Like many of us, Chef Hussain Shahzad began his culinary journey with an omelette sandwich. His mother had just begun working and he and his brother had to be fed. Ordering in was not an option.
That first omelette sandwich must not have turned out too bad for the small achievement fated him on a path that has taken him from the kitchen of New York’s illustrious Eleven Madison Park to cheffing for Roger Federer to finding a place under Chef Floyd Cardoz’s wing.
Cardoz brought Shahzad on board The Bombay Canteen, the award-winning restaurant he started in Mumbai with his partners at the hospitality company Hunger Inc. And two years later, when Cardoz skippered O Pedro, a Goan and Portuguese restaurant in Mumbai, Shahzad was made the Executive Chef.
It was a coalescence of creativities. As Shahzad puts it, the food was Cardoz’s “soul and my perspective”. On the menu were heirloom recipes borrowed from Cardoz’s Goan family – such as his mother’s fish curry and pork vindaloo – but also recipes imagined collectively by the team.
Cardoz’s imprint wasn’t just on the food, though. Shahzad says everything he learnt in the past few years, making him one of the brightest young stars on the Indian culinary firmament, was from Cardoz. “Our relationship was more of a father and son than one between two chefs or a mentor and mentee,” said Shahzad.
Cardoz’s death in March from Covid-19 left Shahzad and everyone else in the food industry woebegone. Still, he is taking forward Cardoz’s legacy. “In old-school kitchens, they instil fear so that mistakes are not repeated, and food is churned out with military discipline,” he said. “But Chef Floyd looked at young cooks’ mistakes as an opportunity to teach rather than reprimand... He said one can get more done through love than terror and I realised it was true.” Shahzad adopted Cardoz’s ethos and now chefs in his kitchen say to him, “Hey, we made this mistake, but we are willing to do it right.”
Edited excerpts from an interview with Shahzad, Scroll Food’s Chef of the Month for October.
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You grew up in a Bohri family in Chennai. How did the two distinct culinary cultures – one of the community, the other of the city – come together to influence you?
My mom was from Patna, my dad was from Bombay and I was born in Chennai. My growing years were shaped by a mishmash of cultures. In school, I was trying to learn Tamil, and at home, I would be learning Hindi, Urdu and Arabic from my parents and grandparents.
We were a very unorthodox Bohri family. When my mom would cook Bohri food, it would obviously be influenced by what was available locally. So, curry leaves found their way into the Bohri cuisine at my home, and dosas became a part of my diet early on. I grew up with different versions of dosa that had egg and meat floss (called Gustavo). Even today, dosa is as Bohri to me as dal chawal palita. When I moved to Bombay and ate Bohri food at a friend’s place, it was nothing like what I had eaten over the years. That intrigued me. For example, in the dal chawal palita in Mumbai, they add kokum because it is such an integral ingredient on this coast. But in my house, they used to add tamarind and curry leaves because souring agents are different on different coasts. Only on some occasions would my mom add kokum because the recipes from my dad’s side of the family called for it, but mostly, it was tamarind.
This mishmash reasserted something to me: there are no rules to cooking. If it tastes delicious, it belongs. Eventually that was it. Our food came with a lot of love, there was a lot of heart in it. No one could say this was authentic and this wasn’t. Authenticity just became a word to me.
What made you want to become a chef?
One of my earliest childhood memories is watching my grandmom roll rotis. We Bohris have something called patla – a small sitting stool an inch or two from the ground. She sat on it and rolled rotis with chakli-belan, cooking them on a small kerosene stove on the side. I would eat the chapatis with ghee and jaggery.
When I was in class 8, my parents got divorced, and my brother and I lived with my mom. By this time, I was already inclined towards cooking – not actually cooking, but the magic around it. When we would come back from school, my mom would be there with food. Slowly, just to support herself, she started working. And that meant we would come back home to no food and no mom. Things started changing in our lives and my brother and I realised we needed to fend for ourselves. We were ordering food every day and that was not an ideal situation, financially and health-wise. I started making small things in the kitchen, like bread-omelette, sandwiches and things that you could cook in a microwave. That’s when it all started. It was also a function of watching my mother, right from childhood, put food on the table. The confidence I had to prepare that first egg and bread sandwich was from watching my mother cook.
After a few years in Mumbai, you moved to New York and worked at the Eleven Madison Park, the famed fine dining restaurant. What did you learn there – technique or trait – that you still practice today?
That was a turning point in my culinary journey. When I was working with hotels in India, I felt I wasn’t doing anything relevant with food. It was quite boring, honestly. I hadn’t paid my dues as a cook and I felt that doing it over a long time wasn’t going to benefit me. I decided to leave everything and walk away from it, to New York in 2014.
