J. Kenji López-Alt Applies His Scientific Method to Seattle’s Food Scene | Seattle Met

2022-03-11 08:17:12 By : Ms. Aries Zhou

“Hold on to me.” J. Kenji López-Alt steps off a crumbling concrete boat launch and into a watery muck. We’ve been talking as his four-year-old daughter, Alicia, tromps the marshy lake’s edge in Washington Park Arboretum. She’s holding a glass jar to collect Spanish moss to make a terrarium. But the allure of lake water flora pulls her a little too far from terra firma. She’s stuck in the mud. Right up to—even over—her purple boots.

López-Alt’s own hiking shoes are nearly submerged too. His wife, Adriana, helped him tie the laces back at home, since he was already wearing his nine-week-old son, Koji, in a wrap. We’d scheduled an interview; I arrived with a list of questions to help piece together a career that spans two coasts, multiple platforms, and some of the most-watched food videos on the internet. But with Alicia home from preschool, suddenly a sit-down conversation morphed into an impromptu stroll in the woods.

Science is López-Alt’s bread, butter, and jam. He’s the son of a geneticist, grandson of an organic chemist, husband of a cryptographer, father of a terrarium builder.

And now, as López-Alt edges into the water, it’s a rescue mission. He extends his hand, canvas tote still dangling off his arm, for Alicia to grab. His other arm remains cradled around the midsection of his gray hoodie. Inside, Koji sleeps, wrapped marsupial-style against his dad. Alicia has already nicknamed him Wombat.

López-Alt barely pauses our conversation as he braces himself on shifting ground to heave Alicia back to safety. Koji sleeps through the whole thing.

“It was a successful test of these shoes though,” he says of his hiking boots on the walk back home through the arboretum, as the windy aftermath of an overnight storm shoves gray clouds away to reveal blue sky. In November of 2020, López-Alt and his family acted upon a longtime intention to leave the Bay Area for Seattle. Soon after he arrived in the Northwest, he realized none of his existing boots were waterproof. But López-Alt is comfortable in this mode; he’s been testing the elements and how they affect us, or at least our meals, for the better part of two decades.

López-Alt's home kitchen doubles as the set for some of the internet's most-watched food videos.

He occupies an empirically weird place in American food culture. He didn’t make his name in restaurants; he’s never had a TV show. He did co-own a German-inspired sausage and beer hall in San Mateo for a while, but that didn’t happen until after he had his own Wikipedia page and a cookbook that displays its James Beard Award medallion on the cover. 

Science is López-Alt’s bread, butter, and jam. He’s the son of a geneticist, grandson of an organic chemist, husband of a cryptographer, father of a terrarium builder. The subject flows through both sides of his bloodline and the title of that first book, The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking through Science. This 958-page volume (not including flyleaf conversion tables) published in 2015, standardized years of online writing into an instantly indispensable reference for home cooks, whether they inhabit custom kitchens or a studio-size galley. Food writer Helen Rosner once said she finds optimal cooking techniques by simply googling the topic “plus the word ‘Kenji.’” He’s a one-man mononymous touchstone the way “Wirecutter” quickly summons the most rigorously tested can opener or memory foam pillow. He doesn’t take ad dollars or sponsorships or free meals, but the 75-comment discussion that might erupt on an Instagram post about where he ate dinner is the mark of a guy who’s more influential than any influencer.

A decade ago, some titans of modernist cooking—Grant Achatz, Harold McGee, Alton Brown, Bellevue’s Nathan Myhrvold—reframed cooking as a scientific pursuit rather than recipes passed down through generations. López-Alt moved these conversations out of rarified, immersion-circulated air, down to the realm of smash burgers and pancakes and the best way to cook pasta.

His second cookbook, The Wok: Recipes and Techniques comes out March 8, an ode to the deep, round-bottom pan López-Alt extolls as his favorite piece of cookware. Like most cooking, a wok is all science—heat, physics, reactivity. But in practice it’s more about adjusting as you go. The same could be said of López-Alt’s approach to most aspects of his life. His second cookbook began as a 500-page chunk he had to cut from the first one. Early in the pandemic he started making regular YouTube videos with a particular anti-formula: Just strap on a GoPro, cook, post the results nearly unedited. He likes to point out that he never knows what’s for dinner until he surveys his fridge. People watch because, thanks to all that science, things work out—usually.

