 

It still hasn't fully sunken in for me that he’s no more. Being someone who’s terrible at grieving, I hark back to all the tough times Floyd has gone through in his own life. Just thinking of his resilience in times of adversity gives me some strength to at least begin to cope with this deep loss. A couple of days ago, a close friend pointed out that Chef Floyd and I shared a faint physical resemblance, like he could easily be someone from my family. It’s hard to argue that in so many ways, because he truly was.