If you have been paying attention to any of my cooking videos over the past few months, there is a good chance that Kenji was the inspiration for them. I am very honored to be able to interview one of my cooking heroes, and I hope you all enjoy it as much as I did. What I love about Kenji and The Food Lab is how they take foods that we have all been eating our whole lives, and make a few simple/scientific tweaks for an elevated meal you won’t forget. As LBEB transitions into more cooking content, get ready to see a lot more interview such as these. Check out my interview with Kenji below.
1. Thanks for taking time to answer these questions, Kenji. Can you tell us a little more about your history in the culinary world? It seems to be an extensive one!
I fell into cooking sort of accidentally. Through high school and the beginning of college, I’d been spending all of my time doing academic or music-related stuff throughout the year and the summer. Working in labs, orchestra rehearsals, etc. So I decided to take a summer off and get a job as a waiter. I didn’t find a waiting job, but I did manage to fib my way into a kitchen that was desperate for a cook, despite the fact that I’d never even really held a knife in my life. Luckily I’ve had a lot of great teachers, chefs, and mentors since then and I spend many years working my way up through kitchens working in better and better restaurants, learning as I went, the old fashioned way. After I finally retired from restaurant life, I moved on to working in magazines as a test cook and editor. That’s where I really refined my recipe development skills, something I’ve been working on ever since. I’ve been a recipe developer for over 8 years now.
2. As far as I know, you come from somewhat of a scientific background. How do you think that analytical mindset plays into your cooking, and how do you think it shapes the way you see ingredients?
I come from a family of scientists and had a very strong science and engineering-based education. It plays a huge role in what I do today! Every aspect of how I think about food and the world in general comes down to science. Science is really just a method of understanding the world around you, and when you use that method to understand food, the results can be extremely delicious and soulful.
3. You are very well known for taking established cooking methods, and turning them on their head to make a better meal. Since we all love to eat rice after training, have you ever experimented with what happens when you soak/don’t soak rice before cooking? What have you noticed is the difference in texture and mouthfeel?
Ha, you asked me about one of my White Whales. White rice is my white whale. I cook a lot. A whole lot, and as a kid in a Japanese household, I grew up eating rice with almost every meal. But to this day, if I want to make perfect rice, I use a rice cooker. I just can’t get it to come out right in a pot no matter what I do, whether it’s soaked or not, brown or white, whatever – rice is my Achilles’ heel!
4. There isn’t a day where I’m not putting eggs, butter, salt or dairy into one of my recipes. What four ingredients do you think you use the most, and what four should no kitchen be without?
Salt and pepper are the basic seasonings I use for pretty much any savory dish. Salt in particular makes foods taste more of themselves. But I also equally often use other concentrated forms of salt that offer other flavor-enhancing properties. Soy sauce and fish sauce are great sources of salt and glutamic acid, the chemical responsible for the taste of savoriness. I use fish sauce and soy sauce even in western dishes. Try adding a dash of fish sauce to a chicken soup or to a big bowl of chili or beef stew. You’ll get an instant flavor upgrade without a fishy flavor. People won’t say “this tastes like fish sauce,” they’ll just say “Oh man, this is the beefiest chili I’ve ever tried!”
Aside from that, a really great olive oil is something I use almost every day in almost every meal. Finally, pay attention to acid. Whether it’s lemon juice or a high quality vinegar, the balance of acidity in a dish can make its flavor pop every bit as much as having the right salt level will.
5. What was one of your biggest disappointments when it comes to how you envisioned a recipe turning out, versus its reality?
Oh this happens all the time. Follow my twitter (@thefoodlab) or instagram feeds (@kenjilopezalt) and it’s packed with half-baked experiments. The biggest fail I can remember recently is when I thought it might be a good idea to make the ULTIMATE TOMATO SLICE for a BLT by carefully peeling a dozen tomatoes that got progressively smaller, removing their cores with a biscuit cutter, then nesting them within each other to create a dense, solid slice of tomato with the flavor of a dozen slices of tomato. It looked like Frankentomato and was really messy to boot.
6. You don’t have to be a Strongman to enjoy a large meal. What is the biggest meal you’ve ever eaten?
It’s always on the holidays. That’s the only time I really tend to overeat (with the exception of perhaps a big banquet in a Sichuan restaurant where I can’t help myself). Day to day I try to keep things in moderation because I have to taste so many small bites of things here and there as I’m developing recipes, if I ate regular meals, I’d blow up like a blimp. Moderation and whatever exercise I can squeeze in are the only things that keep me in shape!
7. How do you think cooking shows, and books such as yours (The Food Lab) have influenced the public in terms of getting them motivated to becoming self-sufficient in the kitchen?
We’ve never been in a better time for home cooks! With the number of great shows, books, and internet-based resource out there, there’s really no excuse not to get into the kitchen and start cooking for yourself other than a lack of interest these days.
8. What is the craziest thing you have made, Sous Vide-style?
My 36-hour sous-vide deep-fried porchetta. It’s a rolled pork belly seasoned with fennel, garlic, and chilies, cooked sous-vide until very tender, then deep fried until crisp and browned. Definitely the most decadent table centerpiece you can imagine.
9. What are some pieces of advice you have for athletes who may be interested in cooking, but don’t know where to start?
The internet if your friend. Join a site like Serious Eats or Chefsteps or Cook’s Illustrated and start learning! The real key is to realize that cooking is not a set of recipes, but it’s a set of techniques. Once you learn how to cook based on techniques, you find that a whole world of dishes opens up to you, and it makes it simple to knock a new recipe out of the park even if you’ve never made it before.
Five things you may not know about me:
- At some point I was going to be a classical musician! I was *this* close to going to music school. Instead I ended up with a minor in music with classical composition and violin performance as my areas of study.
- Woodworking is my new favorite hobby. Whenever I’m not in the kitchen or at my computer, I’m in the shop building something for the house.
- I am a karaoke and trivia fiend. Basically, those nights when bars put on gimmicky things to get people to come in on a Tuesday or Wednesday? Those are my favorite nights to go out.
- I had multiple collapsed lungs as a teenager and therefore will never be able to fulfill my lifelong dream of scuba diving with whale sharks.
- I collect musical instruments. Thus far I’m at a violin, a viola, a cello, a mandolin, a ukulele, 3 acoustic guitars, 4 electric guitars, and counting.
Bio: J. Kenji López-Alt is the managing culinary director of Serious Eats, author of the James Beard Award-nominated column The Food Lab, and a columnist for Cooking Light. He lives in San Mateo with his wife Adriana and two dogs, Jamón and Shabu. His first book, The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science hits bookstores on September 21, 2015 and is available for pre-order now. At nearly 1,000 pages with over 300 foolproof recipes, it’s a grand tour of the science of cooking explored through popular American dishes, illustrated in full color with thousands of photographs, charts, graphs, and do-at-home experiments.