Home from the walk , López-Alt fixes Alicia a bath and a restorative hot chocolate and gets ready to film a video. He assembles a length of flat iron steak on a cutting board. López-Alt fastens a thick black band to his head, over the topknot he acquired during the shutdown and declines to cut off, despite his wife’s strong preference otherwise. “Okay,” he mutters under his breath.

His first cookbook, The Food Lab, brims with prescription. But at home López-Alt takes a more free-form approach to cooking.

He holds the GoPro at arm’s length, selfie style, to record a small intro, his voice and cheekbones both in “relaxed smile” mode. The camera stays on as he flips it around to transfer onto that band. The view sweeps across his blue socks and the kitchen floor before he launches into a quick eight-minute tutorial on washing meat to deliver a more tender stir fry.

“I’ve tested this side by side and it does make a huge difference,” he says, squeezing slices of steak in a bowl of cold water. This process removes excess juices, he explains, “so you have more room for the marinade to penetrate.” His dogs, Shabu and Jamón, amble through the kitchen, lending the jingle of their collars to the audio. Prep for this video didn’t involve much more than retrieving the meat and reviewing some wok cookbook galleys on his phone.

The kitchen is roomy by Seattle standards, by old house standards. Cast-iron pans proliferate on a wall rack; more pans dangle from the ceiling; a brigade of knives bristle against magnetic strips. A mat in front of the kitchen sink reads “People who live their lives in fear are destined to have uncomfortable feet.” López-Alt said this in a video one day; someone enshrined it on a mat. A pair of videography mounted to the ceiling and a camera tucked in the overhead pot rack offer the only real clue that this kitchen, with its baby bottles and dog bowls, doubles as a studio.

At 42, López-Alt now has the actual dad status to justify the doofy jokes he inserts into his recipes. When Alicia was born, he left food writing to be a full-time parent. Last year he left pretty much every social media platform except Instagram, where he currently clocks more than 450,000 followers. His career has taken a number of turns—restaurants, a print magazine, early-internet journalism, even a stint in architecture. He might describe himself as a stay-at-home dad, but nearly five million views on a video of him preparing a late-night cheeseburger suggest he can’t entirely opt out of his own personal brand.

He doesn’t take ad dollars or sponsorships or free meals, but the 75-comment discussion that might erupt on an Instagram post about where he ate dinner is the mark of a guy who’s more influential than any influencer.

To Seattle home cooks, his arrival was the food equivalent of Steph Curry buying a Tudor on the edge of Capitol Hill, then playing pickup games at various neighborhood parks. Moving to Seattle had been an intention for years, he said—more nature, fewer forest fires than in the Bay Area, more space for the second kid they wanted to have. Adriana interned at Microsoft during the early stages of a career in security software engineering; the couple visited about once a year after that. It’s a good place for her work. As long as Kenji has a kitchen, he’s boundless.

López-Alt gets recognized way more often in Seattle—on the street, at the store, even on the ski slopes at Snoqualmie. When his extended family visited over New Year’s, his sister, Pico Alt, recalled, “I don’t think we went to a single restaurant where someone didn’t come up and say hi.” He’s not sure why; this uptick in unsolicited hellos clashes with Seattle’s reputation as a city prone to freeze. Then again, López-Alt’s core fan base—the sort of cook who prizes the precision of a digital meat thermometer, but also the ruggedness of a cast-iron skillet—tracks with some of our civic archetypes.

He’s leaned on Instagram as a tool to explore his new city. Posts chronicle takeout from Cafe Lago, deep-dish from Windy City Pie, or any facet of the city’s blooming bagel scene. Then kitchens hustle to double production as Kenji fans descend. A friend recently scrolled a dating app to find one potential match listed among her interests: “Very much want to tour all of Kenji López-Alt’s Seattle restaurant recommendations.” This didn’t happen back in San Mateo.

He got into YouTube after noticing an old video of him making a chorizo grilled cheese had amassed a staggering number of views (now it's up to 10 million). In early 2020 he had a GoPro lying around from a recent vacation, so he strapped it on and started posting POV videos of whatever he was cooking that day, including trips to the fridge and the occasional swig of beer. In 2021 they generated income while also fueling one of his best years for book sales. Is this a long-term plan? He reminds me, he doesn’t make those. “I’ll do it until it stops being fun.”

