“No one’s spitting in your dish; that’s an old wives’ tale” — actor Dan Adhoot on “Undercooked”

Dan Adhoot had a problem. He was smack in the middle of a meal at  Massimo Bottura’s famed  Osteria Francescana, which means he should have been smack in the middle of one of the greatest meals ever created. And he was, kind of. There was a Caesar salad he recalls as “the most beautiful thing I’ve ever eaten anywhere.” There was balsamic vinegar he describes as a religious experience. But then the Risotto Levante happened. 

In “Undercooked: How I Let Food Become My Life Navigator and How Maybe That’s a Dumb Way to Live,” the actor (“Cobra Kai,” “Shameless,” “Kickin’ It”),  restauranteur and comedian serves up a witty, thoughtful view of   family, friendship and heartbreak through the lens of a lifelong obsession with food. And in the book’s memorable title essay, he explains why sending a dish back to the kitchen ultimately revealed the cracks in a love affair. 

Salon talked to Adhoot recently about how hunting helped him process the grief of his brother’s death, the complicated legacy of his Disney Channel character Falafel Phil, and the subtle art of complaining diplomatically to your server. This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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I loved your chapter on Falafel Phil. You still can’t really eat falafel? 

It’s a little bit of an exaggeration, but I definitely opt for shawarma now.

I want to ask you about the story that forms the title of this book. I can’t imagine ever being in a position where I would have the chutzpah to send something back. I don’t want to send something back at Chili’s. 

My fiancee at the time and I went to Osteria Francescana. It was the number one restaurant in the world. The meal that we had was the first meal that they served as the number one restaurant in the world. Just by fluke we happened to have the reservation. It was this wild experience of this 12-course tasting menu. Course number six was this risotto. Everything was so great, and then there was a risotto that was clearly severely undercooked. We were both looking at each other like, what do we do here? Because there were only like 15 people in the dining room. The staff was elated that they were the number one restaurant.

“We absolutely should have eaten the grainy risotto.”

Suddenly, we were faced with this dilemma of, do we return a dish at the number one restaurant in the world, the day that it becomes the number one restaurant in the world? We went back and forth for a bit, and we decided to actually send it back. And it just created this cascade of events. We should not have sent it back, was my conclusion. We absolutely should have eaten the grainy risotto. The chapter as a whole was more about our relationship, it not working out and why it didn’t work out. That thematically became the way that I started to write the book — let me use food as a jumping off point about a bigger story. So the risotto itself was undercooked, and I also felt like it tied into the story of my growth being stunted by my older brother dying when I was 16. And so, undercooked in that as well.

You’re a comedian, you’re an actor, you’re a podcaster, you’re a business person. Why did you want to write this book? You didn’t have to. 

Listen, voice in my head, you’re right. I am a huge fan of this guy, Steve Rinella. He has the number one hunting podcasts and hunting show on Netflix. He’s sort of like the hunting Anthony Bourdain — thoughtful journalist, conservationist who has a big hunting following. I reached out to him and said, “I’d love to be on your podcast.” I told him some of these stories about me going hunting.

I’m not the typical hunter. I am a Jew from Long Island. I have no business being around a rifle. I did pick up hunting, because of my addiction to food adventurism. I told him stories about going hunting with my buddy Mo, who’s an Iraqi Muslim, and I’m an Iranian Jew, and, you know, we came together to kill ducks. He said, “Fly out to Montana, and you can be on the podcast.” So I flew out to Montana, and I did the podcast. It did really well, because again, I wasn’t a typical guest. My manager heard it and she was like, “Why don’t you just start free writing about why you like food so much?” I was like, “What do you mean, why do I like food? Because it’s delicious.” She said, “No, you like food a little more. You just got on a plane to go to Montana to talk to this guy about hunting. Something’s up with you.”

Those of us who feel a certain way politically and socially have a lot of misconceptions about hunting and hunters. You talk in the book about the way that you have been able to have conversations in the space of hunting that are more enlightened and progressive.

It is very unfortunate to me that hunting does have a kind of politics too. I really wish it didn’t, because there’s a lot of things to look at with hunting that are actually progressive. The money that hunters spend on their hunting license and on ammo, the taxes on that goes to conservation. Hunters actually give more money to nature conservation than every other environmental group in America. That’s a crazy thing to think about. 

“I’ve rarely met a hunter who is not a thoughtful, kind person when it comes to killing animals.”