What I saw there changed my life forever. My perspective on food evolved. I learned technique. I learned how to be a precise cook. I also learned to have the right attitude towards work: waking up and putting your A-game on every single day. In those days, Eleven Madison Park was scaling the ladder from No. 4 to No. 1 in the world. To get any restaurant to make that steep climb requires determination, perseverance and an amazing leader at the helm. We were blindly following his [Chef Daniel Humm’s] passion. We loved him, respected his ideology and valued his experience.
The leadership traits that you learn while looking up to someone who can lead with that kind of efficiency is today, in my current role, a mandate. You must be a good leader and not just a preacher. Everybody can do the talking, but there are few who can walk the talk as well. When we hire today at O Pedro, I don’t just look for skills in my cook, I look for the right attitude. They should be willing to wake up in the morning and crush it and respect the team around them and work towards the common goal.
You also worked as personal chef to Roger Federer. What attracted you to the position?
It was luck, I’ll be honest. I was about to give up my job at Eleven Madison Park – in the year or so I was there, I had risen the ranks from being a commis chef to manning the meat roast. The next step was to become a sous chef, and I had made clear to my chefs at the time of joining that I did not want to be a sous chef. I was there to learn and there would be a point when I would want to go back to my country to do with food what I want to. I was ready to put in my papers when Chef Daniel asked me my plans. I told him I wanted to travel and gain some perspective. He asked, “What if you got paid to travel?” I said, “Sure, I could do with the dollars.” So he told me to go work with his friend in California. He didn’t tell me who it was, just that he was doing the ATP World Tour. It was only when emails went back and forth and tickets came in that I saw the name Mirka Federer [Roger Federer’s wife] for the first time. I was like, “Holy sh*t, are you serious?”
A few days later, I found myself on a flight to Indian Wells [in California] where Federer was playing. He had an entourage of 24 people. There were two personal chefs – Daniel and me. At the end of it, he asked me if I wanted to move to Switzerland, but I realised personal cheffing was not for me. It was fun while it lasted – I had never met such high-profile people and they were amazing and humble. They respected you, your work, and they spoke to you like equals. I saw true luxury and enjoyed it, but I knew I didn’t want to do it for long. Being tied to someone and serving them what they wanted day in and out made no sense to me – I wanted to do something more meaningful with food and that’s why I came back.
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Once back in India, you joined The Bombay Canteen, which had the looming presence of Chef Floyd Cardoz. Do you remember your initial interactions with him?
I had reached out to Thomas [Zacharias, now the Chef-Partner at The Bombay Canteen] when I was travelling in India. We had studied together in college and Thomas put me in touch with Chef Floyd, who started digging into this Indian guy who wanted to leave Eleven Madison Park. He made a few calls and figured out who I was. He phoned me and asked me to meet him at his restaurant White Street. I remember we got together on a winter morning and had a conversation about where I saw myself.
He had a clear vision of what he wanted to do with Indian food and how he wanted his restaurants to grow. It was not just about recipes and looking at Indian food through the same old lens. It was about looking at it with a perspective of ignorance – breaking it down without emotions. That appealed to me because I had no professional background in cooking Indian food. I had always cooked European food and that doesn’t work when you cook Indian food – you get branded as non-authentic, as someone just playing around. Nevertheless, when he offered me a position [at The Bombay Canteen], I said no. There wasn’t enough money in it and I went for the Federer thing instead. Even when I came back, he tried to convince me. I said no again because it just wasn’t working out. He said, “Fine, till our paths cross again,” and I agreed.
I was back at home in Chennai in 2015 when I got a call from Sameer [Seth], one of the partners at The Bombay Canteen. He said, “I know you have said no, but come have a meal at the restaurant.” At first, I said no because I was in Chennai, but then – I don’t know if the stars aligned or what – my friend was having a birthday party at Amby Valley and I had to travel to Maharashtra. When I went to the restaurant, Chef Floyd was there. They press-ganged me into an interview I knew nothing about. It turned out to be a fun chat – the restaurant was blooming in line with their vision and the food was amazing. Sam told me he had figured out a way to make this work for me and I replied, “Okay, let’s do this.” Chef Floyd looked at me and said, “I had to convince you three times, honestly?” I remember the last time he was here, he told me he would never forgive me for this.
What was Chef Floyd’s advice for young chefs?
In old-school kitchens, they instil fear so that mistakes are not repeated, and food is churned out with military discipline. I had worked in such kitchens back in the day. But Chef Floyd looked at young cooks’ mistakes as an opportunity to teach rather than reprimand. To me, this was a breath of fresh air – it changed my perspective. Everyone is bound to make mistakes, but those errors should be seen as a chance to mentor. He said that one can get more done through love than terror and I realised it was true. People look at you with respect and come to you and say, “Hey, we made this mistake, but we are willing to do it right.”
