I grew up one of three boys. My older brother, Solly, was an amazing athlete; my younger brother, David, was charming, cute, and got all the attention. I had a nondescript, chubby vibe, and like most middle children was forced to create new ways to get attention. Because my father was born in Iran and spent his formative years in Switzerland as a student, he had a robust passion for food. He did his best to pass down his European trappings to us. He raised us speaking French, drinking wine before our Bar Mitzvahs, and eating stinky illegal unpasteurized cheeses he would smuggle into the States. But neither of my brothers shared his love for “la gourmandise,” as he’d call it. I (chubby vibe) did.
I’m not sure if I actually loved the eating, or loved what it got me, an opportunity to bond with him on something my brothers could not. Either way, chicken or egg, as a child I developed an appreciation for both a perfectly roasted chicken and a sublimely poached egg. I was a finicky foodie in the making. By age eight, I knew which dishes demanded which fork, and I never got ice cream on my face when eating from even the drippiest of cones. When I turned nine, my parents took me to a Long Island pizza joint. When we entered, I looked at them and said, “It’s my birthday, and you’re taking me out for pizza?” My dad still tells that story with pride.
My dad and I would go to restaurants alone together. While my mom stayed at home with my brothers, he and I would set out on culinary adventures in New York City. And like most adventures, our dining escapades required a uniform. I would don my restaurant blazer—an olive-green wool number with brown suede elbow patches—over one of Solly’s hand-me-down shirts that had a stain on the breast pocket, which my blazer just covered. When I was seated, chunks of flab would gasp for air between the buttons. My khakis had two pleats, because I wasn’t f***ing around. My dad, in a handsome suit, helped me tie the laces on my moccasins, and we were off.
Those trips are my fondest memories as a kid because I was finally able to enjoy my dad’s attention without having to compete for it. We reveled in the most avant-garde foods New York City had to offer. Fresh pastas at Mezzaluna, impeccable côte de boeuf at Les Halles. For my eleventh birthday, Dad took me to Le Cirque. Let me repeat. We went to a New York Times
three-star restaurant for my eleventh birthday. Quite an upgrade from Gino’s. And I can still recite the menu from memory. There was something called a Trio, a holy trinity of caviar, smoked salmon, and foie gras. A silky butternut squash soup with huckleberries. A seared Alaskan black cod that melted in my mouth. Then something I had never had before—duck confit. A duck that was cooked in its own fat. The crispy skin and lusciously gamy, unctuous flesh beneath it didn’t just create a memory—that memory was nailed, à la Martin Luther, to the door of my brain.
Having this special connection with my dad helped me to be less contentious with Solly and David. I had textbook middle child syndrome—I could’ve written the foreword to said textbook. But because I knew that I had a piece of my dad they’d never get, I was able to let down my guard and become a better brother. My being a better brother to them allowed them to be better brothers to me. Solly and I became best friends. He was my cheerleader, my mentor, my idol. I was a decent piano player, so he convinced me I could be a pro. I was not great at tennis, yet he told me that if I kept practicing, I could be, like him, number one on the college team. He gave me the confidence that helped me eventually become a comedian. (You don’t try to become a professional comedian without a healthy dose of delusion.)
When I was sixteen, and he was twenty, we hit our sweet spot. I was having a tough time adjusting in high school because I was weird and eccentric. So I’d go visit Solly at Brandeis to get away. He showed me that weird and eccentric were actually valuable assets at university, and that if I applied myself in high school, there was light at the end of the tunnel. He was right. He saw in me a potential that nobody else did. And my fondness for his wisdom was at its peak. Sadly, it would last only six months longer. He got cancer and died. Out of nowhere. Fast, cruel, devastating.
My parents became zombies of their former selves and eventually took a sharp turn into religion. I veered in the opposite direction. We’d been raised pretty lax Jews, but suddenly, they became true believers. While they were saying, “This is all God’s plan,” I was insisting, “If God existed, Solly wouldn’t be dead.” I would try to debate them, but as soon as cracks started to form in their arguments, they would bubble with anger and anxiety. Then I’d scream, “Why can’t we just have a normal conversation about this?” and I’d storm out. I realize now that the reason we couldn’t have a normal conversation about this was because if I won the argument, the afterlife was a myth and they’d never see their firstborn again.
With religion came kosher laws. And kosher laws killed dining out―at least in the places we used to go. The top echelon of NYC restaurants was replaced with subpar kosher immigrant eateries in Forest Hills, Queens, with fluorescent lighting, sticky menus, and the smell of ferment. We frequented restaurants whose only raison d’être was that they served the right kinds of meat on the right kinds of plates. Le Cirque, only a couple of miles away, inhabited another universe.
The day my brother died, I also lost the only meaningful connection I had with my dad. My love of food suddenly became an obsession, to fill in the hole my dad used to occupy. The goal was no longer about seeking out great restaurants; now it was about chasing an impossible high. But that didn’t stop me from trying.
After college, I moved to New York City. I was an open-mic comic, not making much money, and every penny I saved went to food gods: April Bloomfield, Mario Batali, Wylie Dufresne, Gabrielle Hamilton, Dan Barber, and Keith McNally. My parents had Yahweh; I had Anthony Bourdain. I ate pork and shellfish for the first time. I had never craved pork or shellfish, nor had I wondered how they tasted. The smell of bacon held no hypnotic powers over me, as it does for most people. It was not happily that I ate these things; I forced myself to. They did not go down easily. They had to push past tons of pain and shame gagging in the other direction. Each piece of treif pumped guilt into my veins. The more foreign a dish was, the more wrong it felt, with virgin sensations bombarding my palate—the slick yet sticky viscosity of pork fat, the cartilaginous give of octopus, the slimy loogie-ness of oysters. Guilt be damned, these were textures my father would never feel, and I could start holding that over him. Not only did I get over the prohibition and then an aversion to these foods, but I actually started to crave them. Like moths to a mesmerizing flame, my eyes homed in on the word “charcuterie” on menus. Sea urchin wasn’t just a delicacy, it was a way of telling my dad, “You don’t want to eat with me? No worries. I wouldn’t be able to eat with you anyway!”
But eating the best foods in the world wasn’t enough to fill the hole, I needed to make them. Making what I ate would let me literally feed the hole. I was pretty well connected in the NYC restaurant scene by then, and friends pulled strings to get me a gig as a kitchen intern at the Michelin one-star establishment—ironically named for a rebellious Jew to work at—the Spotted Pig. I learned how to make some of the most delicious items ever: chicken liver toast drenched in port and Madeira on crusty bread—a hearty, medieval-looking dish that could’ve been a passed appetizer at the Red Wedding. A haddock chowder whose mere whiff makes anything Herman Melville wrote seem landbound. And gnudi, pillowy ricotta dumplings with crispy sage and brown butter sauce, a dish so mind-altering it could make MDMA exclaim, “Hey gnudi, how the hell did you do that?”