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Read the transcript of the Eater Upsell Season 2, Episode 16: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, edited to just the interview, below.
Kenji Lopez-Alt: I had a terrible bagel this morning. Terrible, terrible bagel.
Helen Rosner: That's a classic New York experience.
Kenji: Yeah. It was from Baz Bagels, which is hit-or-miss. Way overpriced, but it's usually pretty fine. It's next to the Serious Eats office, so I get it relatively frequently. It was just so bad today. Pale, tasted like raw flour, it was just — it was bad.
Helen: You have strong opinions about bagels.
Kenji: I have very strong opinions about bagels.
Helen: You debunked, extensively, in The Food Lab, this myth of New York's water being the key to a baked good's success.
Helen: You did a very complicated, triple-blind experiment involving —
Helen: Pizza crust.
Kenji: Yeah. With Mathieu Palombino from Motorino.
Helen: So why do you think it is that the Bay Area can't get its shit together on a bagel, if it's not the water?
Kenji: Or pizza, really.
"If you’re from New York and you grew up here, you have it built into you — what a slice of pizza is supposed to be."
Kenji: It does Neapolitan-style pizza well, but you can't really get a good New York-style slice. I don't know. I think it's mostly a matter of not having the right culture, and not the —
Helen: Human culture, not yeast culture, right?
Helen: Just making sure
Kenji: There's just not a pizza culture, right? There's not the same kind of discerning audience. Which is not saying that people who discern pizza are better than people who don't discern pizza. But if you're from New York and you grew up here, you have it built into you — what a slice of pizza is supposed to be — in a way that people from outside of New York don't. I think it's partially that there's not the right people making it, but more importantly, there's not the right people eating it or demanding it. But it's a question I've always had: Why do certain regional foods that are loved outside of their region — why do they stay so regional? Why is it difficult to bring them outside of those regions?
Helen: I want to come back in a second to the spurious accusation that only people who are raised in New York understand what good New York pizza is, but we should introduce our guest today.
Kenji: I didn't even know we started.
Helen: Yeah, no. We're always rolling. Since the second we step into the elevator.
Greg Morabito: We do this sort of sneaky start.
Helen: We've captured all your secrets. Should we say your entire four-component name? How do you prefer to be introduced?
Kenji: You can say my name.
Helen: J. Kenji —
Kenji: I'm Kenji. Yeah.
Kenji: Yeah. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt.
Helen: Commonly known as Kenji.
Kenji: Kenji, yeah. Kenji works.
Helen: Author of The Food Lab, which is a huge, beautiful, incredibly comprehensive, super fun cookbook, and also the chief creative officer of Serious Eats.
Kenji: Managing culinary director.
Helen: Managing culinary director of Serious Eats. I will re-record that.
Kenji: That was my previous title. I don't know why we changed it.
Helen: Managing culinary director of Serious Eats, which is one of Eater's frenemies. Love that site. Love it.
Kenji: I think we used to compete in the same sphere a lot more than we do now. We've branched off into our own specialties, which is great, I think.
Greg: Each publication has gone down its own path. I love Serious Eats. I have very fond memories of like the 2008-, 2009-era Serious Eats.
Helen: Pre-Kenji. So much better back then.
Greg: That was pre-Kenji? Kenji, when did you come aboard the team?
Kenji: I started at Serious Eats in 2010. I started as a freelancer, writing stories for $25 apiece, in 2009, and then I came on full-time in October of 2010.
Helen: Greg dropping the sick burns. So much better —
Greg: No, no. I love the 2010, 2011 era. It's the Kenji presence. I remember —
Kenji: Well, it was really different, right? We used to do reviews and culture and gossipy stuff. And now we basically just do larger features and recipes.
Helen: It used to be heavier on the restaurant side of things than the home cooking side of things.
Kenji: When it first started, yeah. It started as "Ed Levine Eats" which was basically just Ed walking around New York, eating things, and saying "Hey, I had this slice of pizza today." It was pre-big social media. If Ed had a Twitter account then and could write more than 140 characters but fewer than 500 per tweet, that's basically what Serious Eats was at the beginning. And then it grew and changed and evolved from there.
Greg: I feel like, over the years, a lot of what Serious Eats has done has given everyone parameters and language for talking about very specific dishes and regional items. Helping people figure out what they should be looking for, and how they should be understanding the food.
Greg: The context is very helpful if you're someone who loves and wants to keep exploring food.
Kenji: Right. That's always been one of the pillars of the site: This idea that you should treat a hot dog as seriously as you should treat any fancy restaurant meal. Which at the time, there weren't that many people — at least online, or real, respectable publications . Not that Serious Eats is — I guess it's respectable now.
Helen: You gotta accept that.
Greg: I think you guys have earned it.
Kenji: But at the time there wasn't much writing like that. Ed had done a number of stories for the New York Times that were sort of like that, but he wanted a place where that was the entire ethos of the site: "We're gonna take hot dogs seriously, but we're not going take ourselves seriously." Which is sort of the joke about the title of the site. We're not really, actually serious.
Helen: Before you joined Serious Eats, you were living in Boston?
Kenji: I was living in Boston, yeah. I started freelancing for Serious Eats while I was still living in Boston. I was born there, grew up in New York City, but went back to Boston for school, and then I lived in Boston for about ten years. At the time I was working at Cook's Illustrated, America's Test Kitchen, and that was a great job.
Greg: Did you grow up as someone who naturally gravitated toward cooking? As a kid, were you trying to cook? Were you, as a teenager, trying to put those things together in the kitchen?
Kenji: No. Not at all. No. I started cooking basically accidentally. While I was in college, the summer after my sophomore year, I wanted to take the summer off from doing academic work. So I went around looking for a job as a waiter in Boston, and one of the restaurants I walked into — if you're familiar with Boston circa 1999 or 1998, this was Fire and Ice —
Helen: Shut up. In Harvard Square?
Kenji: In Harvard Square. Which is an all-you-can-eat Mongolian buffet-type thing.
Helen: That was my favorite restaurant when I was 19 years old.
Kenji: Yeah. It was a lot of 19-year-olds' favorite restaurants.
