Chefs often cite their travels, mentors, or childhood dishes as points of inspiration for their work. But when it came to partnering with an organization doing good, New York chef Floyd Cardoz found inspiration in his family, most prevalently his father and his eldest son, Peter.
“Peter was very bullied as a child,” Cardoz begins. “He went from being an extrovert to being an introvert. My wife, Barkha, and I decided he needed to connect with people in life so that he could care about humanity in a positive way again.”
At the time, Cardoz was heading up the kitchen at New York’s Tabla. He got Peter a summer internship in his kitchen, paying out of his pocket to put his son to work peeling potatoes, hoping he would thrive within the discipline of the brigade system. But even better than that, Peter made a connection that would change his life. A hostess at Tabla, Caroline Farrington, was contemplating a return to school to study pre-med. She had recently volunteered in the lab of Dr. Goutham Narla, a regular at the restaurant and a researcher at Mt. Sinai who had taken her under his wing. She suggested Peter might as inspired by the experience as she was, and Narla took him in.
“Peter loved it from day one,” says Cardoz. “So much so that he decided to go into research as a profession [he’s a student at the University of Connecticut]. That would not have happened had he not been in Goutham’s lab.” Having sprung from a friendly connection, the internship was unpaid, but Cardoz recognized that for many students and their families, unpaid internships weren’t feasible.
Meanwhile, Cardoz had signed on to compete on “Top Chef Masters,” and was looking for an organization to which he could donate his winnings. During a friendly meal at their home, he and Barkha asked Narla and his wife, Dr. Analisa DiFeo, about the particulars of running a lab: how they funded students coming in, how they could get more scientists on board to mentor, how they could foster long-term growth by turning students into scientists, and how they could broaden the audience of interns by offering financial stipends for their time.
Evidently, paying interns was only part of the problem. Medical programs often don’t have enough funding for staff time or access hours to facilities. Those that do often only offer clinical internships, not laboratory ones. Then there was the problem of finding scientists who were both highly experienced in their line of research who were also truly supportive mentors to their young charges, encouraging questions and independent thought.
So together, the four started The Young Scientists Cancer Research Fund through Narla’s work at Mt. Sinai. Throughout that season of “Top Chef Masters,” they watched Cardoz win money in small doses, grateful for whatever amount they would receive. In the end, he took home the crown: a total of $110,000 he wanted to donate to the foundation.
An unexpected problem came up. The board of Mt. Sinai got to determine where they money went, whereas Cardoz and Narla wanted to make sure it went directly to funding placement for students in laboratories. “It was important to me that young high school kids could have doors opened for them, some who didn’t know that these kind of doors even existed,” Cardoz says.
So they reformed independently as The Young Scientists Foundation. Since 2013, their team has expanded to include more doctors and scientists, and support staff who work year-round to find more opportunities for students. “We believe that the solutions to numerous disease-related issues facing the world today, specifically in the field of cancer, aren’t actually in the world yet; they’re locked in people’s heads, specifically those of our youth,” the organization notes. “The sad fact is that there are less youth going into the sciences each and every day. We exist to solve that problem.”
Since then, Cardoz has thrown annual fundraising dinners for the foundation with an ever-rotating roster of five guest chefs, friends of his who want to support the cause. The first gala raised around $40,000. Rather than looking to expand the events in scope, he’s made them increasingly more personal, making sure that attendees have access to the chefs and that the chefs make a personal connection to the organization as well. This year, chefs prepared each course directly in front of the crowd, who either sat at their tables watching the action on large screens, or came directly to the stove for a more intimate look. They were invited to ask questions, and the chefs were encouraged to talk not only about the dishes they made, but what they care about, too.
“All my chef friends know why I do this; where it came from and where we want to go,” Cardoz says. Here’s where the second (also very personal) part of the equation comes in: His father died of lung cancer, and he’s a fervent believer that more can be done to advance cancer research. “It’s personal for me, and it becomes personal for them,” he says. “Most chefs are incredibly generous and caring, but they don’t get to express that enough. At our events, people see them cooking, donating their time and talent, and it makes it a better experience for all of us.”
This year, Cardoz welcomed chef friends Chris Jaeckle (All’onda, Uma Temakeria), George Mendes (Aldea, Lupulo), Tracy Obolsky (North End Grill), Carmen Quagliata (Union Square Café) and Jonathan Sawyer (Trentina, Greenhouse Tavern) to the event. The event raised over $325,000, largely in part to the tasting dinners the attending chefs donated, including a trip to Cleveland to dine with the recent James Beard Award-winning Sawyer.
Cardoz and Narla hope this means they can reach more students and make a greater impact, but they’ve already seen tremendous success with the nine students who have gone through their labs.
Blake Smith, who started in Dr. Narla’s lab when he was sixteen, was “1 of the 26 Most Impressive Students at Yale” in 2015 according to an article by Business Insider. His first summer at YSF, he worked with scientists to correct alternative splicing occurring at a dysfunctional rate in pancreatic cancer. His second summer, he worked with scientists on the treatment of lung adenocarcinoma. By the time he’d graduated high school, he had (with another student) created a drug that showed a response to a resistant form of lung cancer in mice with minimal side effects; later, their research would earn 4th place at the Siemens Competition. He hopes to earn a MD/Ph.D. in oncology.
Another YSF alumnus, Daniel McQuaid, lost a close cousin to cancer, followed closely by a breast cancer diagnosis in another family member. He found a home with YSF, and went on to become one of the 40 finalists in a nationwide Intel Science Search. “It’s a really good feeling to… design an experiment yourself and have it come out, and have this result that could potentially have an impact on cancer patients,” he told The New York Times.
“The thing is,” ponders Cardoz, when reflecting on students like Smith and McQuaid, “we had these kids who are really smart, who had applied to other labs where they either had received no response or received a response that was condescending and dismissive. They’re really brilliant kids who would not have found their positions in life had [Narla] not mentored them.”
With that in mind, they’re now looking to the future, both literally in regards to advancements in cancer research but also with how YSF can reach out to more students. Narla has since moved to Columbus, Ohio, and his students work out of his lab with Case Western Reserve University. They want to find more labs to host internships programs, and expand to those not only working with science but also with the auxiliary industries that support scientists, like information technology for analyzing data, or in the pharmaceutical and chemical industries. Cardoz looks to expand their fundraising efforts to Cleveland as well, with Sawyer as a co-chairperson: “People in Cleveland are very warm and very generous,” Cardoz says, “so it makes sense for us to go into that market, too.”
His advice for chefs who want to start a personal charitable organization of their own? “Start small, but don’t put limitations on yourself. If you don’t have an organization to work with, find like-minded people who are generous and kind, and make it.”
And that Tabla hostess who helped connect Cardoz and Narla? She’ll be graduating in 2016 with a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences from Case University School of Medicine. “I would not be here today had Chef Cardoz not welcomed me into his family when he did,” she says.
– Jacqueline Raposo