“I’m going to give you a preface,” Manish Dayal said. “I’m not a chef. I just play one in a movie.”
It was 7 p.m. Tuesday, and Dayal, 31, who stars with Helen Mirren in “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” had just rolled up to Junoon, an Indian restaurant in New York's Flatiron district, wearing a backward baseball cap, a black American Apparel thermal shirt, Rag & Bone jeans and a pair of distressed brown Clarks on his feet.
In the film, Mirren’s character, who runs a Michelin-starred restaurant in the South of France, takes Dayal’s character under her wing after tasting his glorious Indian-spiced omelet. And so, the night after the film had its premiere at the Ziegfeld Theater, the actor made his way to this real-life Michelin-starred restaurant to test his skills at the stove.
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The largely unknown Dayal, in his first significant big-screen role, has soft features and big brown eyes, but he comes off less like a high-strung sous-chef than a chill frat boy, the sort who is an ardent believer in hugging things out. He punctuates his sentences with the words “dude” and “man” and still can’t seem to believe he is fortunate enough to have a chauffeured car provided to him by a movie studio.
“It’s so strange,” he said.
When Dayal arrived, a manager took him to the main kitchen downstairs and handed him a chef’s shirt, which Dayal put on over his thermal and buttoned up, rolling up the sleeves. (“That’s what I did in the movie,” he said.)
The chef, Jonathan Portela, introduced himself to a properly attired Dayal, handed him several eggs and led him to a little workstation where spices abounded.
“Now that’s what I’m talking about,” Dayal said, popping open a plastic container filled with cilantro.
Like the pro he played on the big screen, Dayal broke the eggs into a large metal bowl and sprinkled in the cilantro, along with a helping of masala, a spice mixture, that reminded him of his parents, who are from Gujarat, India.
“They put Indian spices in everything you can imagine,” said Dayal, who grew up in Orangeburg, SC (he’s a 2001 graduate of Heathwood Hall) and graduated in 2005 from George Washington University, where he studied business. “Omelets, burgers, even spaghetti.”
With the egg mixture ready to go, the chef handed the young actor a frying pan, which he set over a hot stove, dousing it with oil and throwing in a smattering of chopped garlic and onions.
As they waited for the garlic and onions to brown, Portela queried his charge, not about cooking, but acting.
“I just kind of picked it up, and 11 years later I’m cooking an omelet in your kitchen,” said Dayal, whose early work included doing a voice-over on the video game “Grand Theft Auto IV,” acting in an episode of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and appearing on The CW’s “90210” reboot.
“That’s a nice color,” Portela said, as the garlic and onions turned golden.
Dayal poured the egg mixture into the pan and moved it around, allowing it to cook for about five minutes. “Look at that,” Dayal said proudly, nodding approvingly at his handiwork.
But the bragging turned out to be premature.
When Dayal tried to fold the omelet, it broke apart, cracking down the middle. The sight was not pretty, less like an omelet than a frittata in need of a plastic surgeon.
And this was just the beginning. It was too thick. And there was the question of taste – or lack thereof. “I did forget to put salt in it,” he said.
It was clear this wasn’t going to win Mirren’s seal of approval, which wasn’t a total surprise.
Dayal said that he had a hand double during some of the elaborate cooking scenes, that he had not read some of the cookbooks his character, Hassan, is given as a gift and that he probably should have brought along a chef who advised him on set.
“This is Manish making you an omelet, not Hassan,” he said.
And, by now, Dayal was hungry. So he took off his chef’s shirt, grabbed a seat in the restaurant and ordered a Piri Piri shrimp. When it arrived, he whispered, “Man, let’s hope their food is better than this omelet.”