Photos courtesy of J. Kenji López-Alt (except where noted)
James “Kenji” López-Alt, Japanese American chef and expert food writer, is arguably the world’s most famous celebrity food influencer. Born in Boston and now living in Seattle, Kenji’s rise to fame has its own story and currently,his social media presence is second to none — his YouTube channel has 1.2M subscribers (more than the “New York Times” (NYT) cooking channel) and nearly 500K followers on Instagram.He has published three NYT best-selling books: “The Food Lab — Better Home Cooking Through Science” (2006), “Every Night is Pizza Night,” (2020), and his latest book, “The Wok, Recipes and Techniques” (2022),which features 200 easy-to-follow, well-tested recipes with 1,000 color photos. Seattle Uwajimaya will host a book signing event with Kenji on Friday October 14th (see ad below for details). The NAP’s contributor Elaine Ikoma Ko interviewed Kenji in July. Excerpts from the interview follow.
Let’s start with learning a bit about your parents — your mother is from Japan and your father is an award winning geneticist and immunologist?
My mother, Keiko Nakanishi, is Japanese, born in Nagoya and grew up in Nagoya and Tokyo. She came to the U.S. when she was a teenager to finish junior college. She moved to California (yes, all by herself) and went to the Mills School of Design. My father, Frederick Alt, grew up in rural western Pennsylvania and his father was a steel worker. My parents met when he was in graduate school at Stanford University where my father wanted to study science and then later, became a geneticist in immunology. They were married in 1974. I think they were both kind of hippies. They’ll deny this, but I’ve seen the photos! My older sister was born in California. My parents then moved to Boston where I was born and then to New York where my younger sister was born. Today, my father is still a geneticist at Harvard University and manages a lab at the Children’s Hospital in genetics research. My mother still lives in New York.
Please share some recollections about your Japanese grandmother and grandfather?
My maternal grandparents were from Japan and came to the U.S. shortly after my parents were married. My grandfather, Koji Nakanishi, was an organic chemist and was actually the first Japanese organic chemist working in the U.S. at Columbia University. I grew up in New York from about four years old until age 18. When we were living in New York, we lived in an apartment building — we lived in apartment #10J and my Japanese grandparents were in apartment #9J so I grew up very close to them. My grandmother, Yasuko Nakanishi, didn’t speak very much English so Japanese was the main language. She was a devoted mother and grandmother and loved to spend time with her daughter and grandchildren. They stayed in New York until my grandmother passed away in 2007 and my grandfather passed away just two years ago. He loved his work so he worked every day in chemistry until he could no longer go to work.
You go by Kenji, not your given first name, James, and you don’t identify yourself as Chef Kenji, is that correct?
Since before I can even remember, I always went by nicknames but I told my parents that I wanted people to call me Kenji as opposed to James; so ever since I was a little kid, I went by Kenji. I also had a nickname, Kabuki, which is also something that I asked my parents to call me up until I was about 12 or 13 years old.
Today, I’m not officially a chef anymore because I no longer have a restaurant. But even when I had a restaurant, I was not much into titles. I would always ask people to just call me Kenji. But some people will still refer to me as Chef Kenji.
I understand that your father enjoyed Chinese food and your mother cooked Japanese food — did they nurture your cooking passion?
Well, I wasn’t particularly interested in cooking as a kid. I did watch a lot of cooking shows on PBS (Pubic Broadcasting Service) like Julia Child in Japan, The Galloping Gourmet, and other great chefs. But I also liked educational shows, like artist Bob Ross, whether cooking or painting or anything else.
Yes, my father was really passionate about Chinese food! Boston and New York both have very robust Chinatowns and Chinese populations. We spent a lot of time going to all the restaurants in Chinatown and getting familiar with Chinese American cuisine. At that time in New York, it was mainly Cantonese or Hong Kong style food. In Boston, there was Sichuan food, but over the years, I think both cities have developed more regional Chinese cuisines. We spent a lot of time trying to familiarize ourselves with those foods. Chinese food was always my favorite food growing up, other than Japanese food.