In real life, López-Alt talks in the same fast-flowing conversational stream he employs in his videos. He’s the same with his kids, Adriana says one day, sitting outside Volunteer Park Cafe. “There’s no silence.” When Alicia was a toddler, she and her dad developed an activity called “walk and talk” that involved an hour-long circuit around the neighborhood with the stroller while López-Alt explained photosynthesis, or why the sky is blue. Parenthood offers an excuse to revisit his own childhood interests—with Alicia he’s added birdwatching and violin to a roster of hobbies that also includes woodworking, guitar, and video games. He doesn’t sleep much. Fatherhood has also softened his assertive edges, says Adriana. “It exercises that muscle of being able to see things from someone else’s perspective.”

J. Kenji López-Alt says the wok is the pan he reaches for most in his own kitchen.

In most stories about a prominent food personality, now’s the time to launch into the childhood food memories that shaped López-Alt’s passion for cooking. The tuna melts or Chinatown meals shared with his father, Frederick Alt, a geneticist who shares his son’s smile, pink-prone cheeks, and arrow-shaped nose. The breakfasts of tamago kake gohan his maternal grandmother, Yasuko, made on weekend mornings. His grandfather, baby Koji’s namesake, was chairman of Columbia University’s chemistry department; the couple lived in the unit directly beneath the Alt family in their Morningside Heights apartment building.

But in this household, family traditions were more about the scientific method or playing guitar or violin than they were about recipes. Food was, at best, an ancillary interest in unit 10-J. Having two sisters meant López-Alt played with My Little Ponies as much as He-Man. Kid-size Kenji peered into the business end of the family’s TV trying to figure out how it worked. He drove his mom crazy demanding a good reason for anything she asked: Why he should practice violin, or attend Saturday Japanese school, or finish everything on his plate. “To this day, there’s no winning an argument with him,” says Pico. Not because he’s always right, she clarifies, though he often is. “He’s also just too stubborn to admit when he’s not.”

Back then, the idea of her brother finding fame through cooking would have seemed preposterous. Pico’s first memory of him in the kitchen involved a high school attempt to heat raw tomatoes to turn them into a pasta sauce. It didn’t go well. “So he just went to the refrigerator, looked around, and grabbed what he thought would be the closest thing to tomato sauce.” It was salsa. 

Something snapped the moment my hand touched a knife in a professional kitchen. —J. Kenji López-Alt

At the Dalton School—the sort of private academy where alums in their early 20s might describe their profession as “philanthropist”—he deflected his awkward social standing with painted nails and dangly earrings. “I wasn’t confident in my personality,” he says. If it had been around when he was younger, “I probably would have been a goth.”

He loved biology; studying it at MIT seemed an exceedingly logical next step. But after two summers conducting slow and tedious work inherent to a lab, he realized: “Learning biology was different from lab work. And lab work was boring.” He tried chemistry, physics, computer science, then architecture.

After all that academic comparison shopping, he decided to spend a summer waiting tables, but the only gig he could find was as a cook at a Mongolian grill chain called Fire and Ice. Since his skill level was nonexistent, he started out cutting orange slices at the bar. López-Alt recounts this origin story in the intro to The Food Lab: “Something snapped the moment my hand touched a knife in a professional kitchen.” Cooking offered discoveries, like lab work, but the pace was warp speed. Even if a more seasoned prep veteran had to place his own hand over the new hire’s to demonstrate.

From then on, he cooked—at chain restaurants, at school—even as he completed an architecture degree. He stayed on as house cook for his fraternity (a co-ed literary organization full of international students, not the stuff of Jim Belushi comedies) after graduating. That’s how he met a freshman from Bogotá named Adriana López. They didn’t start dating until she was a senior. It was supposed to be casual.

He worked at an architecture firm a few years after graduation—“mainly because my mom couldn’t believe I wanted to cook”—but that gig confirmed he was all in on kitchen life. Meanwhile, making the leap from chain restaurants to Boston’s No. 9 Park meant he was back on prep work duty, cutting chives for the line. He remembers chef Barbara Lynch stopping cold when she heard the sort of crunch produced by an up-and-down knife motion—a sure sign someone was crushing those herbs with mediocre cutwork. She picked up López-Alt’s cutting board and tipped its contents into the garbage. Once again, someone had to place a hand over his for correction. (The Food Lab includes a photographic guide to knife grips.)

He got better. Moved on to other prestigious Boston kitchens like Clio, Uni, and Toro. He didn’t think about becoming a capital-C chef, he says. He showed up every night to learn the how and why of everything from sous vide to saucing pasta.

Adriana recalls, “he had a bit of an asshole streak from working in kitchens.” López-Alt volunteers his own memories of aggression-prone workplaces spilling into his personal relationships, like the time he belittled a close friend for making pancakes with a box mix. Another friend pulled him aside and urged, “think about what you’re saying.”