Helen: That was the best restaurant. I spent the summer of 1999 in Cambridge.
Kenji: Did you eat there?
Helen: I went to Fire and Ice all the time.
Kenji: Then I must have cooked for you! My first restaurant job was Knight of the Round Grill.
Helen: This is blowing my mind right now.
Kenji: I was the guy in the middle who would flip asparagus in the air and catch it on a plate behind me and stir-fry your stuff.
Helen: For anybody who's not familiar with Fire and Ice, which I think just closed, actually —
Kenji: Yeah, yeah. I think they just closed.
"I fell in love with the culture of kitchens and the culture of cooking before I really started enjoying food."
Helen: Which caused a pain in my heart when I heard it. Fire and Ice, in my memory, was gigantic.
Kenji: It's big. Yeah. Several hundred seats.
Helen: A big Mongolian barbecue-style thing where you get a big melamine bowl, and there are tons of salad bar-style, sneeze-guarded things full of thinly sliced raw meats, and lots of vegetables, and noodles —
Kenji: And your choice of one of twelve sauces.
Helen: — and billions of sauces! You pay some flat rate and you can eat as much as you want.
Kenji: Yeah. It was $23.95 or something like that, and you can go up and eat as much as you want.
Helen: It was incredible.
Kenji: A lot of awkward dates. You see a lot of awkward dates in there and a lot of college parties.
Helen: Would you, as a cook, get tipped? I remember there was always that awkward moment of not knowing if you're supposed to tip the flattop cooks.
Kenji: I have never been hit on so much in my life as I did as a cook at Fire and Ice. Mostly by high schoolers who were in Harvard summer school.
Helen: That was me. I was taking Latin like a cool person.
Kenji: Three or four times a week, people would pass me their phone numbers over the counter. Which was strange. It was strange. I was like, "Hey, it's actually pretty cool to be a cook."
Greg: Helen, did you hit on Kenji and we've just never made this connection before?
Helen: There is a non-zero chance that I hit on Kenji as a 17-year-old taking Latin at Harvard in the summer of 1999. I need to take a minute to process this extraordinary fact.
Greg: So what was your next step? Were you like, "Okay, I'm making this Mongolian barbecue, and now I actually want to learn how to cook things that are not Mongolian barbecue"?
Greg: Or was it just your first job.
Kenji: Well, it was my first job working in a kitchen. So I fell in love with the culture of kitchens and the culture of cooking before I really started enjoying food. With Mongolian barbecue, you're not really getting that many cooking skills, other than basic knife skills for prep, which is important. But it was more about learning how to work as a team in the kitchen, learning how to work fast and stay on your feet, all that stuff. I really enjoyed that. And then I read Kitchen Confidential, and I was like, Yeah, this is definitely the job for me. I played a lot of music when I was younger. I always kinda wanted to be a rock star. I was like, This is sort of like being a rock star, except this seems easier.
Helen: What was your instrument?
Kenji: I grew up playing violin, actually. Since I was like three years old.
Helen: Ah, noted rock instrument, the violin.
Greg: Well Dave Matthews Band, and E.L.O.
Helen: That's true.
Kenji: But then I picked up guitar when I was a teenager.
Greg: So after reading Kitchen Confidential, what kind of kitchen did you want to work in?
Kenji: That was the summer of my sophomore year in college, so I still had a couple of years of school left. I started working part-time in various kitchens when I was still an undergrad. I lived in a fraternity house, and we fired our cook, so I was cooking meals at my fraternity house. That was a fun experience. Cooking for 40 people a night, every night. And then I worked part-time at a restaurant called Rock Bottom, which is a TGI Fridays-style chain from Colorado. Making burgers and steaks and pasta — all that stuff you get at TGI Fridays.
Helen: Just being on the line?
Kenji: Yeah, yeah. Being on the line. And then after I graduated, my first full-time job was at a pizzeria called Cambridge One, which maybe you know from Boston? That might have come after.
Kenji: You know what? It opened in 2002. It opened the year I started there.
Greg: Helen only went to Mongolian barbecue restaurants so —
Kenji: It was across the street from the Mongolian barbecue.
Helen: So you have worked in restaurant kitchens, you worked in a test kitchen at Cook's Illustrated, or America's Test Kitchen —
Helen: And now you work primarily in a home kitchen.
Kenji: At home. Yeah.
Helen: These are three very different ways of approaching the making of the food that you're making, right?
Kenji: The test kitchen stuff and the home kitchen is not really that different. At the test kitchen I worked in at Cook's Illustrated, it's a giant facility, but everything we use is stuff that a home cook would use. Because the whole idea is we're writing recipes for home cooks, so we have to use the same equipment. So it's not actually really that different from working at home. When I started The Food Lab, it was from a tiny New York apartment kitchen. That was a little bit difficult, especially doing massive amounts of testing when you have only one oven and it's under your burners and you don't have much space to work with. That became a little bit straining. I live in California now, so I have a little bit more space. Actually a lot more space, because there's just more space out there. So testing has become a lot easier. It's still a constraint, compared to being able to work in a full test kitchen. But I wouldn't trade it. I like working at home.
Helen: Have you made any adaptations to your home kitchen to reflect the fact that testing recipes is what you do in there?
Kenji: I have tons of tools and gadgets and stuff. Giant closets full of stuff. I use induction burners a lot now. I have a four-burner stove, but I have a couple of plug-in electric induction burners that I use on the counter top when I need either more burner space, or particularly for taking photographs and video. You can get a lot better light with an island-style space — which is where I use my induction burner — as opposed to a stove, which is in a corner under a hood where you can't really get good angles or good light. But those are the only major changes. I also have my kitchen set up for photography and video, so a lot of lights and tripods and things like that.
Helen: You shot pretty much the entire book, right? Lots of it?
Kenji: I shot all of the book, except I think there's one picture of me at the beginning.
Helen: Which is not a selfie.
Kenji: Which I did not take myself, but everything else I shot. Yeah.
Helen: And the book came out close to a year ago, and it has won every award in the world.
Kenji: Exactly a year ago. September 21st of last year.
