Every person on planet Earth views life through a glass tinted by what matters to them most. From food to faith, the tint can come from anywhere, really. For J. Kenji López-Alt, Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats, his tint comes from his love of science. Mix that with a passion for food and you get The Food Lab, a one-stop-shop for anyone looking not only for great recipes, but an understanding of what makes them so great.
Kenji was kind enough to give me a little time for an interview. We talk a little about how he got in to cooking in the first place, how science plays in to his cooking, and a personal food memory.
As my daughter is fond of singing, “C is for cookie. That’s good enough for me!” (Thanks Cookie Monster!). And really, if you don’t like cookies, I’m not sure we can be friends. When I asked Kenji if he’d be willing to share a recipe along with this interview, he pointed me to his recipe for the best chocolate chip cookies. Check out the recipe over at Serious Eats.
Behind the Pass: Have you always had a love for food, or was there a particular moment where it kind of suddenly clicked for you that there was something special about food?
Kenji López-Alt: I didn’t always love food. I actually came into the field almost accidentally. I’d spent a few summers in a row through high school and college working in biology labs (it was my major at the time), and wanted to take a few months off from academic work the summer following my sophomore year at school (MIT has a way of doing that to you). I decided I’d get a job as a waiter, but wouldn’t you know it, all of the summer waitering jobs were taken already. By chance, one restaurant I walked into happened to have a position for a starting cook that had just opened up. They threw me into the fire that same night and I ended up loving it.
From there, it was history. I spent the next 8 years of my life cooking in restaurants.
BtP: The Food Lab declares itself as being “part mad scientist, part chef”. I know you’re an MIT grad, so I imagine the mad scientist part comes from there. Can you talk a little about how you learned about cooking and your involvement in the culinary world?
KLA: I learned cooking the hard way. I started as a prep cook at really dummy restaurants (think: national chains and the like), and worked my way up to better and better restaurants, generally working 6 days a week, 14 hour shifts, and spending my days off volunteering at other restaurants so that I could get more experience under my belt. All I did was cook and read about food. I made basically minimum wage because of the number of hours I worked, but then again, I didn’t have any time to spend the money I wasn’t earning anyway, so it all worked out.
BtP: What was it that brought you to make the connection between science and food?
KLA: Coming from a family of scientists and having strong schooling in the sciences and engineering, I can’t help but bring science into my every day life. It would have happened whether I was an architect, a biologist, or a musician. Science is my language, and it’s the best method out there for discovering how the world works. I just happen to apply it to what I love, which is food and cooking.
BtP: Why does it matter to you that people understand not just the how but the why when it comes to cooking?
KLA: I want people to come away from an article feeling empowered and confident about their abilities in a kitchen. If you’re just following a recipe without understanding it, you’re a slave. You have no freedom, no ability to make modifications or work through problems. Once you understand the underlying techniques and science, however, you get the power and confidence to work with food in a way that suits you, not the recipe writer.
BtP: Most everyone that has a love for food has some great memories that are food related, be it a particular dish that mom made, or a meal they had or prepared for someone they love. What’s your favorite food memory?
KLA: Tough one. It might be the first time I cooked a dish start to finish in a fancy restaurant and realized to myself, “Holy crap, there’s somebody in that dining room who just payed $40 for food that I made. I better not mess it up!”
I don’t have many of the childhood memories that some chefs and food writers talk about. My parents liked good food, but they weren’t great cooks. I suppose I do distinctly remember eating my first raw clams fresh from the beach in Cape Cod with my dad, and I remember that same night having a contest to see who could eat the hottest salsa. He won, easily.
J. Kenji López-Alt is Chief Creative Office for Serious Eats, and the author of The Food Lab, which was nominated for a James Beard Journalism Award in the category of Cooking, Recipes or Instruction.