From that moment, he says, “I tried to shift the way I worked in restaurants, and I definitely shifted a lot the way I interact with people in my outside life.”

When López-Alt got a test cook job at Cook’s Illustrated, he traded restaurant kitchens for a 40-year-old publication that strips away the personality and high-impact visuals we typically associate with food magazines in favor of line drawings, Yankee reserve, and NASA rigor. One of his earliest projects was an interrogation of pie crusts. López-Alt isn’t a baker: “I’d never made a pie crust in my life.”

Thanksgiving hosts can attest, it’s hard to get the stuff to roll out smoothly. Adding water creates gluten, rendering a tender, buttery crust sad and chewy. López-Alt’s workaround quest included more than 130 pies, even a cardboard box he rigged with a clear plastic top and built-in rubber gloves so he could assemble crusts inside under various levels of humidity.

He needed a liquid that didn’t create gluten. “As the aromas from a nearby pan of reducing wine reached my nose, the answer hit me like a bottle to the head,” he wrote in the magazine’s November/December 2007 issue. Vodka made pie crust that was “easy to roll out like playdough.”

López-Alt’s core fan base—the sort of cook who prizes the precision of a digital meat thermometer, but also the ruggedness of a cast-iron skillet—tracks with some of our civic archetypes.

Genuine baking discoveries are unusual, but even five years later, Thanksgiving coverage in newspaper food sections remembered his article as “a baking revolution.” Test kitchen videos from this era reveal a baby-faced Kenji, his delivery still slightly wooden, his eyebrow emphatically pierced. Cook’s Illustrated taught him that home cooks grapple with an entirely different set of problems than pros who work in restaurants. Fellow test cooks and editors admired the heft of his discoveries or chafed at his unbridled confidence. Sometimes both.

When Adriana moved to New York to pursue a PhD, Kenji eventually joined her—the first of multiple moves to support his wife’s career. In 2009 they got married and hyphenated their last names (his personal website clarifies for curious fans, “I am not latino in any way”). He freelanced out of their one-bedroom apartment, including a few $30 posts for a scrappy website called Serious Eats. The founder, Ed Levine, invited him for lunch with one of the site's editors, Robyn Lee. “You know, Kenji,” Levine said over cheeseburgers. “You should write a food science column for us.”

That was the pre-cookbook origin of The Food Lab, which launched with an examination of the best way to boil an egg. It’s equal parts “eggs-act science” puns and a legit rethinking of one of the kitchen’s most basic acts. Over the next three months, it picked up about 10 times the traffic of any Serious Eats recipe before that.

López-Alt joined in 2009, a more benign internet era filled with LOLcats and 3G iPhones. The offices at Serious Eats were the tonal opposite of Cook’s Illustrated. No more flattening his jokes into omniscient prose. Levine still marvels, “He was Mr. Wizard meets The Simpsons.” Serious Eats, and its valuable Kenji content, has since been sold twice over (Levine now runs its Special Sauce podcast). But back then, reading the site felt like stumbling upon an insider world filled with these intriguing hot brains who posted photographs of their dogs but also comprehensive guides to oven-fried chicken wings. Readers developed attachments to the people behind the bylines, especially López-Alt.

For the first couple years, he says, people on the street recognized his French bulldog, Dumpling, more often than they did him. Eventually he approached Levine’s wife, a book agent, with a handful of recipes. By the time The Food Lab came out, the López-Alts had moved across the country for Adriana’s new job.

A software engineer named Rick Ballard had just bought a three-bedroom apartment in San Francisco’s Mission District when he saw the tweet. Kenji López-Alt—the guy behind Serious Eats’ Food Lab column—was looking for a place to stay in the Bay Area, preferably the Mission. Ballard tweeted back, offering his spare bedroom at his place: “Good, big kitchen. And I make mean cocktails. DM me if interested.”

With that, a guy who was a household name (provided your household is the type to own a digital kitchen scale) showed up at this stranger’s apartment, along with Adriana and their two dogs, to rent the guest room for a month. “I don’t have sports heroes or anything,” says Ballard. “Kenji was my hero.”

Meeting his hero was actually better than idolizing him via recipes. López-Alt wandered the farmers market, then composed off-the-cuff dinners in his host’s kitchen. He rounded up a dozen loaves of sourdough and invited friends over to sample cubes, reporting the results on Serious Eats. Given how large his following has become, “I probably wouldn’t do that now,” López-Alt says of that Twitter trust fall into a stranger’s spare bedroom.