Helen: Oh, hey. Happy book birthday.
Kenji: Almost exactly a year old, yeah.
Helen: That's so exciting. Are you sick of it?
Kenji: God, some of the photos in this book are so ugly. I started shooting these photos five years ago. Photography is one of those things that — I studied it in college a bit, and I did a lot of it, but it's one of those things where I've gotten so much better in the last few years that now I look at stuff from a couple years ago and I'm like, God, I wish I could redo all this. Oh, well.
Helen: The book is behemothic. It's close to 1,000 pages, certainly over 900. I feel like Greg was just about to ask how long it is, because that's the obvious question.
"There’s all these people who are using those recipes to then feed their families, and teach their kids how to cook. It’s a much, much bigger impact you can make."
Greg: Yeah. I was just curious how long this whole process took. Five years ago at the very least you started taking photos for it, but when did you actively start working on this book?
Kenji: Let's see. I started writing the column in 2009 or maybe 2010. Then very soon after that, Ed, from Serious Eats, said, "This is good material for a book." The column was popular right off the bat, which was surprising to me because it was just me writing about things that I care about and it turned out that other people cared about it, too. Once we saw that it was popular, Ed was like, "Yeah, you should write a book." Ed's wife is a book agent, so he's like, "Talk to my wife. Put together a proposal." I basically immediately put together a proposal. I think I had maybe published a half dozen articles online when I put together the proposal. So that was late 2010, and then it came out in 2015. Five years start to finish from the idea for the book to when it was actually in print. I'd say the first two and a half years was recipe testing and development. Then I re-shot all of the photos — which I would like to re-shoot again — so that took another six or nine months. And then design and layout and all that stuff for about a year leading up to the release.
Helen: And meanwhile your column was becoming a phenomenon. I think in many ways what you do at The Food Lab has completely re-calibrated how the recipe internet works. You're making a very humble face right now, but it has! On Serious Eats for sure, but when we were introducing you — "Kenji" has become a word that isn't just your name. It has become a way that I think lots of people, definitely lots of people on Reddit, but lots of people in general, think about food. I think that must be kind of surreal and awesome for you to look around and see that people —
Kenji: It is surreal. It's amazing. I mean, yeah. It is definitely surreal and awesome.
Helen: You're a religion.
Kenji: What's amazing to me is that, like I said, this is something I started doing because I liked science and I liked cooking and I wanted to do something to put the two together. Luckily Ed hired me, and paid me to do it. I'm sure Eater in 2010 was probably paying the same rates, $40 an article or something like that. In the early days, I was barely getting any money for it. I was doing it just because I really liked the process of it. And then when I found out that there was an audience out there that wanted to read this stuff, that was really cool, too. Working in a restaurant kitchen, in the hospitality industry, which I did for a long time before this, the reason you work in hospitality is because you want to make some kind of improvement in people's lives. That was the feeling I got working in restaurants. There's this person on the other side of that kitchen door, and they're willing to pay $40 for this thing that I just made. To me that's really cool, that something I made is valued and makes people happy. But working in restaurants, you're basically feeding maybe 100 really rich people every night, so not really making that big of an impact. When I got into recipe development, I saw that there's all these people who are using those recipes to then feed their families, and teach their kids how to cook. It's a much, much bigger impact you can make. That was the thrill of it at the beginning, and it's still the thrill of it. The idea that I can write this stuff and it's useful to people and can help them lead better lives, feed themselves better, feed their families better. That's always sort of been the reason that I do this. It's cool that people like it.
Greg: I feel like there are just so many recipes — there's a bajillion recipes on the internet right now. Especially if you're someone who gets excited about celebrity chefs, or cooking something from a restaurant, you can find some recipe online and try to cook it at home. A lot of the time, it's not gonna turn out great, because who knows why?
Greg: Maybe the recipe wasn't tested. Maybe it requires a certain level of skill that you don't have and you didn't know that while you were cooking it. But with your recipes and your approach — and this is one reason I think people really get excited about it — the information is right there in front of you as to why it's gonna work, and how it's gonna work, and what you need to do to make it work. You build up a level of trust with the Kenji system.
Kenji: Yeah. One of the ways that I want the book to be used — and the column — is that I never see it as recipes. It's much more about the writing and the recipe development process. That's the part that, once you understand how a recipe works and why you're cooking it this way, that's what empowers you as a cook to be able to then go and adapt it. To take those lessons and apply them to your own cooking and come up with your own food. You can follow the recipes as written, but I like to think of it more as handing someone a map that lets them then decide their own path. I also don't want to pretend that I'm the first person to have done this. Obviously a lot of what I do in The Food Lab, in the column and in the book, comes from having worked at Cook's Illustrated for three years. Because that has been their model for a couple decades now. The difference is that — my one biggest constraint at Cook's Illustrated was tone. Cook's Illustrated has the Cook's Illustrated tone, and they have multiple writers, but no matter what you're like in real life or what your personality is, on the page it goes through this Cook's Illustrated sausage grinder and comes out the other end as a Cook's Illustrated article.
Greg: How would you describe the Cook's Illustrated tone?
Kenji: It's very matter of fact. I would say it's a little dry. It's not fun. There's no jokes in it. There's no fun cultural references in it. There's just, "This is what we did, and this is why it happened." Which to me reads more textbook-like. The tone is much more like professor to student, whereas I try very hard to make it more ... what I always do when I'm writing is I imagine that I'm talking to my friend and I want them to hear about this really cool thing that just happened. That's the tone that I try to take. I learn a lot more from talking with my friends than I do from reading textbooks. So I think trying to get rid of that dryness is something that I work hard at, in my voice at least.
Helen: That idea of the "really cool thing" has become a hallmark of the way that your recipes — and you as this cult figure — have spread throughout the internet. Things like your French fry technique. They're techniques that are now really linked to you and to your name and to The Food Lab. Do you feel like that's a pressure? Like that everything you come up with has to contain this subverting, like, "But actually, every way we've been cooking chicken has been wrong! We should be freezing it until the proteins denature through ice," or whatever.
