"If I don’t have MCT oil in my coffee, I get a little annoyed."
Ben Bailey is a practical person who’s often put into impractical situations. As the man behind the wheel on the show Cash Cab, the comedian surprises unsuspecting New Yorkers with lucrative, trivia-filled rides around the city where correct answers earn you cash, and three strikes leave you on the curb. While passengers struggle with questions about things like zoology, pop culture, and esoteric history, Bailey keeps his eyes on the road and grills his contestants in a deadpan tone that suggests: Yes, it’s absurd you’re hitching a ride in the Cash Cab, but hurry up with your answers. There’s money to be made here, people… and we’ve got a green light up ahead!
Over the phone from his home in New Jersey, he talked to me about his relationship with eating while driving—cool in his book, so long as you’re good at multitasking; not cool when passengers eat in the cab—his ketogenic breakfast diet, and the new, celebrity-filled season of Cash Cab. He even shared his childhood dream of opening a 24/7, breakfast-only restaurant. Bailey also finished a short film, one he’s been finessing for a decade, that details a failed attempt to meet his friend Judah Friedlander at one of the many Ray’s Pizzas in downtown Manhattan.
Extra Crispy: Will you tell me a little about your morning routine?
Ben Bailey: My morning routine involves lots of coffee—two coffees, actually, which I mix with MCT oil and grass-fed butter. MCT oil is like a concentrated coconut oil, really healthy stuff. It’s a little bit weird, but I have two big coffees with that in there, and then some vegetable juice, and several pints of water. That’s my breakfast. I try to do that every morning.
What is it about that combo that does it for you?
It’s part of this thing called a ketogenic diet. The idea is that you train your body to run on fat instead of sugar. It’s meant to prevent you from having the ups and downs that you get when you’re running off sugar—it keeps you steady. I tend to have those big ups and downs, where all of a sudden I find myself starving and really cranky. I’m no fun to deal with when that happens. But I heard about this diet, and I thought I’d give it a try. I’m not following a full-on ketogenic diet, but I start my day that way and it really seems to help.
When you’re doing a full ketogenic diet, do you have to keep any dietary restrictions?
When you’re doing a full ketogenic diet, you don’t eat meals in the day. You have coffee, water, and juice for breakfast and for lunch, followed by a full dinner. So I guess there’s more fasting involved. I just do it for breakfast. It’s pretty good. I can do that breakfast and go for quite a while before I start to feel like I need something. The crash isn’t like an immediate crash. Instead, I go, “Oh, I’m hungry. I should eat something.” Before, it was like, Oh my god, I’ve got to eat or I’m going to die! [laughs].
Now, if I don’t have MCT oil in my coffee, I get a little annoyed. I miss it when I don’t have any. I try to bring regular coconut oil with me when I travel, so I can put it in my coffee wherever I am. Some days I give in and I have a giant breakfast burrito, but I try to stick to the routine [laughs]. I try to eat healthy as often as I can.
Do you have a guilty pleasure food?
It’s probably pizza. I love pizza, man. I used to just subsist almost solely on slices when I lived in New York. I was particular, though. I wouldn’t get pizza from just anywhere, but in New York there are a lot of good options. I used to go to Famous Ben’s of SoHo. I love that place. There’s a place called Rizzo’s Pizza out in Astoria—it’s famous and has been there forever—but for a while they had a location on MacDougal Street near the Comedy Cellar, which is kind of my regular stand-up club. Their pizza is fantastic. The Village location was only there for maybe two years—it opened one summer and closed at the following of the next summer. But now if I’m ever out in Astoria I’ll go to Rizzo’s because it’s really good. It’s right on Steinway Ave.
I actually made a movie about another Village pizza staple. It’s about two guys trying to meet at Ray’s Pizza for lunch. It’s a short film, and you can watch it on my website. It’s me and Judah Friedlander. He’s one of my good buddies. We made it a while back together, but I just managed to finish the short last year. We try to meet at Ray’s, but there are 30 different Ray’s Pizzas. That’s the plot, basically. It’s called Meet Me at Rays, and it’s a really fun movie.