Dear friends and ardent fans admit to cringing at some of the social media debates López-Alt has waded into over the years.

In general, the internet has been a pretty munificent place. López-Alt became so friendly with Ballard, he played guitar at his wedding. A random tweet expressing his interest in writing a children’s book connected him with Gianna Ruggiero, who illustrated his 2020 release, Every Night Is Pizza Night.

But confidence, the prescriptive nature of recipes, and the need to win arguments is a reactive mix online. These days, even the notion of “science” carries political charge. Dear friends and ardent fans admit to cringing at some of the social media debates López-Alt has waded into over the years. Once it even touched off a national news cycle. In the height of the Trump presidency’s MAGA hat uproar, he tweeted that anybody who wore one into his restaurant, Wursthall, wouldn’t get served, “same as if you come in wearing a swastika, white hood, or any other symbol of intolerance and hate.” It wasn’t an official policy, just his own strong feelings, tweeted from the hip. It wasn’t even that likely to actually happen in the deep blue Bay Area. It still prompted stories from the Washington Post to Fox News, not to mention all sorts of politically driven interpretations.

After his first cookbook came out, López-Alt learned to think of himself, reluctantly, as a public figure. Logically, he should just be a private citizen, able to share passing thoughts on social media. In reality, “I also have to think of my family and friends and people I work for and people I write for.”

López-Alt bid farewell to Facebook and Twitter in early 2021 (“I’ve known for a while how bad this platform is for meaningful communication,” he said in his goodbye). He unapologetically blocks Instagram commenters whose tone he deems unkind. It helps his wellbeing, he says. The banished—many surprised, and genuine, fans—sometimes complain over on Reddit. “Maybe you thought there was no reason, and maybe you had no bad intentions,” López-Alt says when I ask about this. “I shouldn’t have to get stressed or feel attacked on my own platform. You might think it was nothing, but it bothered me.” This shouldn’t be this big a deal, he says. “Who cares? I’m just some guy.”

Unlike much of the internet, he’s reflective, and doesn’t mind his evolution of thought playing out in real time. In early February, López-Alt waded into a topic decidedly outside his area of expertise and about as volatile as it gets in Seattle. Yenvy Pham, one of the owners of Pho Bac in Little Saigon, posted a video of a man who appears to be cutting himself with a knife in the restaurant’s parking lot, and trash scattered across the ground near a spot known for open crime and drug use. “Step the fuck up,” she challenged Seattle lawmakers. López-Alt joined the lengthy comment string: “I feel for you and your staff and customers and business, but these clips you’re showing do nothing but dehumanize people.”

Pham, in turn, shared his comment with the caption, “When famous people don’t know shit.” She challenged him, “Meet me [in] person to fucking talk. Live it day by day and get off your fucking castle.”

López-Alt called her. The next day they walked Little Saigon together.

López-Alt's new cookbook comes out March 8.

Image: Coutesy J. Kenji López-Alt

Lara Hamilton , who owns the Book Larder in Fremont, has a theory about good cookbooks. They give you the ingredients and the technique, certainly; their contents transcend fads and celebrity. A really good one “gives you lots and lots of why.” That can come in the form of actual learning, or a personal connection. López-Alt’s book offers mass quantities of the former, but a significant amount of the latter. His recipe intros share anecdotes about Adriana or his pets the way other chefs might reference wandering a market in Tuscany. Nothing makes you feel connected to a cookbook author like reading about how his dog always farts during crowded trips in his apartment building elevator.

When López-Alt arrived in Seattle, he asked Hamilton if he could swing by her cookbook shop on a regular basis to sign his books, so he could point people to a local business when they asked for autographed copies. The Food Lab was her top seller last year. Hands down. “And it’s a six-year-old cookbook.” His 2020 kids book, Every Night Is Pizza Night, tied for fourth.

The same week as his impromptu walk in Little Saigon, López-Alt opened his front door to find boxes stacked nearly up to his waist. “It’s my cookbook,” he called out to Adriana. She hustled down the staircase. They each hefted a copy out of the box and stood side by side, tearing open the cellophane coating the advance copies of The Wok. Adriana paged through the chapters on noodles and stir-fries; Kenji ran his hand over the pattern of tiny pans on the flyleaf: Years of conclusions, rendered tactile.

7:00am By Allecia Vermillion Photography by Amber Fouts