Kenji: I don't feel that it's pressure. It is really nice. It is really nice when you're writing a story, and you're researching and testing and you discover something like that. But it's not like I go out and say, "All right. What am I going to disprove today?" It doesn't work like that because things have to actually be untrue for you to be able to disprove them, and it turns out most of the things in cooking are true. So a lot of the lessons you learn, and a lot of the things I try to write about, are not debunking. It's really saying, "This is the way people do it. Here's why it works." But the ones that become really popular or blow up are the ones that are like, "Everyone's been doing it wrong and here's why." But no, I never go out trying to find that thing, or trying to force something to be different.
Greg: What was your most traditionally popular Food Lab post?
Greg: Eggs, huh?
Kenji: Mmhm, and as far as recipes go, I have a no-knead, no-stretch skillet pizza, a cast iron skillet pizza. That has become very internet-popular.
Helen: That seems like it would appeal to everybody's desire to have maximum quality with minimum effort.
Kenji: Yeah. It's basically an adaptation of a Jim Lahey-style no-knead dough. You just throw together some dough ingredients, put them in a bowl, let them sit overnight, and then you dump it all into an oiled cast iron skillet. It's very high hydration, so it basically just stretches out itself. You don't have to knead it, you don't have to stretch it, or anything. It just fills out the skillet by itself, then you top it, and bake it. It's homemade pizza. It takes a day to make, but it's homemade pizza with basically zero effort, requires almost zero skill. So yeah, people seem to love that. I think that's one of those, "I made this" moments, when people who maybe have never cooked before are like, "Oh, this looks easy enough." And then they try it, and they're like, "Oh, I made this. It tastes good."
Helen: I think your recipes are particularly alluring to people who may never have cooked before, or may have felt intimidated by the kitchen. Or maybe — I'm trying to very diplomatically say what I'm just going to come out and say. Dudes. There are a lot of — Dudes love you.
Kenji: Yeah. Dudes.
Helen: Dudes love you. And dudes also tend to love Nathan Myhrvold, and Alton Brown, and Harold McGee, and this very quantitative, systematic, regimented approach that also maybe carries with it an idea of perfection. Which, yeah. Explain that. No, that's a big question.
Kenji: So I think there's a couple of explanations. Part of it is that historically, men don't learn cooking from their parents the way that women do. That idea of little girls baking with their mom and little boys playing baseball with their dad. Historically, I think that's how it is. So I think a lot of dudes grow up without having this knowledge of cooking pressed into them — no family recipes or anything like that. And even more now, you find that because for the last few generations, there's a lot of families where both parents were working, so you ate out a lot or ordered in a lot. So I think we've lost this culture of passing down cooking knowledge and recipes from parents to children.
There's a lot of people my age — mid-30s, maybe some a little older, some a little younger — but a lot of people in my generation who grew up without a central cooking figure, and without having the cooking knowledge built into them as a kid. So when you suddenly become an adult, you're completely lost. I think that approach — where it's okay if you don't have a family recipe because here's how cooking works, and we're gonna break it down for you in a methodical way that's going to make sense to you regardless of whether you cooked as a kid or not — that's why it appeals to, well, dudes in particular, but also a lot of people our age who grew up without that kind of cooking. I find, when I do events, my fans are almost always — I'd say 90 percent of my fans are bearded guys or Asian. 90 percent of the time.
"I’d say 90 percent of my fans are bearded guys or Asian."
Helen: It's inexplicable. We talked with Nathan Myhrvold [for an upcoming episode] and he was saying that he gets frustrated sometimes by how illogical people can be about the idea of cooking and food. Because we have, culturally, so much emotion and so much sense of self and history and family tied up in how we eat and what we eat that when you try to take a more regimented, scientific approach to what is actually happening here —
Helen: "Let's dissect the science of it." There is a pretty vocal faction of people who recoil at that kind of analysis.
Kenji: Yeah. Mostly Italian. They're mostly Italian.
Helen: Do you get pushback? For all the Kenji fans, do you have some weird small core of haters?
Kenji: Absolutely. I don't know if it's a small core of haters, but yeah. When I write a recipe that says, "Put the pasta in a pan, cover it with cold water, stick it on the stove top, and bring it to a boil" — because that works, it saves energy, uses less water, it makes your sauces better in the end because you get higher starch concentration, everything about cooking pasta with less water is basically better. But it's not the traditional way you do it. And you definitely get people who are like, "You're crazy," or "You're an insult to Italian cuisine."
Greg: That's so funny, actually, because I grew up in an Italian-American household. That's the stuff we cooked in my family, and I definitely have observed this. People don't want to read a recipe about Italian food.
Greg: They don't wanna hear about how somebody else does it. It must just be pride...I don't know.
Kenji: There are certain cultures where food plays a much more central, cultural role in defining who you are as a person, or as a family, or as a country. So when you're challenging a basic cooking method that someone grew up with, you're challenging some real core part of their existence. You can understand why people might get upset by that. I do personally try to take a logical approach to things, but there are things I'm irrational about, too. My sandwiches have to be in triangles and not squares. Triangles just taste better to me. Or I hate it when people toast bagels.
Helen: I disagree about that so hard.
Helen: We can just argue about bagels for the rest of this if you want. I'm here for that.
Kenji: Where are you from again?
Helen: I'm from Chicago.
Kenji: Right, right, okay.
Helen: Which has no real bagel legacy.
Kenji: So that explains it.
Helen: Yeah, that's true. I grew up eating the frozen, tube-shaped bag of bagels.
Kenji: Right. Which you have to toast.
Helen: You have to toast them otherwise they're repulsive.
Kenji: Yeah, I grew up going to bagel shops that didn't have toasters.
Helen: Right, because they bake the bagels every day.
Kenji: Because they didn't need them.
Helen: I think there is something to the heritage of cooking styles that people are unwilling to let go of. So frequently the reason that we do X or Y in the kitchen is not because it is the most efficient way or the thing that leads to the best or most consistent response. It's because of some deep-rooted adaptation, scarcity, or war, or because we lived X miles from the creek, or whatever it was —
Helen: That led to you deciding that you should only boil water for pasta a gallon and a half at a time.
