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Carrying On

James Oseland shares the recent loss of his mother and why she loved 'Masters' so much.

Hi, guys. It’s great to be back here. Blogging about Top Chef Masters, Season 1, turned out to be an unexpected pleasure, and it feels good to get back to it for Season Two.

The blogs I wrote last season allowed me to see each episode anew, to re-experience the crazy-quilt of foods we judges were presented with, and to re-assess not only those foods but my original reactions to them. It was a wonderful cushion, an addendum to the sometimes very raw — literally! — process of eating a dish on the Top Chef Masters set.

More than that, blogging provided me with clear evidence of what wonderful readers all of you are. The comments you posted edified me. They made me feel good. They confused me. They entertained me. They angered me. They humored me. But most of all, they comforted me. In the last blog I wrote for the season—about the finale episode, in which Rick Bayless took home the grand prize—I ended the entry by mentioning my beloved cat Pete, who was then dying of cancer.  The outpouring of support in the comments that you left was beautiful and humbling, a big cyber hug. Pete passed away in my arms on a drizzly Sunday morning in September. He was peaceful, a valiant fighter until the end who taught me a lot about what friendship can be. He’ll be dearly missed, but I’ll always have your lovely comments to guide me through difficult moments.

Sadly, I’ve recently experienced another loss. About three weeks ago, my eighty-five-year-old mom passed away in California. She was, until about six weeks before she died, a healthy, happy California mom. She drove her Toyota Echo to the nearby Trader Joe’s every few days to stock up on flax seed cereal and frozen peas. She did tai chi with a group of East Bay seniors. She learned conversational Spanish and was taking a class in Buddhist philosophy. Then, after a trip to Hawaii, she suffered a heart attack, followed by an emergency bypass, and then developed pneumonia—a particularly vicious strain of the disease that lives and breeds inside hospitals.

To describe her passing as devastating wouldn’t be close to accurate. In fact, there really aren’t any words to describe it. It’s more like a sensation—the feeling of being ripped open, completely and fully gutted. It is, simply, the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. My mom and I were intensely close. She was my guiding light, my best friend, my biggest critic, my greatest advocate. She was the person who not only introduced me to literature but made me love it, the person who taught me not only to taste food but to relish it. Actually, my mom was never much of a cook, but she was one of the world’s great eaters. Her palate was almost shockingly en pointe. Coming from such finicky stock, I hardly consider it an accident that a large part of my adult life has been dedicated to savoring — and describing — food.

In the last weeks of her life, my mom was nourished by way of a feeding tube. To help her overcome that cold and terrible indignity, I described to her, on a daily basis, everything that I ate. That might sound like a strange (if not cruel) thing to do, but she loved it. For her, it was like watching a great movie or having a really amazing novel read to you. Sharing those food narratives with her was wonderful and intimate and grounding.

I will miss my mom more than I can say.

Writing this blog, on the evening of the Top Chef Masters Season 2 premiere, is hard. I’d say I could think of lots of other things I’d rather be doing, but in fact, all I’d rather be doing is staying in bed, resting, which feels like the most comforting thing to do right now. My mom, however, would want me to carry on. She loved Top Chef Masters. She loved not only my blogs, but Jay’s blogs, Kelly’s blogs, Gael’s blogs. But I’m going to keep the rest of this one today short and sweet, or at least try.
What a joy to be back on the show, to be in the company of some of the best cooking minds in the world. And the chefs on Episode 1 largely knocked it out of the park. It was almost as though Susan, Tony, Govind, Jimmy, Ana, and Jerry had all studied Season 2. It was as though they’d learned from the first round of chefs the fundamental parameters of what works and what doesn’t work in the context of the show.  They seemed to have an innate understanding of what the peccadilloes of the judging panel’s palates are. They seemed not the least bit flummoxed by the romance-food challenge. Every one of them strived to be the evening’s winner with great confidence and vigor.

My least favorite plate of food? Govind and Jimmy’s lamb duo. You know, these guys can cook—they’re legends—but I found myself yearning for more panache. What they served us was good. It was solid restaurant cooking, a delicate vinaigrette, a lamb carpaccio that was as tender as butter, a gorgeously flavorful side of minced cauliflower. I just wanted more. I wanted more rigor. I wanted to be challenged, surprised. Instead, Govind and Jimmy offered a decent yet almost overtly safe combination of foods, especially when compared with what the other four chefs proffered.

My favorite plate of the night? Easily it was Susan and Tony’s jazzy marriage of black pepper shrimp and scallops and pasta with funky Tallegio. It was a pairing that shouldn’t have worked—it was as unlikely a pairing as Susan and Tony themselves. But in fact it worked. It did everything that Govind and Jimmy’s plate didn’t do. It made me crease my brow (in a good way). It made me think. It made me fall in love. And it made me desperate to find out what they were going to serve on Episode Two. If we were starting off with this much of a bang, what strengths might follow?

So, with that, I bid you all happy (continued) viewing and a good night (or day). I guarantee you that Season 2 is awesome. I guarantee you’re going to love it. I know my mom would have, too.



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