Since time immemorial, a person who wanted to cook a nice thick medium-rare sirloin for dinner followed more or less the same procedure: place the beef steak on a hard, hot flame so that the outside caramelizes at a mahogany color while the interior remains sunset pink. Finding that balance reliably takes both practice and prayer: too much heat too quickly, and you’ve got a raw char-covered steak; not enough, and your expensive two-inch cut might turn into a gray, parched dish sponge. “I was convinced that there was a better way to cook thick steaks, a new method that would give them the tender treatment they deserve,” wrote J. Kenji López-Alt, the author and recipe developer, in a 2007 article for Illustrated Cook. This new method, which López-Alt dubbed “reverse searing,” started a revolution at the stove. Savvy foodies began to cook their steaks gently, slowly bringing the insides to temperature without worrying about any crusts. Only when the interior reaches exactly one hundred and thirty degrees will the meat be exposed to scorching heat – the golden exterior reaches as a blossoming finale, rather than a starting point.
Reverse searing was arguably López-Alt’s first viral cooking technique. In the years that followed, he built a career based on shaking up conventional wisdom about cooking. after leaving Illustrated Cook, López-Alt, an MIT graduate who had spent time working in Boston-area restaurants, returned to his hometown of New York to work for the food website Serious Eats. In his “The Food Lab” column, he broke down popular American recipes and rebuilt them better, faster, stronger. His pieces became an anchor for the publication, and López-Alt became virtually synonymous with the site. (He no longer takes care of Serious Eats on a daily basis, but he remains a culinary advisor; since 2019, he has written a culinary column for the Times.) López-Alt’s first book, “The Food Lab,” based on the column, has sold over half a million copies, and his YouTube channel has over a million subscribers. . On online cooking forums, he’s achieved mononymous status, and his most avid followers — many of them young, male, and science-aware — repeat the things Kenji says with the solemn weight of scripture. Kenji says red miso paste is as good as shrimp paste for making kimchi. Kenji says crab cakes should be cooked between 145 and 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Kenji says cornstarch will only work for hot dishes. Kenji says it’s not really necessary to bring a steak to room temperature before cooking it.
In 2014, López-Alt moved with his wife, software engineer and cryptographer Adriana López, from New York to the Bay Area, and in late 2020 they decamped with their young daughter from there to Seattle. López-Alt’s second cookbook, a nearly seven hundred-page volume titled “The Wok,” will be released in March. We recently spoke on the phone for several days while he was out walking with his second child, born in September. After two years of hiding and cooking meals for his family (some of which he streams, via a front-facing camera, on YouTube), he was gearing up for a new ad campaign. In our conversations, which have been edited for length and clarity, we talked about the responsibilities of fame, being a jerk, and the weighty idea of calling a recipe “the best.”
There is something very contrary to the trend in today’s cookbook landscape to write an entire book focusing on one tool rather than the cultural context. I don’t mean you’re just, like, “Here’s a piece of metal. Let’s talk only about its structural properties. You include your own life and other contexts in writing your recipes, but it’s rarely in the culturally deep and personal way that’s so prevalent in cookbooks these days.
This is something that troubled me when I started writing this book. How can I, as a non-Chinese person – I’m half Japanese, I grew up in the US – write all this stuff about Chinese recipes with any authority? Why should people trust me? And why is it OK for me to do this? The context that I try to give in the book is always about this. I always try to place the recipes I write about in the context of how they fit into my own daily life, and also the memories I have of eating them with my family. My very white dad from Pennsylvania loved Chinese food and took us all over Chinatown, trying to find some really good Chinese-American Cantonese stuff. I built my own connection with wok cooking through my interest in cooking. So it’s not that the book has no cultural context or personal context. It does. It’s just, I think, a different kind of personal context from, say, is it Eric Kim who has a new Korean cookbook?
Yeah, it’s called “Korean American”.
This book is super personal: “These are my family recipes. For me, we didn’t have family recipes growing up, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have thoughts about what I grew up eating. Also, in this book, as much as possible – much more so than in “The Food Lab” – I try to make sure that I consult with experts, either through their books or by contacting them directly. I make sure to cite my sources.
“The Food Lab” was primarily based on recipe testing rather than research. If you were doing this book now, do you think you would be doing the kind of research and reporting that you did for “The Wok”?
I don’t think I need to speak as much about the cultural context of meatloaf or mac and cheese to an American audience as I do about the enjoyment of eating dry beef, because I think that’s something that “The Food” audiences Lab” is much more familiar. Part of the point of this book was, here are these foods, and now I’m going to walk you through all the different bits of technique and food science that you can think of while cooking them. The Science , I think, was the point, and the dishes themselves were really just the hook.
My reading of “The Food Lab”, which I think is not uncommon, is that it is a book built around the idea of optimization. There is certainly, as you said, unpacking the science, and explaining why this or that recipe works. But it also implies that a recipe can have a platonic ideal, or a perfect state.
Granted, I understand why you would read it that way, and why a lot of people would read it that way, but that’s definitely not where I’m at right now. My perspective on a lot of these things has changed over the last six or seven years. Even when I was writing “The Food Lab”, when I said something like “the best”, what I really meant was, “I’m going to give you some basic descriptions that I think a lot of people would be okay” the best mac and cheese is. There are some things that everyone might not agree on, but here are my specific goals right now, and I think a lot of people probably agree that these are good goals to have for macaroni with cheese. And now I’m going to show you how you can optimize those specific things. If you disagree that these are good things in mac and cheese, well, I want to provide you with enough background information so that you can then modify the recipe to make it whatever you think you are the best.
Even then, what does “best” mean? I think back then I used it a lot more just because I was writing for a food blog every day, and “best” gets you more clicks than “really good”. These days I don’t really care about clicks, so I very rarely say something is “better”. I usually go out of my way to say, “That’s exactly what I felt like doing today.” I don’t cook the same thing the same way every time I make it, or order food the same way every time. Sometimes I want really crispy, double-cooked fries, and sometimes I want a soggy, salty, greasy, chewy pile. One isn’t better than the other, but it’s good to know how to get to these places, if you want.
My kids’ book, “Every Night Is Pizza Night,” was actually about that – the concept of “best,” and how the best has context, and people have different reasons for liking things, and these things can change. These are things that, when I was in my twenties and early thirties, I didn’t know. I think as you get older and mature as a person, there are things that you come to internalize better and understand better. I was an asshole! I’m still one! But I’m less of an asshole now, and at least I admit it. The children’s book was, in many ways, a response to how some people take my work. Especially online, I see someone posting a picture of a stew they made and then explaining how they made it. And then someone else, in the comments, comes along and says, “No, that’s crap. Kenji said to do it another way. Therefore, your stew is terrible. That’s not how I want my work to be used at all.