The New York Diet

Top Chef Masters Judge James Oseland Is Not Afraid to Mix His Breakfast Cereals

James Oseland eats leftovers in the Saveur kitchen.
James Oseland eats leftovers in the Saveur kitchen. Photo: Melissa Hom

James Oseland was named editor-in-chief at Saveur back in 2006, but it took a stint as a judge on Top Chef Masters to gain notoriety beyond his rate base. A new season of the show airs next month on Bravo, and Oseland can’t wait for all of us to watch it. “It was a blast, an unrivaled blast, working on this season,” he said. “As a judge, you really are the Über audience member — you’re really engaged, you want to know!” Oseland is back in New York after an extended stay in California, where he spent five weeks caring for his mother, who is temporarily unable to eat while recovering from surgery. “I’ve been telling her very graphic descriptions of what I have been eating,” he said. “It’s not a torture for her. It’s been a wonderful thing.” He keeps his food narrative going in this week’s New York Diet.

Friday, February 26
Friday was my last day in Walnut Creek, California, which is where my mom lives, and it’s also where the hospital is. Breakfast was this delish-nutrish combo of Trader Joe’s cereals, where I basically mixed a third of Organic Flax Plus cereal with a third of Organic Honey Crunch ‘N Oats cereal with a third of quick-cook oatmeal. Mix it all together with some sliced banana, some prunes, some honey, and some 2 percent milk, and it’s an instant muesli.

Lunch was at the hospital cafeteria. I have to say, the cafeteria at Kaiser Walnut Creek hospital was surprisingly okay. In fact, honestly, I would go on record as saying it’s probably the best hospital food I’ve had anywhere. I ordered a bizarre daily special: a vegetarian bean burger served on top of grilled rye bread, with grilled onion and jack cheese. It sounds kind of ghastly in a way, but it just hit the spot, and it was oddly artful food for something being so junky and diner-ish. It was a California vegetarian patty melt on pretty good quality rye bread. California rye bread! Who knew?

Later in the afternoon I went with my aunt to Target. My mom had a tracheotomy, so she asked my aunt to, and I quote, “read her a juicy novel.” So we went to Target and bought a juicy novel and a bunch of Dove milk chocolate bars, which we scarfed on our way back to the hospital and which also were very delicious.

That night, dinner was at my new very favorite diner in the whole entire world, right next door to the hospital, called the Hick’ry Pit. It’s a classic California coffee shop with a char-broiled, smoke-grilled twist. The place is just a knockout, totally frozen in amber from 1957. It’s mostly retiree couples in jogging suits enjoying hickory-smoked burgers. My aunt and I ordered the exact same thing: two eggs fried overfirm with buttered raisin toast, incredibly delicious potato salad, and a very, very wonderful vegetable and pulled-barbecued-pork stew. And then we split a half a slice of really transcendent banana-cream pie.

Saturday, February 27
Breakfast was exactly the same as Friday’s.

I was returning to New York from Oakland on JetBlue, and my lunch amounted to basically a frantic survey of Terminal 1 to find the least scary food possible. That turned out to be a chili-orange noodle salad from a joint called Silver Dragon Café, which I ate while I was on the plane. It was kind of emphatically tasteless, this thing, so I improved it just a little bit by adding a pack of JetBlue cashew nuts, which gave it salt and substance. It was not a thing of great deliciousness, but it got me through the flight.

Dinner was, at long last, at home. I was pretty shell-shocked, and my partner, Daniel, who is from Brazil, makes some of the meanest rice and beans anywhere on the planet. A few days prior he’d made some really delicious black beans with chorizo and browned garlic — kind of a humble feijoada. He also made a quick tomato salad with oregano and Meyer-lemon juice — I brought back a nice bag of Meyer lemons from a friend of my mom’s. He also made braised cabbage with ginger and tomatoes, and I ate it all with pickled Brazilian yellow chilies, which are just incredibly delicious — they have kind of a smoky habanero quality to them. They’re just frighteningly good.

Post-dinner I shoveled down a bunch of Walker’s pure butter shortbread cookies down my throat. I needed sugar and fat, and I needed it fast. Those cookies are hard to stop eating once you start. I love how un–tricked up they are. It’s just flour, butter, sugar, salt.

Sunday, February 28
We had a breakfast that Daniel put together, kind of a poor-man’s homemade muesli with milk and honey and chopped Gala apples.

