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J. Kenji Lopez-Alt's advice for home cooks: Be nice to yourself

It's a Tuesday morning in Seattle's Fremont neighborhood. The Book Larder hasn't yet opened for the day, but inside the beloved cookbook shop, a well-choreographed dance is taking place. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, known to friends and fans simply as Kenji, is making his regular visit here, signing stacks of his new cookbook, The Wok.

Lopez-Alt is among the most influential voices in food today. A Seattle resident, he's the best-selling author of The Food Lab and Every Night is Pizza Night, a New York Times food columnist, Chief Culinary Advisor for Serious Eats and host of Kenji's Cooking Show, which boasts more than a million followers on YouTube.

We sat down with Lopez-Alt to discuss living in Seattle, whether home cooks are too hard on themselves and The Wok.

Seattle Refined: First off, Kenji, just tell me briefly how you and your family ended up in Seattle?

J. Kenji Lopez-Alt: My wife did an internship here after grad school and so spent a few months in Seattle, living in Queen Anne, actually. And I visited her then for a couple weeks, also. This is probably 7 or 8 years ago, a while back. We both loved the city. So then, when we moved to the Bay Area for my wife’s work, from New York, we spent a lot of time visiting Seattle. We visited once or twice a year. So, it was always in our long-term plan was to come here eventually. And then once COVID happened and my wife was working from home, I was working from home, we were going to have another baby and we’re like maybe now is a good time to do it because there’s nothing really tying us to the Bay Area right now. So, we did. Essentially, we moved to Seattle because we like Seattle.

SR: Is there one thing that surprised you about living here? Whether it’s the food scene, the people or just the city in general?

Kenji: Well, you know, I had heard that people in Seattle are cold, and I’ve not found that to be the case. I’ve found people to be very friendly around here. I did learn the hard way you’re not supposed to have an umbrella, but I’m still going to use an umbrella. I don’t care. You know really, if anything, the things that surprised me about Seattle was, the things I love about Seattle, so being close to the city while also being in nature and having access to the mountains and the ocean, that it was all even easier than I thought it would be. I never imagined that I’d be living in a place where we’d be 10 minutes from downtown and museums and real city, but then also less than an hour from a ski mountain and another 15 minutes from the ocean. So, it’s like everything we thought Seattle would be, it is and better.

SR: I’ve got a 20-month-old at home right now, so kids are part of my world. I’m interested whether having a child changed how you approached food or cooking in any way?

Kenji: Yeah, certainly it changed how I approach cooking. Mainly, because when I wrote my first book and when I was working at Serious Eats, my wife and I were both very career-focused. So, I could spend all day in the kitchen testing things. Cooking, cooking, cooking all day and all night. I was younger then, so I had a lot more stamina for that kind of stuff. Now, meals have to be on the table at a certain time, otherwise, your kid’s schedule gets thrown off. Everything goes to crap. Your kid has to be in bed by a certain time. You know it’s going to take her an hour to eat. So, it’s like I have to have dinner on the table by 5:30 or 6. Just the practicality aspect of it has changed the way I cook. We did baby-led weaning. So, my daughter, she doesn’t get any special meals. She eats what we eat. In that sense, it also made us more conscious about what we’re eating at home, trying to be a little bit healthier about what we’re eating for our sake and our daughter’s sake. So, both those things have changed a bit about how I cook and how I eat at home now.

One of the reasons for Lopez-Alt's popularity is he takes a scientific approach to food, which makes sense because he grew up in a family of scientists.

SR: Backtracking to your childhood, how did growing up around scientists impact the way you looked at food? Or did it?

