How do chefs create the dishes that they make? What lessons can we learn from them to advance ourselves and the food industry as a whole? With each interview, we examine and dissect the creative processes behind taking a dish from conception, through development, plating, and eventually service to reveal the Anatomy of a Plate.
The above photo from the 2014 Hawaii Food & Wine Festival event, “Under the Maui Moon,” is one of my favorite photos that I have captured while working with the festival.
Taken just before the start of the event, Chef Floyd Cardoz takes a moment on the beach to enjoy the ocean sunset.
I uploaded the photo to the Hawaii Food & Wine Festival’s Instagram and tagged Chef Cardoz. Moments later, he approached me and the other photographer, Dane. He showed us his phone and asked, which one of you took this photo?”
In that moment on the beach, Cardoz had just finished a phone call with his son, and was thinking about him while watching the sunset.
Cardoz requested that I send him the photo, to which I gladly obliged.
Chef Cardoz returned to Maui for this year’s Hawaii Food & Wine Festival “Lucky 7” event. I took this opportunity to reconnect with him to find out his creative process in this edition of Anatomy of a Plate.
Bridging the flavor gap
Hearing Chef Cardoz explain his process, I get a sense that he doesn’t conceive dishes, they flow from deep within his soul.
“I never ever think about food as something that comes from my head” says Cardoz, “its something that comes from my heart, and any dish I create has to come from a spot that has some meaning to me.”
From beginning to end, Chef Cardoz’s process doesn’t take very long. He’s purely ingredient driven, and dishes often go straight onto the menu without any experimentation or testing.
Even his dish for the Lucky 7 event, cold kampachi with coconut froth, chilies and hearts of palm, was not finalized until he arrived in Hawaii.
“I tasted the raw kampachi, and was very happy with the taste,” says Cardoz during our interview just hours before the event. “In India, fish curries are always made with coconut, so it felt natural to pair the kampachi with coconut.”
The addition of heart of palm came about in a more roundabout way. The example Cardoz uses to explain this starts with an unexpected dish, duck a l’orange.
“I believe in taking ingredients that go together,” says Cardoz. “So, if I’m going to do something French, I don’t try to recreate things that have been done for years. If duck always goes with orange, then I try to use ingredients that go with orange.”
Here, Cardoz is using a practice that I refer to as “bridging.”
As he plans out the flavor profile of his dish, he doesn’t look for flavors that are usually paired with kampachi. Instead he looks for less obvious combinations by using coconut as a bridge between the two flavors.
If heart of palm pairs well with coconut, and coconut pairs well with the Kampachi, then in theory, heart of palm should pair well with kampachi.
“Inspiration for me comes from ingredients mainly. However, there are times when I’m eating somewhere, it can trigger an emotional memory of another dish.
Sometimes, they aren’t even connected. Or I’ll eat something, and a texture will trigger something in my creative process that inspires me to make a dish.”
Keep it simple
A lesson that Cardoz was taught a long time ago is the adage, “less is more.” It is a philosophy that has become the root of his creative process.
“I don’t like to over think dishes,” says Cardoz. “I realized that when I over think it, there is no passion in the dish. I like my food to eat passionately.”
Cardoz avoids putting too much on the plate. Too many levels of sweetness, heat, acid, or bitterness, can lead to palate fatigue.
Because he doesn’t like palate fatigue in the food that he eats, he designs his dishes so that his guests don’t feel the same.
“If it gets too heady, or too complicated,” says Cardoz, “then no body knows what’s going on on the plate, including the chef.”
Chef Cardoz innovates from an emotional place within himself, therefore, he has to occupy a proper space in order to create.
“Creation of food has to come from within me,” explains Cardoz. “Its not something that just happens. There are days that I don’t feel like creating, and nothing will flow. I know that if I force it, the dish will come out bad.”
When I taste food, the place that I go into in my head is whether what I am eating is better or worse than something that I could make myself. If it’s better, I ask myself, how would I duplicate it.
The best goat cheese flan I have ever had was at Andina Restaurant in Portland. After tasting it, I sought out and tweaked a recipe until I was able to produce something that was just as good.
If I taste something that is worse than something I can make, then the question becomes can I improve this dish?
When I mentioned this to Chef Cardoz, he said something that caused me to pause.
“I never judge another chef’s food,” says Cardoz, “because every chef has a reason for doing the dish how they made it.”
In that moment, I recognized that I over think food way too much. Regardless of which rabbit hole I dive into, I am not fully present with what I am eating. I become so preoccupied with deconstructing the dish in my head, that I’m not experiencing the dish for what it is.
I am asking the wrong questions. By fixating on the effectiveness of it, I fail to empathize with the person who created the dish.
The question that I should be asking is, what is the chef attempting to invoke with this dish? When I emotionally connect with the dish, I emotionally connect with the chef.
Not overthinking is a great practice to follow when creating a dish, and it is also valuable advice to adhere to when eating.