You never look at something this way until someone comes along and tells you. But then, our relationship was more of a father and son than one between two chefs or a mentor and mentee.
Despite making it big in the US, he remained at heart a Bandra boy whose signature was non-intimidating food. Is that how he came across to you, too?
Of course! He was Bandra to the core in every which way, in how he spoke to me and how we discussed food. In fact, he made it big in the US based on the principle and integrity of his culture. I remember speaking to a sous chef who had worked with him for 10 years. They said that back in the day, when Chef Floyd was working at Tabla, everybody wanted a piece of him. Nobody was doing the food he was doing or working with flavours the way he was. Those flavours came from a heartfelt place, from things he had eaten or experienced. They would be inspired by the Parsi community in Mumbai, his travels in Kashmir, something his mom cooked, or something he ate in Goa or South India.
All his food had a touch of nostalgia, to which he added his spin. He was never one who would add something to his menu – say, for example, a North Eastern flavour – just because it did not exist on the menu before. This is how I knew him and how we all remember him.
You and Chef Floyd worked closely for the Goan restaurant O Pedro. It was his cuisine, but it was your adventure too. How did you two combine your creativities?
Working at The Bombay Canteen was my first step into Indian food. I was trying to find my own voice in terms of what and how I wanted to cook. At the same time, I was trying to put my name to it and every young chef wants to do that at some point in his career. So, when the O Pedro opportunity presented itself to Chef Floyd, I was more excited. I knew nothing about the cuisine – Goa was just a place where I had drunken nights – but it goes back to my point of ignorance. I knew I wanted to look at the cuisine objectively and was secure in the knowledge that the man beside me had such deep emotional connection with the region and its culture and food that he would always guide me towards the right path. It was amazing to understand his idea of food and take it further, while respecting tradition and culture, through a modern perspective of technique that I had learned over the years. It was his soul and my perspective.
Which dishes at O Pedro have Chef Floyd written all over them? And which are quintessentially you?
That’s a tough one. So much of O Pedro has Chef Floyd written over it. Everything that I learned over the past few years is what he taught me. He had a knack for flavour profiling and the way he taught you how to work with ingredients was all his own. A few dishes on the O Pedro menu are his family recipes – the fish curry his mom cooked; the pork vindaloo, which he inherited from his mom and perfected. They are all quintessentially his. There are also some dishes on the menu that we created as a team, such as the Tamarind Chilli Ceviche, Prawn Balchao and the Burrata Salad. All these did not have any significance in the Goan cuisine handbooks. This is why we say that O Pedro is a Goan- and Portuguese-inspired restaurant, where we try to take flavours from these places and create a story and evoke a sense of nostalgia.
You travelled through Goa and Portugal to research food for O Pedro. What experience or discovery on those journeys changed you or your food the most?
We all know Goa partially. Chef Floyd was Catholic and he knew the Roman Catholic food well. But Goa has many religions, castes and denominations: there are Gaud Saraswat Brahmins, Goan Muslims, East Indians and so on. I researched Goan cuisine for eight months straight: living in Goa, visiting people’s homes, asking them to show me how dishes are made.
Visiting poee bakers and learning how to make poee from them was among the biggest challenges for me. I was trying to understand a culture and lifestyle behind the food, the history, music, everything. It was not just about recreating recipes. I crack this joke that I am more Goan than any Goan now.
That sparked another idea in me: if Portuguese colonisation had such an effect on Goa, why don’t we go to Portugal and see what they took from this. We went there and I started working at taverns. I met this amazing dude who turned out to be a chef and a food historian. He would serve classic tavern-style food in the morning and avant garde food in the evening. I also worked with two Michelin star chef Jose Avillez, who is doing great things with Portuguese food: he has taken tavern food and elevated it to a whole new level of relatable food but in a wow format. The cross-cultural references were revelatory: I learned the difference between a chorizo and a choriz and a vindaloo and a vinha d’alhos.
The pandemic has battered the restaurant industry. How do you see it evolving to meet the challenge?
The one thing that this pandemic has taught us is that there is no rulebook anymore. Every rule that existed in dining was broken by the pandemic. We are all free to write our rules. We are doing things we never thought we would do. We are coming up with innovative ways to connect with our guests that we never thought we would do. Every day you wake up to new information and you adapt.
But pandemic or no pandemic, our margins are low because we are in the business of offering services to people. The only reward is their happiness. In the dining industry, everyone has been in the same boat. Everyone is looking for the light at the end of the tunnel. There have been countries in which the government has supported the restaurant industry. But in India, I don’t think the hospitality sector has even been acknowledged for a lot of things. We will come out crawling, but we will come out crawling stronger.