My mom, having grown up in Japan, did a lot of Japanese home cooking. She made traditional Japanese dishes, but a lot more of the food she cooked was more ‘yoshoku’ style, that is, westernstyle Japanese food like hamburg (“hambagu”) steak and curry rice (karē raisu). I think she felt this urge to learn American food as well, so she also cooked NYT and Betty Crocker recipes.
My mom was the practical cook, doing all thedaily cooking, and my dad would cook on weekends or special occasions. He would often cook those special occasion dishes which, as a kid, I enjoyed a lot more.
Today, I’m taking the opposite role. I have two kids of my own and I make all the meals for the family; so it’s like, let’s just get it done!
How did you fall into cooking?
I went to school as a biology major so I fell into cooking quite accidentally.
I spent a couple of summers in high school and college, working in biology labs in the summers. After my third summer doing that, I realized that I didn’t actually enjoy lab work very much. After my sophomore year of college, I needed to get a summer job. I happened to go into one local Boston restaurant where they said they had a cook who didn’t show up that day and if I could start working immediately, I could have a job as a cook for the summer.
And, as soon as I got into that kitchen, I loved it.
I ended up loving the physical work of cooking and restaurant cooking is quite different from home cooking. Being young, I really enjoyed the adrenaline of getting food out fast and making sure that it was up to a certain level of quality. Like if I have these 20 different orders, how am I going to cook them efficiently?
It was also the act of cooking. That was when I knew this was going to be my career.
I did finish school with a degree in architecture. I spent about six months working in an architecture firm, just to make sure what career I wanted to take, at least for my mom’s sake, because I didn’t think my mom wanted to be the mother of a cook.
Over the years, you really delved into the science behind cooking as in your two cookbooks— is that due to you and your family’s scientific background? Has that been a perfect confluence of your two passions – science and cooking?
Whenever we had family dinners, with my dad being a geneticist and my grandfather being a chemist, where both of them were there, the conversation would be all about science. I became familiar with the language of science and it was always my favorite subject in school.
As I was working in restaurants, I had this growing list of questions like why are we doing it this way? Why do we make the pasta this way? Why do we boil the potatoes like that? Why do we sear this meat like that?
All these questions that I wanted to answer for myself, but I never had the time to do it. Eventually, I transitioned over to writing about food but it started with “Cook’s Illustrated” magazine in Boston. It was an incredibly rigorous month-long application process. I got the job. Happily, when I said I want to answer this cooking question, they’d say, “Yeah, go ahead and do it!”
A subject like science can be dry but I find that the excitement comes when you can show people how science can apply to their macaroni and cheese. Then suddenly, science is exciting to them.
How did you develop your writing to the point of publishing some really outstanding books?
I had never considered myself a writer or a communicator. Basically, I would spend time writing when not cooking or testing because I wanted to get better at writing.
I never really have a future vision. But I’ve always found that since I was a kid, it was very difficult for me to put a lot of work into something that I didn’t enjoy. If I find the thing I enjoy and concentrate my effort there, I’m going to get better.
I think there’s no better way to develop a writing voice than by just writing all the time. So that was the genesis for “The Food Lab” book which was a five-year long process.
What was the inspiration for your children’s book “Every Night is Pizza Night?”
I was inspired to write it by my daughter Alicia, who was around two years old when I started writing it and four years old when it was published. The characters in the book are directly inspired by my family and the experiences I had growing up in New York, as well as those of my illustrating partner Gianna Ruggiero’s experiences growing up in Philadelphia.
“Every Night is Pizza Night” is a popular children’s book that explores the idea of what counts as the “best” food. The main character thinks that pizza is the greatest food ever, but she meets other children from different cultural backgrounds who tell her that their favorite foods are actually the best.
This children’s book was to help kids understand the idea that “best” is contextual–also, that “best” is personal. So it’s like, what might be best for me might not be best for you. Also, what might be best for me right now, might not be best for me tomorrow. And that’s okay, right? And to use it as a purely positive thing without having to use it to put other people down or using as a way to close your mind.
Can you expand more about your philosophy about your cooking?
There’s no particular food that I feel is very closely tied with my identity. Many of my generation (maybe in their 40s) grew up with two working parents. Perhaps they didn’t have this culture of cooking at home or having the one parent who cooked their family recipes at home.