Also, as a progressive from New York City, there’s no one who I know cares more about fancy food than coastal elites. We love our tasting menus, we love knowing all about our food being locally sourced. We want to go to Erewhon and spend the five extra bucks so that we know that the chicken was doing Pilates before it died. And there’s nothing more locally sourced and free range and organic than game meat. That to me is an easy way in. I’ve rarely met a hunter who is not a thoughtful, kind person when it comes to killing animals. Everyone thinks that they go out and kill and just kind of dance on the carcass of a dead elk. Every each one of them really sees it as a responsibility to care for the animal, to make sure every part of it is used. I feel like growing up without hunting, I never even thought about anything like that.

There’s also a weird guilt and shame that comes with hunting, which makes you want to honor the animal even more than way more than you would if you bought at a supermarket. So there are a lot of similarities between hunters and non-hunters. I feel like both sides get such a bad rap for the worst instincts of each other. My interaction with hunters is, I’ve rarely met one that I can’t stand. And I can’t stand a lot of people.

What drew you to first say yes to hunting?

First was the food aspect of it. It all started with my brother dying and me having a bond with my dad. My older brother passed away when I was 16 years old. I was the middle child, and like most middle children was just kind of ignored. But my dad and I bonded on food. We loved going to good restaurants together. I loved food and I loved it because it was a way to bond with my father. We’d go to restaurants alone without the other siblings, without my mom. When my brother died, my dad became super duper kosher. The food relationship that we had was completely gone.

I tried to fill that hole in other ways. I started to eat non-kosher foods, which I had never eaten before. I was a rebellious foodie. I started to go to the restaurants that my dad couldn’t go to. I started to cook in restaurants to try to learn how to cook these foods. And then the last form of rebellion was killing an animal, which was so anathema to anything that I’ve grown up with. Then I was trying to find a replacement for my older brother. My friend Mo has that older brother energy, and he’s a big hunter. Part of it was to impress him. So, mostly the wrong reasons to get into hunting. 

Later on in the book you say something about how you spent most of your life judging people by the way that they eat, and judging people by their relationship to eating, and how that’s changed for you. I think it is easy for those of us who have that passion, that obsession that you write about, to feel a certain sense of moral superiority about it.

I’m not going to lie, I definitely still have a little bit of it. But the main thing that changed for me was doing Meals on Wheels with a buddy of mine. Just going around from home to home and feeding people the most anemic food. Because it had nothing to do with the food. It had to do with sustenance. It was so profoundly eye-opening. Like I say in the book, I was so obsessed with the one dish at Osteria Francescana that was bad, but what about the other dishes around it that were exceptional? It helped me have more of a bird’s eye view around it and not use that as the main litmus test for judging humans because you’re going to be pretty lonely if that’s if that’s what you end up doing. 

I feel like the community aspect of food needs to eclipse the actual food part of it. That’s a big deal that people are forgetting now. Everyone just wants to take Instagram photos of their coolest food rather than care about who they’re hanging out with or where they’re hanging out or what the restaurant is. These famous food bloggers don’t care about the restaurant, they just want the lighting to be good so that they can take good pictures of the food. That’s such a gross way to look at restaurants. I used to have to go to a new restaurant for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Now l have two places I go to where I’m treated like family when I go there. The food’s great. But to me what’s way more important is the community aspect of it. That stuff is more important than the actual minutiae of the food.

I’m really intrigued by the anxieties that we have around food and the fears that we have. Let’s say I’m at the number one restaurant in the world. Or, I’m at The Cheesecake Factory. I’m spending money. I’m spending time. I want this to be a great experience. And you know what? This isn’t good. I’m not enjoying this. How would you encourage someone to have the courage to respectfully, politely say “I need to send this back”?

It should be a lot less anxiety than it is. The reason I say that is because most restaurants, including The Cheesecake Factory, are going to be completely fine with you returning a dish. No one’s spitting in your dish; that’s an old wives’ tale. My new method of doing this is I say, “Listen, this dish, I’m just not feeling it. I will pay for it. But is there any way that I’d like to get something else if that’s okay?” Ten times out of ten They’re not going to charge you for it.

That’s for something that’s for a dish that is prepared correctly, but you just don’t like it. If a dish is not prepared incorrectly you have every right to say, “I’m sorry. I ordered it well done and it’s rare,” or, “It feels like this soup just tastes completely underseasoned.” That’s totally fine. Just be nice about it. That’s been my go-to. 

We work so hard for our money, we should get what we want. I feel like the restaurant wants you to have wants you to feel like you’re having a good time so that you keep coming back. And if you do try to return it, and they give you   some guff, they give you some attitude, then you wield that Yelp  sword. Like like a Knight of the Templar, you pull that Yelp out. 

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Source : https://www.salon.com/2023/03/29/no-ones-spitting-in-your-dish-thats-an-old-wives-tale–actor-dan-adhoot-on-undercooked/

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