I had the pleasure of meeting The Daily Show‘s Aasif Mandvi for an interview about his new foodie film, Today’s Special. He talked about working with the brilliant Nasseruddin Shah and actress/chef Madhur Jaffrey …and shared some interesting places he would take a first date. Check it out here or read below!
Comedian Aasif Mandvi is quite literally a one-man show. While he is probably best-known for playing a faux-journalist on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”, he seems to be all over the place recently: rallying for sanity in D.C., putting together a full comedy-showcase in New York to raise money and awareness for the flood victims in Pakistan, starring in major movies like M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Last Airbender”.
Mandvi has also found success writing and starring in his Obie-winning one-man off-Broadway show, Sakina’s Restaurant. Now, Mandvi is taking the culinary world by storm once again by co-writing the delicious foodie film, “Today’s Special” (opening November 19th) where he plays the lead role as sous-chef Samir. We got to sit down with Aasif for an exclusive interview to talk about the film, the dynamic cast (Naseeruddin Shah, Madhur Jaffrey, Harish Patel)…and his classy picks for a first date.
You co-wrote Today’s Special and previous to this, you had also written and starred in a one-man show, Sakina’s Restaurant. Why is food always a central theme?
Aasif Mandvi: There are actually two reasons. One, my co-writer, Jonathan Bines, who I met in a sketch comedy group also happens to be a tremendous foodie, so that was a natural fit. And two, I had written this play about an Indian family, based on my real family and it was sort of set in an Indian restaurant. So, we melded those things together and ended up deciding to write a “Tandoori comedy.” Nobody had written a movie about Indian food before. Also, some of my favorite movies were “Babette’s Feast”, “Eat Drink Man Woman”, “Chocolat”, and I really liked that heightened realism, that sort of fantasy element of it. It just seemed like there was something rich there that no one had done effectively with Indian food, and it’s such a big part of the culture. Food is also an easy access point for Westerners…I wish it wasn’t quite so deliberate but it kind of was.
Do you consider yourself a good cook?
Mandvi: I can make Indian food…I just have to have my mom on the phone the whole time. Actually, I took some cooking lessons during this whole process. Chefs have a particular way they carry their bodies. They’re comfortable with knives and picking up pieces of meat in ways non-chefs don’t. More than learning how to cook, I wanted to learn how to embody that confidence in the kitchen that a chef has. I guess I learned how to fake it really well.
So, no casualties on set?
Mandvi: No, thank God. We didn’t have any thumbs chopped off.
The cast in the film is pretty incredible – you have the legendary Naseeruddin Shah playing the cabbie with cooking skills, Akbar; an award-winning cook Madhur Jaffrey who plays your mother; and seasoned actor Harish Patel as your father. Did you help cast them?
Mandvi: We actually sent the script out to a lot of big Bollywood stars, and Naseer was the one who called us and said, “I want to do this.” We weren’t expecting to get someone of his caliber to do this part, and I’m a big fan so it was a no-brainer. Harish actually auditioned for the role of Samir’s father and he brought such a humanity to that part. It’s so easy to send that character into a place of anger and he brought such tremendous pathos and that was great. We were like, “That’s the guy.” Madhur was involved from the very beginning. She was the one who did all the original screenplay readings of the script as we were developing it over the years, and I just always wanted her to play that role.
Did she relay any cooking advice on the set?
Mandvi: The truth is, we hired her as an actress and I think she wanted to just be an actress, so we respected that. We didn’t have her come in and do double-duty as a food consultant. Obviously, she’s a very successful cookbook author, won seven James Beard awards, but I’ve always known her as an actress. I did a movie with Madhur a long time ago called “ABCD” and that’s how I met her, so for me, that’s the person I casted.
If you could open your own restaurant, what would it be?
Mandvi: There’s a lot of Akbar in me. I think if I were to open my own restaurant, I would make it like Akbar’s, where nobody gets menus and everybody eats whatever the chef makes. It would be like coming to someone’s house. The chef just makes what they make and you just come and eat it.
Would it be Indian food?
Mandvi: It depends, it could be different every night. But you only have 45 minutes to eat it. And then you gotta get out. We’ll have an egg timer on everyone’s table. Forty-five minutes, and whatever you’ve eaten, that’s it. If there’s stuff left on your plate we put it in a doggy bag.