Lunch was just a few hours later. I live in Williamsburg, and we walked up to Greenpoint. So much of the last four weeks was just about seeking comfort, largely through the food that I put into my mouth, and I really was just unconsciously going to these places, to these foods, that just give me an instant sense of peace. One of my go-to favorite places in all of New York is a small restaurant in Greenpoint called Lomzynianka — sort of a blue-plate specials Polish place. I had the most extraordinary bowl of tripe soup, and really expertly battered fried cod that was served with mashed potatoes, sauerkraut salad, cucumber salad, and big tall glass of black currant juice with no ice. That was just instant satisfaction. I think they got a new cook there, because the food has improved since the last time I was there even a few months ago.

Dinner was half leftovers and half what we threw together. On Sunday nights we make food that we can bring to work, or eat when we come home late at night during the week, so we made some really lovely garlic jasmine rice that had been seasoned with whole cinnamon and cloves and annatto seed — it was a lovely brick red color. We ate that along with the black beans from the night before, and I made a quick mélange of vegetables that I threw in the oven and then dressed with garam masala, olive oil, and Meyer-lemon juice.

I had yet more Walker’s shortbread cookies.

Monday, March 1
Ditto the same breakfast, but instead of chopped apples it was sliced bananas. Along with that I had a really beautiful cup of masala chai tea. I mix a sachet of Twinings masala tea and a bag of PG Tips tea, steep them together until it’s really black, and then I add a lot of milk and sugar, so it’s sort of like India and Brooklyn together.

Lunch was a Saveur mag staff standby, these really delightful bento boxes that we get at Hanareum supermarket just up the street on 32nd. Mine was sticky Korean rice, and the savory part was stewed sardines with daikon and a lot of chili and black pepper. It was very good, very sophisticated — one of my favorite things they make. There was very fresh, vibrant, crisp oyster and napa cabbage kimchee, and a sprightly little broccoli salad.

Our former kitchen director lives in Texas, and she knows my predilection for crappy candy bars, so she sent from Austin these great bars from New Zealand called Curly Wurly bars. There were two of those, which about an hour after lunch I ate in very quick succession.

Dinner was exactly the same thing that Daniel and I had on Sunday night, and there was more Walker’s shortbread — every night like a prescription from the doctor.

Tuesday, March 2
Same breakfast: muesli, milk, honey, banana, Masala tea, milk, sugar.

Lunch was more leftovers from Sunday night’s dinner, which I brought to work and microwaved. The chef John DeLucie put together a really brilliant lunch that afternoon here at the office. I went over and meet-and-greeted the people in attendance and absconded with what John was calling a “superdense” chocolate cake. It was served with mandarin oranges, but I didn’t bother with those, I just wolfed the chocolate part.

As much as I like the rice and beans and veggies, I was like, “Daniel, we can’t eat that again. Let me do a quick assemble of something tasty and comforting.” We hadn’t done grocery shopping since I’d been back, but I threw something together. I love the challenge of not having a lot of ingredients on hand. I did a quick sauté of peas, sun-dried tomatoes, very finely julienned Meyer-lemon peel, a lot of thinly sliced garlic, and oregano, and tossed it with some really good quality Rienze spaghetti. On top I grated a lot of Parmigiano-Reggiano and also a lot of black pepper, and it was immensely satisfying. I had a glass of Meyer-lemon-juice lemonade, plus the end of the Walker shortbread cookies.

Wednesday, March 3
Same breakfast.

For lunch, I had an appointment up in Westchester with my doctor, who I’ve seen for the last sixteen years now. On my way to Grand Central, I stopped along at Yagura, a little Japanese market where they make these delicious little boxed lunches. My doctor and I know each other really well, so I ate lunch basically during my exam. It was a really fine piece of skin-on grilled salmon, rice topped with bonito, and a really beautiful square of nori, pink daikon pickle — not that garishly neon yellow stuff, but very good daikon pickle — a braised potato-and-fish cake side dish, a little piece of omelette, and a little piece of fried chicken. My doctor was jealous.

Dinner continued the Japanese theme. Daniel came and picked me up from work, and we walked from midtown down to the East Village. We had dinner at Soba Ya. We got exactly the same thing. Since we were there by 5:30, there’s an early bird special. For eighteen bucks it’s this very attractive appetizer spread that included a gorgeous spinach-and-sesame salad and lightly pickled lotus root topped with shiso, and the main event was a truly soul-satisfying bowl of soba soup. I really do adore the dashi stock that Soba Ya uses; it’s some of the best in town. You need to drink about a gallon of water afterward — it’s on the salty side — but it’s so immaculately seasoned.

Top Chef Masters Judge James Oseland Is Not Afraid to Mix His Breakfast