J. Kenji López-Alt is the author of The Food Lab, a column on Serious Eats and now a book which explores cooking with a scientific eye. In fact, the New York Times just referred to Kenji as "the nerd king of Internet cooking."
Photo by Vicky Wasik.
But it's not esoteric mad science — The Food Lab is known for its practicality and clarity as well as its meticulous experimentation. It's one thing to make the perfect bowl of mac 'n' cheese, but you probably don't want to spend seven hours doing it. With that in mind, Kenji approaches the task methodically and distills what he learns into simple, clear directions while explaining the underlying chemistry of cooking. We spoke with Kenji to learn a little about what kitchen gadgets he can't live without, guilty food pleasures, and how he works.
Location: San Mateo, CA Current Gig: Managing Culinary Director of Serious Eats, author of The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science One word that best describes how you work: Late Current mobile device: iPhone 5c Current computer: 2009 iMac
What apps, software, or tools can't you live without?
My knife is my favourite possession. An extension of my hand in the kitchen and the first tool to start every cooking session. I use my digital instant-read thermometer extensively, as well as my digital scale. I shoot all my own photos and I'm a camera junkie (when I can afford it), so I'd add my Canon 5D Mark II and a couple of its lenses. Perhaps my 100mm macro is my favourite.
What's your workspace setup like?
Currently my house is under construction so it's at a small table in my kitchen (the computer screen is wider than the table!), though occasionally I work from the bath. California's in a drought, so not so much at the moment, but when I was living in NY, if you got an email from me between the hours of 7:30 and 9AM, there's a good chance I sent you that email from the bathtub.
What's your best time-saving shortcut or life hack?
I'm terrible at saving time, which is why I don't really sleep. I suppose pre-mixing things I commonly eat or drink is a big time saver. I make a squeeze bottle-full of vinaigrette so that I don't need to whisk one up every time I make a salad. I'll brew quadruple-strength hot tea, let it chill, then dilute it 3:1 with ice water which makes iced tea fast and easy. I'll also pre-mix a big batch of simple syrup for cocktails or my tea instead of trying to dissolve sugar into them every time. I also just run everywhere. Maybe that saves time too.
What's your favourite to-do list manager?
I use the Notes app on iOS which syncs to my desktop and laptop pretty nicely.
Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can't you live without and why?
My Sodastream. Because I really like drinking fizzy things and without my Sodastream that would mean terrible-for-my-teeth soda. This way I get sparkling water ALL DAY.
What kitchen gadget or tool that people often overlook is a necessity for you? (Other than the Sodastream!)
I've actually been keeping track of how many times I use individual kitchen gadgets for the last three months. So far leading the pack are my toaster oven (one of those fancy-pants Breville jobs with a convection fan — it works better than my real oven for small batches of things), my immersion blender (so much better than a standing blender when you just want things to be quick and easy), and my tea maker (another way-too-pricey Breville contraption that heats water to the perfect temperature then steeps your tea for you and automatically pulls the leaves out when it's just right. If people are allowed to spend absurd amounts of money on precision coffee gear, I get a pass for precision tea gear).
Do you find yourself always working on something? Or when you finish a project, do you take time to let your mind wander without concern for what's next?
Oh man, I start working on one project before I even finish with the one before. I don't sleep much and I also don't like sitting idle. At any given time I've got at least a half dozen major projects and a bunch more small projects going on simultaneously. I really need to get more organised about it, but somehow almost everything ends up getting done at some point or another. Hang on a sec, I've got to go grab some chicken off the stove.
What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else?
Karaoke. I'm pretty damn good at karaoke. There's no secret. I just sing along with music. All the time. Much to my wife's chagrin.
Do you have any culinary guilty pleasures? You know, indulging your desire for Taco Bell or...
I gotta say that I think a Big Mac is a brilliant sandwich. Note that I did not say burger. A Big Mac is not really a burger as the meat is almost superfluous to the special sauce, the sweet squishy buns, and the pickles. In fact, I doubt you'd even taste much difference if the beef were completely removed. It's really just a sweet pickle and mayo sandwich, and that sounds amazing to me. At least when I'm drunk.
What do you listen to while you work?
I can't listen to talk radio or classical music while I work because I get way too distracted. If I'm cooking I listen to rock, mostly classic rock. Beatles and Zeppelin. If I'm writing, it's silence. I can't concentrate if there are words or music going on around me.
What are you currently reading?
Currently nothing. I'm in the middle of a crazy book release so I haven't had time to read! But I listen to podcasts when I drive. Radiolab, The Sporkful, and 99% Invisible are all fantastic. I highly recommend them.
How do you recharge?
I go for a surf or go climbing, or at least that's what I tell myself. Really I'm probably just sitting out back with a cold beer.
What's your sleep routine like? Are you a night owl or early-riser?
I don't sleep much! Usually 3-4 hours a night, a little more on the weekends. I wrote my book mostly between the hours of midnight and 4AM. I'm not an insomniac though. It's not like I really want to sleep and can't, I just don't sleep much. My dad was the same way.
Fill in the blank: I'd love to see _________ answer these same questions.
What's the best advice you've ever received?
You have to work very hard to make it seem like you aren't working hard at all. This is the case certainly with writing — the most casual, easy sounding voice is the one that was probably the most carefully crafted and stressed over. It's true in cooking as well. It takes a certain degree of comfort and practice until you get to the point where you're confident enough to cook and serve truly simple dishes — a roast chicken or an omelet — and trust that your technique and skills are going to make it great.
We've asked heroes, experts and flat-out productive people to share their shortcuts, workspaces and routines. Want to suggest someone we should feature or questions we should ask? Let us know.