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Dan Ahdoot explores his relationship with food in 'Undercooked'

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Dan Ahdoot is best known as an actor and comedian. But if you ask what motivates him, for most of his life, it's been food. And now he thinks of himself as being in recovery - sort of.

DAN AHDOOT: Yeah, I'm in remission. I think I used to have a really unhealthy relationship in that I was just craving the next, you know, amazing meal. Every night had to be a different restaurant. Every lunch had to be different. And if I had a bad meal at a restaurant, it would just, like, ruin my day.

SHAPIRO: That hunger for world-class dining experiences has shaped almost everything in his life - jobs, relationships, social media, where he went on vacation. Even his manager noticed and asked, what's up with the food obsession?

AHDOOT: And I was like, well, I love it because it's delicious. And she was like, no, you like it more than most people. So I started to write just about why I got into food so much, and it tied into my relationship with my father. And she was like, this could be a chapter of a book.

SHAPIRO: Ahdoot's new memoir chronicles how he got into that cycle and how he's trying to get out of it. It's called "Undercooked: How I Let Food Become My Life Navigator And How Maybe That's A Dumb Way To Live." As he describes, this started from a very early age.

AHDOOT: I had a relationship with food with my father growing up that, as a middle child, it was basically the only thing that we bonded on that my other brothers couldn't bond with him on. So it was a real important connection that we had. And then my older brother passed away, and my dad became pretty religious - we're Jews - and he became very kosher, and we couldn't go to any of the restaurants we used to go to. And I felt like the one bond that I had with my father was basically gone, or the most important bond. So I went on my own to find my own god. And my god came in the form of the restaurants and chefs like, you know, April Bloomfield with The Spotted Pig or Wylie Dufresne. So, yeah, I mean, I think it was a coping mechanism to, you know, fill in the hole that the relationship with my father - that I used to have with him.

SHAPIRO: Can you describe one of those early childhood meals with your father that is just, like, stamped in your memory forever?

AHDOOT: Yeah. I mean, the one that I talk about in the book is wild. It was my 11th birthday and he took me to Le Cirque (laughter), which is, like, a three-star New York Times restaurant in New York City. I mean, it was the place to see and be seen. And, you know, we didn't grow up wealthy or anything. It was like he saved up his money to take me there for my birthday. My other brothers were, you know, typical how kids should be. You know, I want ice cream and pizza on my birthday. But my parents literally took me to a pizza place for my birthday when I was, I think, like, 7 years old. And I was like, really? It's my birthday, and you're taking me for pizza. That's not normal.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) How dare you?

AHDOOT: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: So when your father started to deal with the death of your brother by keeping kosher, how did that change your relationship to food? I mean, like, at what point did you realize, like, oh, I'm trying to find something in restaurants that I have lost with my nuclear family?

AHDOOT: Well, I lost that special bond that I had with my dad. It's like he set me on this journey, and then he just abandoned me on it. So I couldn't go to the same restaurants. I couldn't go to the same places. And, in fact, you know, he didn't even want to really go out and eat after my brother died, which makes perfect sense. But to, you know, a 16-year-old kid, I took it as an affront, and I did whatever I could to fill in that hole. And, you know, I started to eat nonkosher foods, which I had never eaten before. I never ate shellfish or pork, and I started to eat a lot of it. And then when that wasn't enough, I decided to learn how to cook these foods. So I became the kitchen intern at The Spotted Pig in New York City. And then when that wasn't enough, I decided, oh, I need to eat the most locally sourced organic food I can. I'm going to start hunting. So I got a gun and became a hunter. I mean, this is what happens when you don't go to therapy, I guess, but...

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: So you also, at the same time - later in the book, you describe the incredible heritage of Persian-Jewish cooking that your grandparents brought over from Iran.

AHDOOT: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: And so it seems like there are two sides to the coin, both the attraction to and the rebellion against the sort of history, culture, religious heritage that comes with the family you're born into, right?

AHDOOT: Yeah. I mean, food is a huge sense of pride in Persian families and, you know, it's - every Friday night, we would have a Shabbat dinner. But, you know, this was - these Shabbat dinners were like lavish, palatial meals that my grandmother would cook all on her own. And...

SHAPIRO: Just the steps to cooking rice alone is, like, incredible to read about. I can only imagine to actually watch, participate in and eat.

AHDOOT: I mean, it's impossible to make Persian rice and have a job or a profession or a hobby. That has to be...

(LAUGHTER)

AHDOOT: That has to be everything.

SHAPIRO: It's your full-time calling.

AHDOOT: I'm telling you. It's like "Jiro Dreams Of Sushi." My grandmother dreamed of rice. It's all she did (laughter). It takes - you know, you got to clean it, then parboil it, then clean it, then rinse it again and then cook it a little more and then steam it and then rinse it again. I mean, the amount of water that goes into making one kernel of rice is just staggering (laughter).

SHAPIRO: So the subtitle of your book is, "How I Let Food Become My Life Navigator And How Maybe That's A Dumb Way To Live." For you, having left that obsessive pursuit of the perfect bite behind, like, what's driving you now?

AHDOOT: I enjoy my regular spots now. I have two restaurants that I go to all the time now in LA, and that's about it. And it's because they treat me nicely, and it's because I feel like I'm kind of home whenever I go there. It's more about the community than it is about the food. That's all I really care about now because I just - I've done the other, and I've gone down that rabbit hole, and it just leaves you empty at the end of it.

SHAPIRO: How did your family react to the book?

AHDOOT: You know, my dad read it, and he - could I tell you something? He didn't even - he read the book, and we never had a conversation about it. He literally just wrote me an email that said, great job. Don't write about gross things - because there's the part in the book about something gross.

SHAPIRO: Is this the scatological section?

AHDOOT: Yeah. And it was - it was like I - it was weird because I was like, that's crazy because this is kind of a love letter to my dad and (laughter) to get that reaction. But he's also like - I mean, children of immigrant parents, we have a high tolerance for our parents just, like, not hitting the mark when it comes to stuff like this. So - and I'm also kind of nervous to ask him about it.

SHAPIRO: Of course.

AHDOOT: And again, it's like, I know a lot of people are listening to that, and they're like, that's so sad and crazy. But I'm telling you, if someone is listening to this and they are the child of immigrants, it just makes perfect sense (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

AHDOOT: It's just - I feel like we'll never have that kind of emotional connection that, like, white people have with their parents. But it'll make you write a book to get it off your chest like that, so...

SHAPIRO: Dan Ahdoot. His new book is "Undercooked: How I Let Food Become My Life Navigator And How Maybe That's A Dumb Way To Live." Thanks so much. It's been great talking with you.

AHDOOT: Thank you - such an honor.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAVANNAH BLEU AND THE AUDIBLES SONG, "NOT THE SAME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Megan Lim
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.