A Q&A with The Food Lab’s J. Kenji Lopez-Alt about cooking, science and what makes a great food writer

Every week we will run a Q&A with a wonderful reporter to talk about what’s right and wrong with journalism, their interests and random other stuff. Some are friends. Some are just people whose work we really respect. Some cover sports. Some don’t. Hopefully all will be interesting.

This week, it’s with J. Kenji Lopez-Alt. He’s the managing culinary director at Serious Eats and is indisputably one of the best food journalists on planet Earth. He recently published a book, The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science, which won a prestigious James Beard Foundation Book Award for general cooking.

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The questions are in bold. The answers are not.

1. How did you break into writing and land at the job you hold now?

My first writing gig was  as a test cook at Cook’s Illustrated magazine. I’d been a restaurant cook for a number of years but was interested in writing and food science and with my background in science, Cook’s Illustrated was a perfect fit. The real key, though, was expanding that experience through various freelance writing gigs I took around Boston. I started by doing short review pieces for free weekly newspapers and a number of websites. The pay was poor, but any practice is good, and it definitely got me dining around the city, plugging in, and meeting editors and writers who I still keep in touch with today.

2. As you’ve transitioned from cooking in restaurants into writing, what have you learned about writing? What about writing has surprised you? Was it harder or easier than you expected?

I’ve discovered that good writing is hard work! Crafting a story takes planning and good editing – much more than I expected it to when I first started. I began my writing career in physical media which has very strict space constraints. It trains you to be efficient with your words and to get your ideas across in the most effective way possible. The other big lesson I learned is that the writing that reads as the most relaxed and off-the-cuff is usually the stuff that the writer worked hardest at. It takes a lot of hard work to make writing sound like it was no work at all.

3.Why do you think non-cooks are so attracted to The Food Lab?

I quite consciously focus on topics that I think even non-food people will have some kind of familiarity with or emotional attachment to. Pizza, burgers, et cetera. The humor and inclusiveness also help. There’s a lot of food and recipe writing out there that makes it feel like you have to be a member of an exclusive club to get it. I try and make sure that anyone who wants to cook my recipes can, with tools they can get anywhere and ingredients they can buy at the supermarket. I also always try and explain not just the how, but the why, which appeals to anyone with a passion for science and engineering. Many of my readers don’t cook at all, but are interested in understanding how things work.

4. Speaking of non-cooks, I’m somebody who loves good food, knows a lot about food and reads a ton about food, but I am ashamed to say that I’m not very comfortable cooking. I imagine I’m not alone. How would you guide someone who wants to cook, but lacks the confidence to start the process of learning?

Start with simple things and master the basics before trying to move onto more complex tasks. Learn how to roast a perfect chicken, how to make a great vinaigrette, how to properly cook a few different vegetables, and you’ve got all you need to make an impressive, tasty, and healthy meal. The most important thing to remember is that once you’ve moved beyond the point of cooking for pure sustenance, once you start cooking for enjoyment, the whole point of a meal is to get people – friends, family, or even new acquaintances – to gather around a table and share a meal together. Once you’ve got those people gathered around the table and everyone is having a good time, the food has already done it’s job. So you mess it up a little bit. No big deal. It’s only food. If you’re inviting the kind of people who are going to have a bad time just because your execution isn’t perfect, then you probably shouldn’t invite them back to dinner anyway.

5. To become a popular food writer, how important is it to be a great cook?

I know many great food writers who are not cooks period. But to be a good recipe developer and to write about the process of cooking as I do, it is quite important. I consider the 8 years I spent working in restaurants to be an essential part of my education. There is no way I could do what I do now without that experience.

6. In many ways, The Food Lab is a science column as much as it is a food column. What are the challenges in explaining complicated scientific principles to non-scientific readers? More broadly, what advantage do journalists with scientific backgrounds have over their non-scientific counterparts?

The challenge is always putting yourself in a layperson’s shoes. It’s easy to forget that at some point you didn’t know anything. One of the reasons why chefs tend to write the worst recipes for home cooks is because they have such vastly different experience and tend to overestimate what a home cook is going to be familiar with. So really seeing the world through a layperson’s eyes is essential. The other challenge is distilling scientific principles to their most essential core, and trying to find metaphors or examples from every day life that illustrate that core. Coming up with those metaphors is something I spend a lot of time on. Without them, science can be dry.

Just as with any writing, it’s key to make sure that every story is actually a story. There needs to be a beginning, middle, and end, and it needs to draw the reader along on a voyage of discovery, allowing them to feel like they’ve actively participated in the process and learned things for themselves. People prefer to discover things rather than simply being told. A lot of science or educational writing is written from the perspective of a professor to a student. “This is how it is because I say so.” I never learned well that way, so when I write I always picture my relationship with my reader as that of an enthusiastic friend trying to explain something really cool. I find it makes it much easier to get excited that way.

7. If your job and your days are spent thinking about and eating food, what is a personal meal like for you? Do you need to eat well every meal?

The food I write about and the food I eat tend to be quite different. Much of the focus of my writing is in American comfort classics. Meatloaf, hamburgers, pizza, etc. If I ate that way all the time I’d be too large to reach the keyboard. When I’m “off-duty” I tend to eat pretty simple things. A good salad, a stir-fry, maybe some grilled or seared fish. The occasional poached or roasted chicken. I love Japanese, Chinese, and Thai food so I cook a lot of that too. Tofu is probably my favorite food in the world.

But I also eat junk food from time to time just like everyone else. I grilled cheese sandwich at midnight or maybe a bowl of instant ramen when I’m feeling too lazy to cook (though I do buy the good stuff). The other day I wrapped a pickle in a slice of swiss cheese, dipped it in some mustard, and called it lunch. It was delicious.

8. How do you feel about the rise of “celebrity chef culture,” and how have celebrity chefs impacted the food world?

I think in many ways it’s great. Giving chefs a platform allows for the promotion of more discussion about food, and not just the way it tastes. The food supply is a global issue at this stage that touches on numerous social issues. How we are going to feed an ever-growing population. How food affects the health of a population. The environmental and ethical impacts of our current method of food production. All of these are things that people need to think about and letting chefs rise to the status of celebrity means we have more spokespersons for these issues.

9. You started out working in restaurant kitchens and now have found popularity as a writer. We’ve seen celebrity chefs sell books. I know you designed the menu for Harlem Shake, but would you ever consider opening your own restaurant? Have you thought about it?

I’ve considered it for sure. What I don’t want to do is open a cheffy restaurant that serves fancy dinners to rich clients and requires you to be chained to the stove all day every day. I’m not that interested in haute cuisine any more and I definitely would not want to go back to that kind of lifestyle. If I open a restaurant, it would be something simple and low-priced – something for every day people. For instance, I’ve considered what it would be like to open up a veggie burger restaurant in my neighborhood, or perhaps a lunch spot serving a kimchi-brined fried chicken sandwich I’ve been making for various pop-up events over the last year.

10. Since we always need to throw in some sports, what is the ideal meal for a day at the ballpark?

I have a bit soft spot for stadium-style nachos. You now, the ones with salty chips, cheese sauce from a pump, and a handful of pickled jalapeños. Goopy cheese nachos with an ice cold watery American-style lager just hits the spot sometimes.


You can check out the first seven Q&As below:

 

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