Kenji: Right. Or it could also be that ingredients have changed over time, or cooking equipment has changed over time. The pasta thing, I can't prove this, but I think the reason why is because if you get a really old-fashioned, traditionally-made pasta — dried pasta or fresh pasta, but a dried pasta in particular that's extruded with bronze dies — it's very sticky on the outside, and dried at a very low temperature. That kind of pasta is actually very difficult to find these days, because most pasta these days is extruded through Teflon dies, is smooth on the outside, and dried at high temperatures, which deactivates a lot of the starch. So if you are cooking a very old-fashioned, old world-style pasta, and you use only a little bit of water, it sticks. It takes a lot more effort to make sure that it doesn't stick. But we don't cook with that pasta anymore. 99.9 percent of people in the world don't. Even in Italy they don't cook with that kind of pasta anymore. We cook with modern pasta, which doesn't require that huge amount of water. So I think some of it might be things like that.
Another thing is that chefs work a certain way in restaurants, and they're used to working with certain ingredients and certain types of equipment, so they cook in a certain style. Those styles don't always translate well to home kitchens. If you think about, for example, a steakhouse, where a cook has a grill, and maybe they're cooking 30 to 40 steaks at a time. They're filling up this grill, it's one person cooking all these steaks, and they really don't have time to do anything other than put the steaks on and flip them once halfway through. It's easy to keep track of, it gets the steak done fast, and you mess up less. At home, on the other hand, you're probably only cooking two or four steaks at a time. The idea that you should only flip your meat once, I think, comes from restaurant chefs, like, "Flip the meat once, that's the way we do it, that's the way the best steakhouses in the world should do it, so that's why we should do it at home." But you find out that if you actually flip your steak multiple times, even as often as every 15 or 30 seconds, it cooks more evenly so you get less of a temperature gradient built up inside. It cooks more evenly and it actually cooks about 30 percent faster, too. In almost all ways it's better to flip your steak multiple times, and yet many people are really adamant about not doing it. I think that's something that comes because the educators in this case are working under a different set of parameters than the actual executors, the students.
Greg: So what recipe did you get the most blowback from? Whether it's from internet trolls or just recipe people or chefs?
Kenji: I don't really get blowback that often. There was a time early on when I wrote an article that was in retrospect not researched well enough, about deep-frying turkey. I'd deep-fried a few turkeys using a few different methods, and I found them to all be pretty universally bad. So I wrote an article about how deep-fried turkeys suck, and then all of these people got really, really, really upset. They pointed out ways in which I might have been wrong in the way I tested it, and it turns out they were right. I went back and re-tested a bunch of things, and I had some really great deep-fried turkey. So I wrote another article being like, "Sorry, deep-fried turkey is good!" But that was one of the situations where it was like, oops.
Helen: But you faced it with humility and it was fine. Has there been one Kenji technique that you think has been your greatest, most unexpected discovery?
Kenji: Greatest, most unexpected discovery. I would say the one that gets used most frequently is the reverse sear, which is a technique I developed at Cook's Illustrated in 2007. Again, this is one of those situations where they do it a certain way at a restaurant so that's just the way we did at home. But the idea is that traditionally, when you cook a steak or a pork chop or whatever, you sear it at the beginning and then put it into the oven to finish it. What I found was that if you reverse it — you start your meat in the oven and then sear it at the end — you get a much better end result. The temperature gradient inside, you get much more medium-rare meat and a better crust. Most of the reason is that when you put it in the oven, it dries out the surface of the steak, so you sear much more efficiently. When you put a piece of steak in a pan, most of the energy that is stored in that pan goes toward evaporating surface moisture from the meat. It takes about 50 times more energy to evaporate a gram of water than it does to raise the temperature by one degree. So even if your steak starts out at zero degrees, pretty much frozen, the amount of energy it takes to bring that steak from zero degrees Celsius to 100 degrees Celsius — which is when the water starts evaporating — it still takes five times more than that to actually evaporate that water. So the starting temperature of the meat is almost irrelevant to how it's gonna sear, but the starting dryness is very important. And that's what the reverse sear does: It dries out the exterior so that you can sear very efficiently. That's the technique I see people using all the time now, which is pretty neat.
Helen: Let's go back to this idea of perfection. And that is my word. I don't wanna put words in your mouth. I think there is this notion in all of your dishes that — they're prescriptive. You're saying if you do it this way, you'll come out with the best possible result, within the parameters of your testing, etc.
"I want recipes shared. If you wanna take a recipe I wrote and feed it to your family and say it’s your own, I don’t give a shit about that. You should do that! You cooked it, it’s yours."
Kenji: Yeah. I try to qualify that, so when I say best possible results, it's always with a parenthetical, "For me." I do try to explain what I look for in X food, and then I go about trying to get as close to that as possible. So if you disagree with what my idea of a perfect chocolate chip cookie is, if you follow my recipe, it's not gonna be the perfect chocolate chip cookie for you. But at the same time I do try to offer information so that you can adapt the recipe to make it the way you want. I think about it in the way that I think a good restaurant reviewer writes a review. If you look on Yelp or a place with unprofessional reviews, it's mostly people giving their opinions. But you don't know anything about that person, so you don't know what sort of frame of reference they have. Whereas with a good professional restaurant reviewer, you'll have an idea of what they're looking for and why a restaurant did live up to or failed to live up to those expectations. I try to do the same when I'm describing a recipe or writing the headnote for a recipe: To explain what I'm looking for and how I went about achieving that end result. When I say "perfect" or "ultimate" or "best," it really just means best for me.
Helen: It also requires you to have superlative opinions about virtually every food that exists. Which feels like it might be kind of burdensome. I feel like there are a handful of foods that I have really, really strong opinions about off the cuff. But you have how many recipes in this book, 800?
Kenji: Well, no. In the book I think there's 300.
Helen: Which is still a gigantic number.
Kenji: Online there's thousands.
Helen: Thousands. You've created thousands of recipes. Have you discovered your own criteria for perfection in the course of examining these, or do you just walk around knowing?