Kenji: It’s one of those things where my grandfather was an organic chemist, my dad is a geneticist. We grew up in an apartment building in New York. My grandparents were in 9J and we were in 10J, so a lot of the conversation around the house was about science. It was just a sort of normal part of life. So, I didn’t take it as a particularly interesting part of my childhood. But then, of course, in retrospect you’re like, okay yeah, I guess that’s why I liked watching Mr. Wizard and why I wanted to take apart the VCR. This natural inclination to ask why and not be satisfied unless I know why, I think, definitely stems from coming from this background where science was the language at home. And that definitely fed into this style of writing and recipe testing I do now because I went and worked in restaurants where, at least at the time, it was very much the opposite of that. You don’t ask why. You just do it. And so that urge for me to want to know why, coupled with the fact that I had all this experience cooking food without being able to ask all those questions, when I finally had the freedom to put those two things together it just seemed like a real natural career move for me. Then, luckily people seem also to be interested in me writing about that. So, I consider myself extraordinarily lucky that I fell into this career where I get to do what I want to do and make a career out of it and people are interested in it.

A graduate of MIT, Lopez-Alt worked in some of Boston's top restaurants before taking a writing job at Cook's Illustrated. Then, he moved on to the website Serious Eats where he started a food science column called The Food Lab. His first article was some 3,000 words on how to boil an egg. It's a style Lopez-Alt continues today, not just writing a recipe, but explaining in detail the techniques used and why they work.

SR: Why is that ‘why’ so important when you’re creating a recipe or writing about a technique? It’s easy, I guess, to explain how to make something step-by-step, but why is the ‘why’ so important in why you do things?

Kenji: It’s not necessarily important. This is true in the recipe writing world or in anything. Some people want to know how the car works because you want to be able to fix the car. For other people, it doesn’t matter. You just need the car to get you from one place to another. And I think both of those approaches are fine. People who enjoy tinkering in the kitchen, experimenting, making their own meals and making food into their own, I think that is who the books are really directed at. Because in order to be able to experiment and in order to be able to confidently change your recipe, you have to understand technique and the science behind it. The analogy I always use for a recipe is like asking your phone for turn-by-turn directions. It’s like, how do I get to the gas station? And your phone will tell you. That’s what a recipe does and that’s fine. But, if you’re the kind of person who says I want to explore the neighborhood, I want to be able to decide where I go next time or the route I want to take next time, that’s what learning the technique and the science behind cooking is like. It allows you the freedom to be more expressive in the kitchen. So I think for some people, they get this idea that science is prescriptive and it’s like there’s no creativity in science because it’s just based on facts and that’s what it is. I think it’s actually the opposite. Understanding the science and the techniques allows you to be more personal and empowers you to experiment and change recipes in the kitchen so you’re not really tied to the specific recipe anymore. You can cook the way you want to cook with confidence.

SR: Are home cooks too afraid of failure? And maybe I’m just putting that on myself because I look at a recipe and if I don’t follow it exactly, I’m like, ‘Oh no, did I mess something up?'

Kenji: I definitely think so, in a lot of cases. The advice I give people who are afraid of cooking or want to get into cooking is: Just be nice to yourself. Especially now, you look at these two-minute-long cooking videos on TikTok or YouTube, and they make it look easy. They have this perfect-looking thing that comes out at the end. Your food is probably not going to look like that – even the person who cooked that, it didn’t look like that the first time. They did it like 10 times to get it that way. They had a camera crew. They had lighting. They had all these things to make the food look easy. So, I think people who only consume those kinds of cooking videos or certain types of really aspirational cooking content and expect to do that the first time are definitely setting themselves up to be disappointed. Nobody learns something the first time. You practice. Everybody who makes something look easy, it only looks easy is because they’ve done it before. And they started from nothing at some point, as well. As long as you’re getting your family or your friends around the table, or you’re nourishing your body, the food did its job. Having it taste good and look good on top of that is just the icing on the cake. And that’s the part where you’re going to have to practice it to get better at it. The good thing about food is we all eat three times a day. You’re going to get another chance to practice it if you want to. So, if you mess something up, it’s totally fine. Be nice to yourself. Nobody is going to kill you for it. Unless you’re working at a restaurant, in which case you’ll get yelled at. But yeah, be nice to yourself because you get another chance to do it.

SR: You mentioned cooking videos and the proliferation of those online. I want to know what goes into making a video for your YouTube channel? Because, from what I understand, you do things differently than a lot of other folks.