They might have had takeout food a lot, or they might have had someone who followed, like my mom did, recipes from various books. And so, when you didn’t learn a specific way to cook and you didn’t have these family recipes, or have these techniques that you knew to fall back on, you could modify any recipe to suit your own tastes, when armed with good technical knowledge and information.
What do you consider your greatest cooking passion or idea?
I think my most popular recipe has probably been the ‘no knead, no stretch pizza’ where you basically just make a really loose dough, let it spread itself out into a cast iron pan, and bake it. That’s the recipe I think that I see posted most often.
What I’m more proud of, rather than specific techniques or recipes, is just getting people more engaged in thinking about food in many different ways. I don’t think there’s one way that’s better or worse than another.
What about your life today in Seattle as a busy husband and parent?
My wife, Adriana Lopez-Alt, is in the computer industry. We moved to Seattle two years ago from the Bay Area. We have a five-and-a-half-yearold daughter and a 10-month-old son. Like all young families, balancing work and life has been a challenge!
Over the last few years, I’ve become very good at saying NO to things. When I was younger, like in my 20s and 30s, if someone came to me with an idea that sounded fun, I would say, “Yeah, of course I’ll do that.” Now I think I have a healthy and structured balance where I get to spend a lot of time with my kids.
Do you most enjoy cooking at home?
A couple years ago, I started doing YouTube content. The formula I found that’s worked for me is that I don’t script anything. The basic rule is that I don’t plan what I’m going to make.
If I’m going to be cooking something for my family anyway and if I am in the house by myself and my camera is nearby, then I will shoot the process and show how I’m doing it.
It works great to be able to do these videos where I just cook by myself. I’m able to explain why I’m doing things and how I’m deviating from a recipe. I think one of the running jokes in my videos is that I never follow the recipes that I wrote!
The videos are actually a very good companion to the book because the book has this feeling that readers think is really dense; like here’s this recipe with 40 ingredients and I have to follow it exactly. Whereas ideally, what I want you to take from the book is the techniques and the science, then apply them to your everyday cooking.
I think the fact that it’s a real person cooking real food for their real family is what is most appealing about the videos. There’s a lot of slickly-produced food videos and content out there that makes it feel like you can’t do it!
What would you say about Seattle’s food scene as compared to other cities?
I love the food scene in Seattle.
I grew up in New York, but for me, New York has always been too big. There’s always so much happening that you just feel like you are always in this perpetual race and feel like you’re missing out. Seattle has a comfortable food scene.
Take seafood, for example. Seattle reminds me of Boston; both towns I think have the best sort of casual seafood scene. You can go to fish and chip places which are around everywhere and very fresh and affordable.
A theme I found in Seattle restaurants is that they’re casual and relaxed, right? If I go to Canlis, I may have to wear a jacket but maybe anywhere else I can be dressed however I want!
Regarding your latest book, The Wok, with endless tips and techniques and gorgeous photos, what would you say to our readers who are already familiar with cooking with a wok?
Well, my first piece of advice would be that if you’ve been cooking with a wok your whole life, you should continue to cook the way you cook. If you’ve enjoyed cooking with it and you enjoy the dishes you like to make, there’s no reason to change those things.
That said, if you’re more well-versed, for example, in Japanese dishes, (like my mom cooked a lot of Japanese dishes in the wok growing up and my dad cooked Chinese dishes), then keep cooking those. Today, the wok has been adopted by many other Asian cultures so if you’re familiar with one specific cuisine and you want to expand your repertoire into other cuisines, that would be a good reason to buy the book.
While there are a lot of recipes, I really try and drill down into the technique and science behind it and why you might want to cook things a certain way. For example, why you might want to wash meat, which is a contentious topic, but there are measurable texture benefits to washing your meat vigorously, or why you might want to treat your meat with baking soda or techniques like ‘velveting’ that some people might not be familiar with.
What’s next for you?
Right now, I’m working on a new book, and of course, this might change. The idea is western-style Japanese American cuisine, or Japanese-influenced American dishes. And travel, more videos, and visiting more local restaurants and posting about them!