Kenji: Not every recipe is called "the best" or "expert." I only use the term best or ultimate when it is something that ...our goal is not efficiency. Our only goal is to make it taste as good as possible, and here's what I think tastes as good as possible. I'll usually only do that for things that I actually have opinions about, and strong opinions about. I don't always have strong opinions about food. I just published a recipe for shakshuka this morning. The first time I ever had shakshuka was probably, I don't know, five years ago? I had no idea what it was before that. It's not a dish I grew up with or have very strong opinions about. But I've had it enough that I can say, "This is what I like and this is what I don't like." But when you're writing a recipe, the first step is always research — not just research of what other recipes are out there, but also cultural and historical research, because you really want to know where this dish came from, what it means to people, and get a sense of what it's supposed to be before you go and try to make it your own way. The last thing you wanna do is say, "Here's my recipe for shakshuka," and then have people in North Africa or in Israel — places where shakshuka is very popular, where it came from — say, "No. What the fuck are you doing? That's not shakshuka."
Or even simpler: meat loaf. I had meat loaf a couple of times as a kid but it wasn't a family staple dish. But it was for a lot of people. So when I work on a meatloaf recipe, the first thing I do is find out what meatloaf means to people, because I don't wanna write a meatloaf recipe where people then make it and think to themselves, "No, this doesn't hit the right notes." So that sort of cultural perspective, I think, is the most important thing when you're starting recipe development.
Helen: Speaking of ownership, you've been a really vocal advocate for people crediting recipes.
Helen: Which is really fun to watch on Twitter because you get total guns blazing. It's fantastic. Angry Kenji is such fun Kenji.
Greg: I don't envy you being in this position, man. The recipe world can be pretty slippery, it seems.
Kenji: Yeah. I mean, I want recipes shared. If you wanna take a recipe I wrote and feed it to your family and say it's your own, I don't give a shit about that. You should do that! You cooked it, it's yours. What really bugs me is when a big company , when they know that they're doing something unethical, and they just won't admit it. These are people who have told me to my face or over the phone...an editor told me, "Yes, this was stolen. I know it, I saw them do it. And I told them they shouldn't and they did it." They know that that's what's going on, and yet they still refuse to credit. What harm comes from giving people credit when they come up with an idea?
Helen: Are you still in a fight with Tyler Florence, who stole your French fry recipe and ran it in his cookbook?
Kenji: Ran it in his cookbook.
Helen: As if it was his own brilliant technique.
Kenji: I doubt Tyler Florence had anything to do with that. He has his test kitchen, he has a team of people whose job it is to come up with recipes and test them. I think probably somebody saw that recipe, brought it in to the test kitchen to try it out, and maybe that person didn't grow up as a journalist. Didn't have the right kind of education to understand these are the kinds of things you do have to credit. And then it got passed up, ended up getting looked over, and put into the book.
Helen: I think there's also some credit for this phenomenon — and credit sounds too positive. I think there's some blame for this phenomenon that we can give to the murky space that recipes, and cooking, and ideas of technique, and dish creation play in culture at large.
Helen: Because recipes are things that are often organically passed on from parent to child, or friend to friend, or just exist within our world and culture. Anybody who's ever written a recipe or had a food blog has had the moment where you learn — and we can all say in it a singsong voice — you can't copyright a recipe. You can only copyright the language that it's written in.
Kenji: The words.
Helen: So it makes a certain sense to me that we might think of techniques or methods as existing in the ether and being by and large a cultural birthright.
Kenji: Right. And the question is, at what point does a novel idea become general, cultural knowledge? At what point can you stop crediting people? That stuff comes up in my own work sometimes. The meatloaf recipe in my book, I developed it four years ago, something like that. And then when the book came out, I had a former colleague at Cook's Illustrated who was like, "Hey, like your meatloaf recipe uses some of the techniques I did at Cook's Illustrated." And I looked at it and it's like, "Oh, yeah." Their meatloaf recipe has grated cheese, mine has grated cheese. We both add gelatin to our meatloaves. I was like, "Oh, shit. I probably should have said something about that." It didn't occur to me while I was developing it. So when we published the recipe online I mentioned Cook's Illustrated, but in the book it doesn't say that. So yeah, who's to say what is malicious and what's not? When does something become just general knowledge? When is it okay to credit, and not credit? It's hard to know where you draw that line. I think generally, just do the best you can.
Kenji: It doesn't hurt to credit people. It only helps everyone.
Helen: Especially because people are so interested in attaching stories to food now.
"Even at dinner, I can’t sit down to the dinner table until I’ve done all the dishes."
Helen: Even for weeknight cooking, something simple that you're throwing together, you still want to know, at least for the sake of the Instagram captions, where did come from? Who did it?
Helen: I made Christmas dinner for my family this past year. I posted it to Instagram and I had credits. It was like photo credits. I made your standing roast of lamb.
Helen: I made the Christmas ham. It was like the fashion credits in a magazine. Like, "Here are all the recipes that I made." That's how it flows.
Greg: That's awesome. If only everyone would do that.
Helen: Everyone should be more like me. I'm perfect. I have no flaws.
Greg: No, it's great. It's like that restaurant in San Francisco where all the dishes are from other places.
Helen: Oh, In Situ, right. Corey Lee's new restaurant.
Greg: Yeah. I really wanna go there.
Helen: It's such a brilliant idea, this idea of a restaurant that's a museum of other restaurants.
Kenji: Right, right, right.
Helen: Have you been?
Kenji: I haven't been.
Helen: That's your neck in the woods.
Kenji: I rarely go out these days. When I lived in New York and Serious Eats was still doing reviews, I was writing a weekly review. So I would go out to eat three or four times a week, always to new places, and I kinda got burned out. So since I moved to San Francisco, we rarely go out anymore. We mostly eat at home. A couple of times a month maybe we'll go out, but it's usually just the same places that we like.
Greg: When you're doing a big recipe, or testing a recipe, how long does it take to clean up your kitchen?
Kenji: I clean as I go.
Helen: You're so perfect. Shut up. Nobody actually does that.
