J. Kenji Lopez-Alt never intended to end up in an apron. The San Mateo-based recipe developer, cookbook author, and managing culinary director of Serious Eats was a college biology major when he landed a summer job as a prep chef. Now fresh off the heels of his James Beard Award-winning cookbook, The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science, Lopez-Alt is prepping for his next great unveiling.
On Saturday, October 15, Kenji will be sharing secrets on cooking the perfect steak at Uncharted, a two-day festival of ideas in Berkeley that features an eclectic array of guest speakers and performers.
We checked in with Kenji on his upcoming speaking engagement and tapped his culinary mind for top kitchen tips (brought to you by science).
7x7: How did you make your foray into the world of food?
Lopez-Alt: The summer after my sophomore year, I decided to look for a job as a waiter. One of the restaurants I walked into didn't have any open waiter positions, but they had a prep cook who didn't show up that morning and said if I could work that afternoon and hold a knife then I could have a job. So that was my first restaurant job. I loved it as soon as I started working in the kitchen and I've done it ever since.
In a data-obsessed society, do you ever get any push back on exploring the scientific side of cooking?
I think my readers are pretty self-selecting. The times I do get push back is if I work on a classic recipe particular to a culture (almost always Italian) and people have deep-seated beliefs about the right and wrong way to do it. If I find that there are better ways to do it, that's when I sometimes see feedback like, "You're an idiot, you're ruining pasta."
How does knowing the science of cooking make a difference?
I find science to be empowering. I think a lot of people grow up learning how to cook from their parents or grandparents or maybe a chef, and they learn how to cook something one way and that becomes the way, but they don't quite understand how things are interacting. It's like looking up an address and taking turn-by-turn directions from point A to point B, but never getting a larger understanding of the city around you. Science gives you a broader picture. It gives you the map to plan your own route in the kitchen.
As a columnist you write a lot. Are there any posts/topics that have been surprisingly popular?
There was a video I did a month ago where I was cooking sous vide, and there's this neat method of pushing the air out of a plastic bag (called water displacement) that I wanted to explain. [The video] was meant to be utility for me and now it has over 4 million views on Facebook and over a million views on You Tube. I never expected people to care that much about how to put food in a plastic bag.
What are the top 3 mistakes you see home cooks making on a regular basis?
1. Not seasoning properly. You should always season as you go.
2. Relying on a timer instead of a thermometer, particularly when cooking meat. It's the internal temperature that defines whether it's done or not.
3. Not keeping your knives sharp. It makes prep work a chore and it's much more dangerous.
What are your top 4 essential kitchen tools?
1. Knife and cutting board
2. Mortar and pestle—which I use instead of spice grinder and often instead of a food processor. Mortar and pestle doesn't cut, it crushes, so you release more aromatics and waste less. It's a very undervalued tool.
3. Cast iron or carbon steel skillet that's well-seasoned.
4. Electric pressure cooker—makes beans, grains, and rice so much faster and easier.
In an age of online recipes, do you think people really turn to traditional cookbooks for recipes? If so, why?
People definitely go to books for recipes. No one wants to use a tablet or laptop when they're messy and in the kitchen. I think people like having a book. They're less worried about totally ruining it. Also, a recipe book is designed to have an internal organization that people find reassuring. Plus, it's nice to look at large full color photographs in print.
What is the first meal you remember getting super excited about eating? Cooking?
Dumplings were always my favorite meal as a kid. Once every two months my mom, my sisters, and I would make (Japanese} dumplings that we would freeze.
Professionally, I got into cooking way before I got into eating. The first meal I really remember thinking "holy cow, this is amazing" was when I was working at No. 9 Park in Boston and I brought my family in and we had a tasting menu. I was eating all of these things that I'd cooked in the kitchen or seen other cooks make, but I'd never sat down for that level of experience and that kind of blew my mind. It was completely new and really exciting.
If you had to eat one meal for the rest of your life, what would it be?
New York style pizza.
You're hosting a lab called "The Steak Myth" during Uncharted. Can you tell us a little about it?
We're going to go over some of the common myths that people spread about steaks. There are a ton of them, mostly I think because it's such a primal thing—a piece of meat on a fire. There tends to be a lot of myth and lore about the things you should and shouldn't do, but most of them are not founded in any kind of real experience or science, like searing to seal juices or flipping it only once or not salting it till the end. In some cases the classic advice ends up giving you the exact opposite results of what you really want.
What are your top food recommendations in the Bay Area?
I don't eat out that often, but…a sandwich from Pal's TakeAway (currently in Forage Kitchen); a bagel at Beauty's Bagels; Kin Khao at the Parc 55 hotel; State Bird; and Chef Zhao Bistro in San Mateo—I've been to many Szechuaun restaurants in the Bay Area and it's the best by far.