You should make it even more desi, like turn it into a speed marriage-dating restaurant…
Mandvi: Right! Exactly, oh my God, that would be great. So, it would be a speed-dating restaurant, with no menus but you have to also eat within 45 minutes and you have to move tables every 5 minutes.
And pick up wherever the last person left off on their plate? I love that…it would be the first of its kind. So, I actually have a thing where I say you can tell a lot about guy based on the restaurant he picks for the first date. What kind of restaurant would you pick on a first date?
Mandvi: Hooters. Hooters is my first choice. Unless the girl gives me a weird look. (laughs) I don’t know about specific restaurant, but maybe some place where the lighting is very low and there’s a quiet corner.
Do you have any favorite New York restaurants?
Mandvi: In terms of Indian food, I love Dawat, which is Madhur’s restaurant. And I don’t just have to say that, I really do love it. In terms of other cuisines? I’m actually the antithesis of a foodie in that way — I eat to live. I’m kind of boring. I just like places I can get good, healthy food. Unless it’s a first date. And then it’s Hooters.
OK, let’s do a quick food speed-round. I’ll start and you have to fill in the blanks.
Mandvi: Oh, no I hate these…go ahead.
I think the most underrated food is…
Mandvi: Chicken McNuggets.
If I’m at dinner with a girl, it annoys me when…
Mandvi: She picks her nose.
I consider BLANK a breakfast for champions…
I want to be the next…
Mandvi: In line.
What does that even mean?
Mandvi: I don’t know! I just want to be the next in line!
I think the world would be a better place if everyone got together and ate BLANK all day.
Mandvi: I can’t answer that. My mind just goes in a dirty place and I’m not gonna go there.
Let’s just go back to the regular questions. I’m a little curious to know how your family felt about you pursuing a career in entertainment. Were they always supportive? Did they come around later?
Mandvi: I think my parents were naturally reticent of their son to be an actor as any sensible parents would be. When I came to NY and was making a living, ultimately, I think my parents lost control. They had very little to say. The thing is also, my parents emigrated to the States from England and there was a good seven to eight years that they were really adjusting to another culture. I’ve always wanted to be an actor since I was a kid, and actually my mother encouraged me to take acting classes as a kid — she was quite forward-thinking in that way. But it was during that time that we moved (when I was in high school) that I started to excel on stage, and ended up with a freshman incentive scholarship to the University of South Florida to pursue theater. So, at that point my parents were just like OK do this. I think they still had dreams of me being a doctor or something, but the train had already left the station.
I know part of this movie is a love story — there’s the scene I saw in the trailer of you on a date with an uptight Indian girl who seems to be American but also gets straight to the point about marriage. Do you think there’s still that pressure of marriage early on when dating desi girls in America?
Mandvi: Not so much anymore. I feel like there was a period of time where I did kind of experience that way. Less so now. I think that at this point, most of the women I end up meeting have already been married once. You know, I’m just old now (laughs). I think there’s less pressure and the women are a little more easy going the second time around.
What do you hope people ultimately take away from this film?
Mandvi: Their trash. I hope they take away their trash and put it in the receptacles outside. No, for me this is a film about integration, and the idea that Samir’s character goes back and reclaims who he is in order to become whole. That to me is a message that resonates with South Asians and immigrants, and especially the second generation. But also, you know, I work on “The Daily Show” and we deal with this all the time — the world is in a place right now of polarized opinions and viewpoints and there’s a lot of negativity. People are coming at each other from opposing points of views with a lot of rage and anger. So what I’m most proud of in some ways, is that this is a film about an Indian family, but also a Muslim family that happens to be American that happens to live in New York and happens to be just like everyone else. For me, presenting this family as one that anyone can relate to and connect with is in some ways a response to the protestors to the mosque in downtown New York. Maybe that’s what people on some level can take away from it.
Aasif Mandvi’s New Film “Today’s Special” will be out in theaters November 19th. Check your local listings for theaters.
Shyema Azam is a freelance editor at Vogue and Marie Claire. She also founded her own beauty and food lifestyle blog, Beauty and the Feast