Not many people have seen it, and I’m kind of submitting it to festivals. I’ll tell you a little secret about it, one that I hope people would notice on their own: There is a Ray’s Pizza in every single shot of the movie, even the shots where we’re not in a Ray’s but on the street. It was important that the footage be really clear so you could see that stuff in the background... and it took me ten years to get it right [laughs]. Now, I feel like it’s a pretty great, little short film.
How do you feel about the new season of Cash Cab?
It feels great to be back out there and doing it. It’s just been awesome to be out on the streets again, and the feedback from everybody has been incredible. It’s just so cool that after five years everybody is still so excited [about Cash Cab].
Do any moments in particular stand out as memorable while shooting this season?
There are some pretty big-name celebrities in the cab this season, and to have them come on the show was really exciting for me. Not just to meet them, but to see the passengers react and be totally surprised. It’s a double-whammy surprise when the celebrities get in the cab. Boom and then bam. It also confirms that these big-time people know Cash Cab and are fans of the show, which is a pretty exciting thing for me.
Did any celebrity contests win big?
I think Dave Foley was the strongest contest, and Scott Bakula knew a lot, too. They were both really good and probably helped the contestants rack up a couple grand. We had some great games. Gilbert Gottfried was in there and he didn’t answer any questions at all, but he was hilarious. The guys he rode with seemed to know everything, though.
What are your general thoughts about people who drive while eating?
Being one of them, I can’t really judge [laughs]. I’m OK with it, as long as you are someone who can multitask while driving without sacrificing good driving.
Are there any meals that are just unacceptable to eat while manning the wheel?
I’d say Thanksgiving dinner—that’d be a bit ridiculous. Soups are tough, too. I guess it’s fine if you’re going to drink it, but if it was a nice, thick split pea you might have trouble holding the cup and the spoon. I don’t know about that…
If I drove a cab, I would have a strict no food rule for any passenger who comes in.
Yeah, I wouldn’t let them, but as a driver I’m OK with eating [laughs].
What’s the worst thing a passenger could eat while you’re driving?
Sauerkraut. The smell would kill me. I’d give them the hardest Cash Cab questions I could come up with so I could kick them out.
Let’s talk about NYC in general. What do you consider to be the iconic “New York breakfast”? Or at least something that’s a staple in your diet when you’re not sticking to the ketogenic routine...
If we’re talking fancy, I like a nice eggs Benedict. Plenty of places to get that. But if we’re talking a deli or bodega, then I’m partial to a sausage egg and cheese on a roll. That’s the good stuff, man. I used to go to Bagels on the Square, which was near Joe’s Pizza (and Joe’s also appears in Meet Me At Ray’s, by the way), and I would order a sausage egg and cheese on a toasted everything bagel. Oh man… I totally want one right now.
What comedy clubs have you been hitting up lately?
I always go to the same clubs. I go to the Comedy Cellar and I go to The Stand. They’ve been packed lately. The Cellar is so busy, and they have three rooms going now. There’s like 50 people outside for every show, trying to get a couple stand-by seats. It’s insane.
How’s the food at The Comedy Cellar?
It’s even better! I used to be great, then they re-did the kitchen, brought in a new chef, and now the food is phenomenal upstairs at the Olive Tree Cafe. I tend to order this panini with brie and freshly-grilled chicken. Everybody says their wings are still awesome, but I’m not a wings guy. They’re too much work for too little food. It’s like, I just spent 20 minutes eating these things and I’m still starving? [laughs]
If you could turn any NYC restaurant into a drive-through, so the Cash Cab could stop by, what would you pick?
I wish we had In ‘N Out Burger in New York! But there’s this Mexican place called Playa Betty’s on the Upper West Side that’s just phenomenal, and I’d love to be able to pick that up. Tacos on the go. But they have the best enchiladas. I usually don’t order enchiladas, but man… the ones they make there are so good.
Any other thoughts you want to add about breakfast in general?
When I was a kid, I thought I would open a restaurant one day that was called “Just Breakfast.” That’d be all we serve—breakfast 24/7. It’d be open all day and all night. But it wouldn’t be a diner; it’s just breakfast. I think people would be happy to eat that all day.
For more on Ben Bailey, visit his website and check out his latest stand-up special, Live & Uncensored. The new season of Cash Cab airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on the Discovery Channel. Watch the first two episodes here.