Kenji: I worked in a restaurant. That's just how you do it. I clean as I go, so it doesn't take long to clean up. That's something that's kinda beaten into me, which at some times is frustrating. Because I do the same thing at dinner parties, which means that I spend less time with guests. Even at dinner, I can't sit down to the dinner table until I've done all the dishes. It's a mixed blessing, but it does mean that when I'm recipe testing I don't really have that much clean-up to do at the end.
Helen: That's a disgustingly good answer. Have more flaws, be worse. Kenji, we have come to the portion of the Eater Upsell that we like to call the lightning round.
Helen: And the way the lightning round works is we have a guest question asker —
Helen: Who will ask you a couple of questions —
Kenji: Surprise guest?
Helen: A surprise guest. Well, it's not like someone's gonna walk into the studio.
Greg: Tyler Florence!
Helen: Eater's sister website.
Helen: Nilay, take it away.
Nilay Patel: Hey, Kenji. It's Nilay Patel, editor-in-chief of The Verge. I have some lightning round questions for you. First, if you had to pick between colonizing Mars and making the hyperloop between LA and San Francisco real, what would you choose?
Helen: Next question.
Kenji: Mars. Who would pick the other one? Of course we colonize Mars.
Helen: What if you didn't get to go to Mars?
Kenji: I don't think either one would be particularly useful for me as an individual, but I think one is way cooler than the other. And also way more helpful in the long run. We're gonna have to colonize Mars at some point.
Greg: It already takes like an hour to get to LA from San Francisco.
Greg: It's not that big of a gap to bridge.
Helen: Would you go to Mars?
Kenji: Maybe I could retire to Mars. I don't know. There's enough stuff to see on Earth for now, but we're gonna have to colonize other planets if we don't want to completely implode. Either we're gonna destroy ourselves as a species or we're gonna colonize other planets. I'm optimistic that it's gonna be the latter.
Helen: Both of them make for really good action movies.
Kenji: Yeah, yeah.
Kenji: Or we're all gonna upload our brains and lose bodies.
Helen: Yeah, I'm really excited to become a purely digital energy being.
Kenji: And we might already be, so.
Greg: All right, next question from Nilay.
Nilay: This is my favorite. What's your favorite cheap beer?
Helen: Such a hipster. Such a hipster from six years ago.
Kenji: Well, the reason is because it was our shift drink at my first real restaurant job, when I was working in No. 9 Park in Boston. This was, let's see. I'm not allowed to say a date because it will make me sound like even more of a hipster. Because I'm gonna say I drank it before everyone else did.
"I tell people, ‘Cook your grilled cheese for 10 minutes, low and slow,’ and then sometimes I just make toast and microwave the cheese."
Helen: You drank it before it was cool!
Kenji: It was our shift drink. It was a big five-gallon bucket full of ice and PBRs, so I still think that nothing is more refreshing than PBR out of an ice bucket at the end of a long day.
Helen: All right, next one.
Nilay: What's your guilty secret kitchen gadget?
Kenji: Guilty secret kitchen gadget. I tend to write about everything I like, so it's hard. Is there anything I hide in the kitchen? One of my favorite gadgets is the mortar and pestle but that's nothing to be guilty about. I use the microwave a lot, I guess.
Helen: That's kind of controversial.
Kenji: I use the microwave and a blowtorch a lot.
Helen: A blowtorch is —
Kenji: Not so controversial.
Helen: Not so controversial. But microwaves get a really bad rep.
Kenji: I use it for stupid things that I shouldn't use it for.
Helen: Like what? Like breakfast toast?
Kenji: Sometimes, yeah. If I wanna get a spot of browning on something. What else do I use it for? If I'd like to melt the cheese on my grilled cheese when I'm too lazy to actually slow — I tell people, "Cook your grilled cheese for 10 minutes, low and slow," and then sometimes I just make toast and microwave the cheese.
Greg: All right. Next question.
Nilay: Do you read the comments?
Kenji: Yeah, and I shouldn't, but I do. And they get me worked up sometimes.
Helen: Do you self-Google?
Kenji: Well, I have a Google alert setup for my book so that I'll know if someone reviewed it or something like that. But I don't put my own name — Maybe I do, let's see if it auto-completes.
Helen: Everybody self-Googles.
Kenji: I definitely Google The Food Lab, but I don't think I'd Google my name, generally.
Helen: I believe it. I think everybody picks their nose, everybody self-Googles, and everybody tweets in the bathroom.
Kenji: Oh, yeah, yeah.
Helen: It's a universal truth.
Kenji: Sometimes my name doesn't show up so I Google it. Sometimes I tweet from the bathroom when I'm at the office and then I realize, "Oh, everybody knows I'm tweeting in the bathroom right now."
Helen: Oh. I admitted yesterday to tweeting in the bathroom on Twitter.
Kenji: Oh, yeah?
Helen: I was like —
Kenji: Were you in the bathroom that time?
Helen: I was in the bathroom. I was like — sorry for sharing this with the world, double being repulsive — but I was talking to someone about something like very high brow and I was just like, "I'm literally peeing while this is happening."
Kenji: I restrain myself from Slack-ing from the bathroom because that's even more obvious.
Helen: That's too professional.
Kenji: But I have taken phone interviews from the bath and I don't usually tell them that.
Helen: That's so saucy.
Greg: They don't even hear the sound of the rubber ducky?
Helen: It feels so old Hollywood starlet: You're in your bubble bath in your giant heart-shaped bathtub —
Helen: Taking an interview.
Kenji: I live in California and there's water shortage so a bath is rare. But when I lived in New York I took baths a lot, and growing up — my mother's Japanese and I know Japanese people love baths, but I grew up in the bath a lot. And when I lived in New York, I would say a good 40 percent of The Food Lab articles and the book was written from the bath, from my laptop on a little chair just outside the bath.
Helen: This is my favorite fact about you that I've ever learned. I love it.
Kenji: But these days a bath is a rare, a rare treat. So when I get in I stay for a long time. I'll work from it, and then if someone calls, I'm not gonna get out just to take the call. We have a jacuzzi tub so I shut off the Jacuzzi and try and sit as quietly as possible so I don't splash around.
Helen: I love it.
Kenji: And hope that they don't hear the reverb of the tile walls.
Greg: This is amazing.
Helen: This is great. All right, next question.
Nilay: This one's hard. If you could only eat one fast food burger for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Kenji: One fast food burger. Does Shake Shack count as fast food? I don't think so. I think Shake Shack's out, it doesn't count. I would say the real classic fast food's In-N-Out.
Kenji: Pretty easy.
Helen: That's a classic answer.
Greg: Double-Double or what's your order?
Kenji: I do a single, Animal Style, with chopped chiles, and a whole grilled onion.
Helen: Have Greg and I talked to you about our shared obsession with the secret way to make your Shake Shack burger way better, that that reminded me of?
Kenji: Which is the secret way to make the Shake Shack burger better?
Helen: It's to add — what do they call them, Greg? The peppers?
Greg: The cherry pepper relish that comes on the —
Kenji: Oh, at Shake Shack, you mean!
Helen: At Shake Shack.
Kenji: Oh, oh, oh, okay. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Helen: At Shake Shack they have these chopped chiles that they use in one particular type of burger, but you can ask for them —
Kenji: Their SmokeStack or whatever, yeah.
Helen: Yeah, and you can ask for them with anything.
Kenji: On a regular burger?
Helen: And it is transformative.
"When I lived in New York, I would say a good 40 percent of The Food Lab articles and the book was written from the bath, from my laptop on a little chair just outside the bath."
Kenji: Nice. That reminds me actually, the most popular Serious Eats article of all time was when I wrote about the secret menu at In-N-Out.
Kenji: It's mainly popular still because it's the only reference on the In-N-Out Wikipedia page. So we get a lot of traffic from Wikipedia.
Greg: Oh, wow.
Helen: That's incredible.
Greg: Well, that's the seminal secret menu. That's the one that everyone wants to know.
Kenji: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Greg: It's the chain that has the most robust secret menu program, that I know of.
Kenji: It does. Yeah, it was a fun thing to write because I was living in New York at the time, but I went to visit a friend in California and we went to the In-N-Out in Sausalito. And at first my plan was like, "All right, we're gonna try to make this inconspicuous. We'll go up, we'll only order four things at a time, and come back to our table. We'll make multiple rounds and send different people each time." And by the third time I got up, the cashier, his name was Thomas, he's like, "Are you guys just trying to get everything on the secret menu?" And I was sheepishly like, "Yeah." And he was like, "Oh, this is so awesome! Here, I'll help you." He basically told us everything on the menu and he's like, "Oh, and you have to try this, and you have to try this, and you have to try that." He became like our little tour guide for the In-N-Out secret menu. It was great.
Helen: That's so cool.
Kenji: And he said it was his most fun day at work ever.
Helen: Oh, good. You made his day. That's terrific. All right, onto our next one.
Nilay: What song do you most imagine yourself performing?
Kenji: What song do I most often imagine myself performing? I go to karaoke, sometimes four times a week. So I rarely imagine — I go and sing songs at karaoke.
Helen: So you don't have to imagine that.
Kenji: I don't even have to imagine it.
Helen: What are your karaoke jams?
Kenji: I try to mix it up a lot. Recently it's been a lot of Paul Simon and Elton John.
Helen: Love that.
Kenji: "You Can Call Me Al" is a great karaoke song, I think.
Helen: Yeah, yeah it is.
Kenji: It has a nice recognizable chorus, but the words are fun. And it's sort of fast paced and not stupid.
Helen: Are you a private room karaoke person or a public group karaoke?
Kenji: I prefer dive bar karaoke which is what — when we moved to San Mateo a year ago, I discovered there's an English pub a block and a half away from my house that does karaoke multiple times a week. So dive bar karaoke is my thing.
Helen: It's more of a performance and less of singing along in the car.
Kenji: It's also a lot more down time where you can go and hang out with friends and drink beer. When you do it a room you're always on, and it's all about just the singing. Where this is a diversion. Every time the conversation gets awkward, someone goes up to sing. It gives you something to talk about and something to do.
Greg: That's a very good point. You should write a recipe for karaoke, the perfect karaoke night.
Helen: Love it. That's beautiful. You should write a recipe for everything. One more question, and then it's all over.
Kenji: Okay. Thank god.
Nilay: And I think this is the most revealing of all. It tells the deep inner truth of your heart. Do you have your phone in a case or do you roam naked?
Kenji: In case. My iPhone is in a wallet case actually, so I keep four credit cards and my phone all in the same thing.
Helen: So you can lose everything all at once.
Kenji: So I can lose everything all at once, yeah. I have that and then I also have been trying to come up with pocket solutions. I have in one pocket my iPhone with three credit cards and those are the ones I use most. But then I also have — the company is Radix One, it's one of these little clippy wallet-y things that has a thick rubber band that goes around it, and two plastic things that holds the rest of your cards. It will be nice if I only had one thing that held all these together but then it gets too fat. I used to carry a phone and a wallet and that's too much.
Helen: I'm a woman and I carry a giant bag.
Kenji: Yeah, yeah. I wish I could carry a bag sometimes.
Helen: You can, you can.
Kenji: I can.
Helen: You can do absolutely anything you want to do.
Kenji: That was cool. Save the most boring question for last.
Helen: Yeah. Sick burn on Nilay.
Greg: Kenji, we want to thank you so much for coming and chatting with us today in the studio.
Kenji: Thanks for having me.
Greg: Our listeners can find you — your Twitter handle is @thefoodlab, is that correct?
Kenji: My Twitter handle's @thefoodlab, my Instagram handle is @KenjiLopezAlt, and my Facebook is I think The Food Lab Recipes, because someone else took The Food wraLab and doesn't use it for anything.
Helen: Bastard. Cool. Well, Kenji, it has been a real pleasure. Thanks for being here with us.
The Eater Upsell is recorded at Vox Media Studios in Manhattan
Hosts:Greg Morabito and Helen Rosner
Producers: Patrick Bulger and Maureen Giannone
Associate Producer/Editor:Daniel Geneen
Associate Producer:Kendra Vaculin