For someone who doesn't really eat breakfast, H. Jon Benjamin has a lot to say about breakfast
H. Jon Benjamin’s voice is so likable, I would use an alarm clock that plays a recording of him urging me to wake up if it were available. Best known for providing the meaty timbre of the titular characters on FX’s Archer and Fox’s Bob’s Burgers (as well as the talking can of vegetables in Wet Hot American Summer), Benjamin is also a seasoned comedian whose career dates back to the early ‘90s, when he performed with other cult favorites like David Cross.
While Benjamin tends to keep breakfast simple these days with a cup of tea and maybe a hardboiled egg, he admits to being a sucker when it comes to Jewish deli food, specifically whitefish salad and fresh lox. We talked about when he first lived in New York and would order a chopped cheese from his local bodega, as well as what he imagines Sterling Archer and Bob Belcher eat on an average morning. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Extra Crispy: Do you think the claim about breakfast being the most important meal of the day is on point?
H. Jon Benjamin: I don’t know the science of it, but I don’t believe in that necessarily. It’s certainly not the most important meal of my day. Dinner is the most important. I’ve been skipping breakfast entirely more and more as of late. I have a kid, and breakfast is important to eat before school, so I would have breakfast with him when he was young. But now that he’s in his teens, I can sleep through it like I used to.
When I was a comedian, I’d eat breakfast at like 4 p.m. because I was out late and would wake up late. I was never a breakfast person, in terms of eating during breakfast hours. Back then, I would try and find a diner and still sometimes have a breakfast meal in the afternoon, like a traditional American breakfast—you know, eggs and bacon. I just don’t do that anymore. I’m also old and fat… I try not to eat in the morning so much. I save it all for dinner. But dinner’s a fucking blowout. It’s just debauchery.
So you essentially starve yourself until dinner these days?
More and more lately, I try and not eat at all until dinner. I’ll have a cup of tea in the morning, usually black tea. It sounds monastic, but tea is the essential thing. I’ll have some snacks or occasionally make a hardboiled egg. When I eat breakfast, it’s usually because I’m making something for my kid. I’ll pour him cereal, and that’s like the best I can do.
You’ve lived in New York a while now. Do you have a favorite breakfast meal to order from bodegas?
When I first moved to New York, I used to get something called a chopped cheese from my local bodega, which was ground beef, cheese, and peppers on a bun. That’s a really good breakfast. Recently, I was at a fancy place uptown, I can’t remember the name of the place, but they made a very fancy version of a chopped cheese. It’s hearty fare.
Today, I live in the West Village, and there are bodegas that will make you an egg sandwich, but there aren’t so many of them that have the buffets like Korean delis do. There’s only one left in my neighborhood, and nobody—nobody—touches that shit. I used to eat that shit all the time, though. That was a go-to. They’d put out breakfast food at the buffets, too. The first neighborhood I lived in in the city was Murray Hill, and it was kind of a barren area. There were a couple delis that had the breakfast buffets with the watery eggs, the watery bacon, etc.
At the time, would you indulge?
Yeah because it was the cheapest place to get food. And they had the chopped cheese there, too. That was something I used to get early. I think it might be a Latino or Hispanic favorite because there were a lot of Hispanic people in my neighborhood. The lunch buffet would have plantains and arroz con pollo, etc.
You said you’d be out late when doing stand up regularly, and I assume a lot of the comics were drinking. Do you have any personal breakfast hangover cures?
Well the chopped cheese is a really good hangover cure—really beefy, really cheesy. Of course Pedialyte and more drinking helps, but I was more of the type of person to just live with my hangover. Back then I worked at a library in Boston, so I sort of enjoyed my hangovers. I would go into the stacks and fall asleep.
Were there any hangouts that all the comics in Boston would go to when you all woke up at 4 p.m. to eat “breakfast”?
Yeah, there was a place called The Tasty, which was a diner in Harvard Square. There was also a place called Charlie’s Kitchen in the South End. The Tasty was a real greasy spoon, but Charlie’s Kitchen was a bit more elevated. I’d sometimes go with [comedian] Sam Seder, who was my roommate, David Cross maybe… Charlie Fisher lived nearby so I’d eat with him.
We didn’t have a regular diner. Everybody in comedy would collectively gather after eating. Comics hanging out at diners was more of an LA thing. Over there, they’d go somewhere like Jerry’s Deli as if it were a ritualized, institutional thing. That was like something you heard that Richard Lewis did, you know? When I was starting as a comedian, I was in Cambridge and we didn’t really have that. It wasn’t very Borsch Belt in Cambridge.
The diner game is not that strong in Boston, and there’s not a lot of Jewish delis either.
Diners and Jewish delis were hard to come by, for sure. Few and far between. It’s Boston, that’s what it’s famous for: no Jews.
