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Kenji López-Alt: Understanding ‘why’ in the kitchen

Lopez-Alt Kenji_Vicky Wasik
Kenji López-Alt. Photo: Vicky Wasik

2016 BABF logoThis article is brought to you by the Bay Area Book Festival.

An Interview with J. Kenji López-Alt, winner of the 2016 James Beard Award for General Cooking and the IACP Cookbook of the Year Award for his new cookbook, The Food Lab.

BABF: Tell us a little bit about this incredible prize-winning cookbook you’ve written, The Food Lab. This is not my grandmother’s cookbook!

López-Alt: I’d almost say it’s not a cookbook at all. There are recipes, sure, but the important part is the discussion of how I arrived at the recipes. The whys of cooking. Once you understand the whys, it frees you from the recipes and empowers you to cook on your own in the kitchen. It’s sort of like handing someone a map of the neighborhood instead of giving them turn-by-turn directions to a single location.

BABF: Is it safe to say that you’re perhaps the first scientist-chef? You seem to have hacked an activity humans have been doing for thousands of years: cooking.


López-Alt: No, that’s not fair at all! To say that would take away from the amazing work of actual scientists and chefs. I’m a writer who casually practices science and likes to cook. My goal is to take the rather complicated language of science and translate it into something that home cooks can not only understand but also apply to their everyday cooking.

BABF: You’re also known for putting a unique emphasis and spin on classic comfort foods like burgers and mac and cheese. How did that emphasis come about? 

López-Alt: Who doesn’t love burgers and mac and cheese?

BABF: So they’re sort of gateway dishes.

López-Alt: To be honest, the main reason I write about those foods is because it creates a delicious anchor for people to sink their teeth into. And once I have them hooked, then I can start injecting the fun with a bit of science and data. It’s sort of like covering the broccoli with delicious cheese sauce to get the kids to eat it.

Kenji Lopez Alt the Food Lab

BABF: Yum. There’s a good deal of humor in The Food Lab. The book’s first sentence is “I am a nerd, and I’m proud of it.” You open a chapter on salmon by writing, “I hate salmon.” One of the pleasures of the cookbook is that it projects your warmth and sense of humor.

López-Alt: Getting the book to be “funny enough” was actually one of the things I worked hardest at. It’s easy to write down facts, but it’s hard to make those facts engaging. It took many hours of reading other people’s work, identifying what I think is funny, then trying to work that into the pages for it to happen. I hope it comes off as effortless, because it was anything but!


BABF: At the Bay Area Book Festival you’re on a panel titled “Science in the Kitchen (and Why It Matters!)” with John Birdsall and Adam Rogers. Care to preview it for our audience?

López-Alt: Well I can’t speak for the other folks on the panel, but for me, science is important everywhere, not just in the kitchen! It’s what allows us to understand the hows and whys of the world around us. Science can get a bad rap because some people assume that it’s the antithesis of art or emotion or culture, when it is anything but. When applied properly, science is a tool of empowerment that opens up worlds of possibility for you, allowing you to be more artistic or emotive because you have a better understanding of what makes things tick.

BABF: Other than food writing, what genres do you especially enjoy reading?

Most of the stuff I read is non-fiction. But to be honest these days I spend more time cooking, playing music, and working on remodeling my house than reading!

BABF: You’re hosting a literary dinner party; which three famous people do you invite?

Oh man. Alive or dead? I’d invite Beethoven (assuming we could shower him and get him a translator beforehand), the greatest composer to ever take pen to staff paper. I’d invite John Lennon. (Could I get him and Ludwig Von to engage in a jam session perhaps?). And, oh, let’s say Han Solo. He’s a real person, right?


BABF: And what would you serve that awesome trio?

A roast chicken, a good simple salad, and some really good wine and beer.

Kenji Lopez-Alt appears on Saturday, June 4, at 11:45 a.m. at the Bay Area Book Festival with Adam Rogers (Proof: The Science of Booze). The conversation is moderated by John Birdsall, the James Beard award-winning food writer. To ensure that you can get a seat, purchase a $5 ticket, or try the stand-by line to get in for free.

Related:
Outdoor library of 50,000 free books is coming back to Berkeley and you can take part (04.29.16)
Bay Area Book Festival announces 2016 schedule (04.16.16)

2016 BABF logoThis post was written by, and is sponsored by, the Bay Area Book Festival. For more information about the festival, which takes place on June 4-5, 2016, visit the festival website. Berkeleyside is a media sponsor of the Bay Area Book Festival.