Kenji: My current format is: I just stick a camera on my head, and I cook what I was going to cook. Usually, it’s literally what my family is going to eat for dinner that night. For a long time, I did more produced content. Scripted stuff. I would have multiple cameras. It was just difficult to do. It was also a style of video that everybody does and falls into this trap of making it look like you don’t make mistakes. So, what I do now is I stick a camera on my head. Whatever I was going to make for my family, I’ll just cook it and I’ll talk through it. If I make a mistake, I leave it in. If I don’t have the ingredients, I’ll improvise. I think that the appeal of the videos, I think, is people see even someone who has been a professional cook for 20 years, they make mistakes. They’re not following their own recipes exactly. I never follow my own recipes. In The Food Lab, I have this four-page recipe for meatloaf that takes 2 days and 30 something ingredients. It’s in there because the premise of the book is I want to show you every possible thing you can do with meatloaf and teach you the science lessons and the technique behind it. But, I never really expected anyone to have that become their standard meatloaf recipe, the one that takes two days. I haven’t made it since I tested it for the book. But, I think what people like about the content I’m doing now is it really shows how understanding technique allows you to be more free in the kitchen. It allows you to make a recipe even if you don’t have the exact ingredients. It allows you to recover if you’ve made a mistake. So, I just try to keep it genuine. It also makes it much easier for me because I don’t have to script anything. I don’t have to plan anything out. I just put a camera on my head and cook.

SR: You’ve written The Food Lab. You’ve written a children’s book (Every Night is Pizza Night). Why focus your latest book on the wok?

Kenji: This was originally going to be a chapter in The Food Lab book. The Food Lab, when I wrote it, it was actually a two-volume, gigantic thing. I mean, it’s still a pretty big thing. But we ended up cutting out 800-900 pages, including the whole wok chapter. And when I started writing the second volume of The Food Lab that we were going to release as a standalone thing, I started writing the wok chapter because I was going to expand it from what it was, and I was about 200 pages in, and I hadn’t even gotten like halfway through the stir fry section. So, I called up my editor and I was like, 'you know what, the wok is the tool I use the most at home. I think it’s the most versatile pan in the kitchen. I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding about how to use it and what you can do in it, especially in a home cooking setting. People think of it as a restaurant tool, but most people in the world who use woks, use it at home. So, why don’t I just make this whole book about the wok? Because I have a lot to say about it.' And my editor loved the idea. So, that’s what we ended up doing. I’ve had my wok, the same one, for 20 years. I used it through college, when I was single, when I was living with roommates. I use it now to feed my family. So, it’s this one vessel that I think can take you through all kinds of life situations and has a place in virtually any home.

SR: Is there a common misnomer or something you want people to know about using a wok? And maybe you’re talking to someone like me who has one in the cupboard but doesn’t pull it out very often.

Kenji: The main thing, I think, is that people, especially in the U.S. – and I used to think this way for a long time because my experience with wok cooking was – and particularly with Chinese food, was in restaurants. In particular, southern Chinese-influenced restaurants, so Cantonese-style cuisine, where there is a lot of high-heat cooking. And in restaurants, you have these 150,000 BTU gas burners. So, I always thought you can’t cook at home without having this 150,000 BTU gas burner. But it turns out you can. You just have to sort of reset your expectations and not expect every dish to be a southern Chinese restaurant-style dish, first of all. And then also, there are various sort of tips and techniques for how to replicate those dishes as well that I go over in the book.

SR: The final question. Somebody picks up The Wok, they’re leafing through it, they’re trying some of the recipes, what do you want them to take away from it? Is there some overarching thing you want them to take away after having experienced it?

Kenji: I guess confidence. The confidence to be able to take a wok and start cooking in it. I want people to be able to go through the book and understand the basic principles involved and feel confident enough that they can step into the kitchen and start cooking with it. It really is one of the most versatile and useful pans you can own. And certainly, value-wise, it’s cheaper than most western tools and they last forever. There’s a variety of stuff you can do with it: stir-frying, pan-frying, deep-frying, steaming, sauteing, smoking, simmering, braising. It’s all these things you can do with this one simple tool, as long as you have those techniques under your belt.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Learn more about J. Kenji Lopez-Alt