In New York, do you have any favorite restaurants that serve breakfast?
Now that we’ve crossed the Jewish threshold, I definitely seek out Russ & Daughters, and I would definitely go to Barney Greengrass on the Upper West Side if I was in the area. They’ve got sturgeon, lox eggs and onions, pickled herring—classic Jewish food. The somewhat-new Russ & Daughters sit-down restaurant is super good. I like smoked fish a lot. I really do, and it must be because I’m Jewish. It’s probably from my Russian roots.
What do you typically go for in the Jewish breakfast realm?
I typically go for lox, onions, and eggs with a bagel on the side. If I’m feeling lucky, then some whitefish salad with the bagel.
How do you feel about lox cream cheese spread, as compared to getting cream cheese and lox on a bagel?
I’ve never enjoyed the lox cream cheese spread. It doesn’t taste right to me, probably because the lox is never fresh. Not that the cream cheese is either. Freshly cut lox on top of anything is the way to go.
Salmon-flavored Philadelphia brand cream cheese sort of trips me out, too.
I’ve never seen that, but that’s crazy. It’s probably artificial salmon flavoring, or something like dashi. I assume they just take cream cheese and have a powder they put in and then mix it up. You’d have to be desperate and Jewish to buy that. I’d buy it on a lark. Like, if I saw it at a store I’d think, Yeah, I have to buy this. But it sounds like something from another country.
Speaking of other countries, I remember that you recently went to Tokyo. What did you eat for breakfast there?
Japanese breakfast is pretty crazy. They love like really soft-cooked scrambled eggs that are wet. Very wet eggs. The first thing I saw in Tokyo at the train station was this store that sold ephemera related to this Japanese character or toon that was like the yolk of an egg. It’s name is Gudetama. Egg yolk is like a god there. I didn’t do any research into this, but egg yolk seems to be very important in Tokyo. My first breakfast in Japan was at the fish market, so we had sushi for breakfast. Japanese breakfast isn’t very bread-y, but there’s often eggs and pickled root vegetables.
Do you prefer this to typical American breakfasts?
Yes, it’s certainly healthier. The difference in how healthy their breakfast is, relative to American breakfast, is huge. You felt good after eating, even after a sushi breakfast. They don’t have a Denny’s kind of culture there. No doubling down or stacks of pancakes. It’s very minimal. Even when you get your serving of eggs, it’s a pretty reasonable serving. At first, it’s like, there’s not a lot of food here, but once you eat it makes sense. I would much prefer eating only Japanese-style breakfast, or Japanese-style everything for that matter. It’s a much healthier food palette than America’s.
To go on a tangent, if you were to guess Sterling Archer’s standard breakfast, what would the character eat?
Well he has Eggs Woodhouse. That’s his thing. It’s an eggs Benedict, but way more expensive, like with Iberico ham or caviar. I think there’s a recipe online somewhere. He’d also drink and do drugs in the morning—something to get him going because he has to go kill people. If I had to fictionalize Archer, even though he’s already fictionalized, I would guess he has a lot of amphetamines with breakfast.
Right, like there’d be amphetamine salt in his eggs. What about Bob Belcher?
Bob is very Americana, like, he owns a diner. I think we’ve seen him make his family bacon and eggs in the show, but I feel like he’s a cereal guy. I’m sure he moved from eating the cereals of his childhood like Lucky Charms or Rice Krispies to adult-friendly muesli or granola.
Have you had any breakfast experiences in your life that were particularly memorable?
When my kid was 2, we rented a house in Gloucester, MA. It was at the time when he would wake up at like 4 a.m. every night, and it was the worst because it was a long stretch of early morning before breakfast, where time would crawl and he needed pretty much total attention. I don’t remember enjoying it, but fortunately there was a diner open around 5 a.m. I believe it was called Lee’s. It was a pretty tiny spot, and there was nobody there but us. I attached his chair to the table and ordered fried eggs with a side of fish cakes. I remember sitting there feeding him yogurt I brought in this empty diner while it was still dark out.
After like ten minutes, easily 20 fisherman burst in and filled the place, like a gaggle of heavy Massachusetts accents. A perfect storm, if you will. They were loud and wide awake and they all ordered Budweiser and like an immediate party started. I even think ZZ Top came on. My kid looked shellshocked, and we just sat there like statues. The fishermen basically surrounded us. One of the guys bought me a beer and he told me they had just got off a fishing boat, so Lee’s was their after party spot. We stayed there for like 45 minutes drinking. Around daybreak, I took my kid back to the house. I hope he remembers those drunk fisherman.
Any last thoughts you’d like to add about breakfast?
I wish I had breakfast more. It’s certainly nostalgic for me to have breakfast because I have a kid, and it’s true: Once you start seeing your kid less and less you’re like, Oh shit, I should have had breakfast with them.