Doing Good By Eating Well

India's devastating earthquake inspired the head chef of a chic New York restaurant to serve up an extraordinary charity event

By Debra Sparks

When Floyd Cardoz, the Indian-born executive chef at high-end New York restaurant Tabla, opened his e-mail on Jan. 30, he was hit with tragic news. One message, from an old friend living in India, detailed in personal terms the devastation of the huge earthquake that had erupted just four days earlier: "There is this case of a 10-month-old child who was found alive 80 hours after the earthquake in the lap of his mother's already rotting body, his dead father by his side." The e-mail ended: "Keep praying for us."

For the 40-year-old Cardoz, who is considered one of New York's more innovative chefs for his fusion of American food with Indian spices, the message led to an epiphany. The night before, Cardoz had complained about how his new Lexus was being manhandled in the New York city garage where he kept it. "Then, the next morning, I'm faced with the news that people were living in cars in India -- and those were the rich people who could afford cars," Cardoz recalls. "My wife said: 'You do charity for everybody else. Why don't you do it for your own country?'"

And so a culinary charity event, "Dinner for Hope," was born. Held at the chic Tabla in downtown Manhattan on Sunday, Mar. 18, 120 guests paid $300 each for a five-course meal prepared by eight guest chefs. Everything, including the chefs' time, the wine, the food, and even the service of the waiters, was offered free of charge. More than $60,000 was raised that evening to be donated to survivors of the earthquake.

TALKING SPACE.

  As the evening began, well-heeled New Yorkers sipped champagne to the sounds of sitar and electric violin played by Church of Betty, a band discovered by one of Tabla's owners in a Manhattan subway station. But back in the kitchen, three of the guest chefs, all born in India and now friends, were rolling up their sleeves. The kitchen was orderly -- no steaming pots or tempers. Neela Paniz, owner and executive chef of the Bombay Café in West Los Angeles, said she was in India when the earthquake took place. "It woke me up and shook the house," she recalled. One of Paniz' friends lived in a village destroyed by the quake.

Chef Raji Jallepalli-Reiss of Raji's in Memphis flew in because she said she felt it was her responsibility to participate. She prepared the first course -- diver sea scallops in a crispy potato basket, with roasted red pepper sauce. A third chef, Lata Malhotra, hailed from a restaurant not so far away -- Dawat on 58th Street in Manhattan, which specializes in Northern Indian fare.

While the tragedy in India was on everyone's mind, talk eventually turned, as it often does in New York, to space -- kitchen space. Tabla was certainly well endowed with a huge kitchen, the out-of-town chefs observed. "Most Indian kitchens are not this big," said Paniz. "My kitchen is just an incredibly tiny little hole in the wall. How many people in New York could get this kind of space?" added Malhotra admiringly.

"CONNECTED TO THE WORLD."

  Meanwhile out in the main dining room, Indian women in colorful saris, corporate execs, and neighborhood regulars savored the food and wine. But thoughts of India were not far away. Shashi U. Tripathi, India's consul general, was among the diners. While 20,000 to 25,000 people are estimated to have died in the earthquake, Tripathi estimated that the death toll could rise as high as 100,000: "There's a whole lot of people still under rubble. It's so hard to remove."

At another table sat Ruth Reichl, editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine and former restaurant critic for The New York Times. While at the Times, Reichl gave Tabla one of her highest rankings -- three stars out of a possible four. "There's not a lot of three-stars in New York," she said. And of the fund-raiser: "The restaurant community tends to be extremely generous. There's a sense of being connected to the world and to the earth's tragedies," she added.

Indeed, this is not the first time Tabla co-owners Danny Meyer and Michael P. Romano have thrown an elaborate charity dinner. When the Mississippi River had a once-in-a-century flood in 1993, Meyer, who is originally from St. Louis, invited chefs born in the Midwest to come to New York to cook dinner as a way to raise funds for flood victims. Tom Brokaw, a native of South Dakota, hosted the event. While there were no TV celebs at this week's event, the evening was an unqualified success. "$60,000 can go a long way in small villages," says Meyer. "All we do is give up one night of business. What we get back is far greater than anything we give."

Sparks covers finance for BusinessWeek

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht