The Gannet Q&A

J Kenji López-Alt

28th September 2017

Interview: Adam Park
Photograph: Vicky Wasik

As the chief culinary advisor at Serious Eats, and author of The Food Lab, J Kenji López-Alt is the guy who tells us what’s really going on when we roast a chicken, blanch some vegetables or attempt to make a pizza at home. His work is not just science-focused, it’s also about making things taste (as he might say himself) really fucking good. He was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, raised in New York City, and now lives in San Mateo, California. He describes his current job as “stay-at-home dad”, though he’s working on “a couple of side projects” including a second book (volume two of The Food Lab), a restaurant (Wursthall), and a video series on Youtube.

If you could revisit one meal in your life, which would it be?

Oh man, so many options! The one that jumped out immediately was a meal I had several years back when my wife and I were walking through Rioja on the Camino de Santiago, a multi-day hike that traverses all of Spain. (We only walked for a week, not the entire distance!) After a 40km day of hiking, we ended up in Logroño, the capital of Rioja where we had a night of eating true tapas-style. That is, bouncing around from bar to bar, having a €1 glass of wine in each, and a small plate of their house tapa. We had griddled mushrooms stuffed with shrimp at one bar. Patatas bravas dripping in allioli in another. But the best single bite was a teeny tiny skewer of pata negra, the acorn-fed black-footed pigs of Spain. It was a chunk from the shoulder threaded onto a small wooden skewer and grilled with nothing but salt over a charcoal fire. It was crisp and decadent and melted in your mouth in a way that screamed for you to drink another glass of Tempranillo. We had a blast that night!

 

What’s your most food-splattered cookbook?

On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee. The cover has fallen off and the pages are no longer bound together. But it’s a signed copy and I’m never giving it away. Such an amazing resource for anyone interested in how cooking works.

What’s the worst supposedly-good thing you ever ate?

Burgers from Whataburger. People from Texas talk them up like they’re the second coming. I don’t expect much from fast food, but even by fast food standards, they’re just terrible. McDonald’s has them beat by a mile, and McDonald’s isn’t even very good.

It’s just food, it’s not a damn work of art and cooks aren’t demigods

Describe your perfect breakfast.

I wake up before my wife and daughter and start cooking. What I cook doesn’t really matter. My wife brings my daughter in and sits her at the counter while she makes herself some coffee or tea and sets the table. I talk to my daughter about what I’m cooking (even though she’s not old enough to speak yet) and give her a few tastes. We sit down and all eat together, her making the biggest mess you’ve ever seen.

What’s your favourite food scene in the movies?

Someone asked me this on Twitter a while back and honestly, I can’t think of a great one. Any of the “classic” scenes I can think of end up fetishising food in a way that kind of makes me uncomfortable. It’s just food, it’s not a damn work of art and cooks aren’t demigods.
Maybe the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs. It’s realistic, it touches on the hospitality industry in a way that I think is smart, and that looks like a damn good diner.

No restaurant is perfect but which one, for you, comes closest, and why?

La Fonda de San Mateo, around the corner from my house. It’s a cal-mex place run by a husband and wife team. Their adult kids serve tables as side jobs. The food is just fine, nothing I’d tell people to drive out of their way for. But they are a neighborhood joint in the true sense of the word. They’ve always been friendly to me from the moment I walked in. When I called to place a pick up order because my wife was not feeling well and I didn’t have time to cook, they asked if we’d like some extra soup for her. The next time I called after having our baby they recognised my voice and asked how she was doing by name. You don’t find that kind of care and hospitality just anywhere and for me, hospitality is what a restaurant is all about. The best food in the world can never compete with that.
Craigie on Main in Cambridge, MA, would be up there as well. The old Craigie Street Bistrot is where my wife and I got engaged. The new location is missing some of the rough-and-tumble, held-together-with-duct-tape vibe of the original, but the spirit is still there and that’s what’s important to me in a restaurant. It’s amazing food and service, but first and foremost it’s a neighborhood restaurant and I’ve always felt welcome there.

Every time I make it, I taste it and say to myself, “Fuck, that’s good chicken.”

Tell us about a dish you make when you’re short on time.

I have a 15-minute tomato soup recipe that I love. It uses bread instead of dairy to thicken and comes out super rich and creamy, but with a bright tomato flavour without all that dairy fat to dull it. That paired with a good grilled cheese sandwich is about as good as lunch gets.

What’s your favourite food and drink pairing?

New Haven apizza (that’s apizza1, not pizza) and ice-cold birch beer 2.

What do you listen to when you’re cooking?

Most likely Revolver or Rubber Soul by the Beatles.

What was your favourite food when you were 10?

Taquitos al carbón from Fiesta Mexicana on 114th and Broadway. That place has since burned down.

What’s your greatest talent in the kitchen?

I cook a mean fucking roast chicken. I’m serious. It’s one of the few things where every time I make it, I taste it and say to myself, “Fuck, that’s good chicken.”

If you had to limit yourself to the cuisine of just one country, which would it be and why?

Japan. No, Thailand! No, Mexico. Actually China. Or maybe the US. Crap, this is hard. Don’t make me pick.

Describe the thing that most annoys you as a customer in a restaurant.

Waiters and chefs who take themselves too seriously. It’s frickin’ food. I don’t need a 10-minute monologue about its preparation before I can start eating. Please, just give it to me. I can taste for myself if it’s good or not.

Follow Kenji: Twitter | Instagram | Facebook

  1. New Haven-style pizza, locally known as apizza from Neapolitan ’a pizza, is a style of Neapolitan pizza common in and around New Haven, Connecticut. It originated at the Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana and is now served in many other pizza restaurants in the area, most notably Sally’s Apizza and Modern Apizza. Source: Wikipedia
  2. Birch beer in its most common form is a carbonated soft drink made from herbal extracts, usually from birch bark, although in the colonial era birch beer was made with herbal extracts of oak bark. It has a taste similar to root beer. Source: Wikipedia

Posted 28th September 2017

In The Gannet Q&A

 

Interview: Adam Park
Photograph: Vicky Wasik

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