J. Kenji Lopez-Alt (Managing Culinary Director of Serious Eats), food writer and MIT alum, has shown that a bit of science can go a long way in the kitchen. Covering everything from perfect pie crust (essential for your Thanksgiving prep) to vegan cheese sauce (made with everyday ingredients), he has made good food more accessible for home cooks of every skill level with a dose of science.
I snagged a quick interview with Kenji during his book tour for The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science. The self-proclaimed pizza and mapo tofu fanatic gave some pretty handy advice for college students and food lovers alike. Read on for more:
You won’t graduate with the degree you thought you would.
“I started off as a biology major and studied biology for about two years, before I got a little bored with it. I switched to architecture and graduated with a degree in architecture with a concentration in structural engineering. [I was] definitely set on biology before I went to MIT.”
Learn about what interests you.
“I never really considered culinary school, mostly because I felt like I was learning a lot from working in restaurants and as long as I read in my spare time and practiced in my spare time and was learning something, I felt that culinary school wasn’t really that necessary for me. I think it just depends…
Some people like culinary school because they like learning in a certain way, but I like learning by being a little more hands on and reading about what interests me, so I felt like I didn’t really need the structure of culinary school.”
And sometimes you just need to take some time off.
“I started working in restaurants part-time while I was in school, just because I wanted to get out of academic work for a summer, actually. I enjoyed it a lot and continued it part-time through school and went straight into restaurants after graduating.”
Work ethic speaks louder than experience in the job market.
“I’ve worked in a lot of restaurants and hired a lot of people working in restaurants, and for me, when I’m hiring someone, their culinary school background is like an indicator that they have a certain base level of experience, but so is having restaurant experience.
At the end of the day, whether you really hire someone or not really comes down to…how they are, how they work as a team, how passionate they are…really what matters at the end is whether or not it seems like you are going to work hard for the job.”
No job is all fun and games.
“I mean [being a food writer] is just like any other job, there’s no part of my job that I really dread, other than meetings and management stuff. But the writing is always really fun for me, and the cooking is always really fun for me.”
Don’t assume that everyone has the same background.
“If you’ve been cooking something a really long time, it’s easy for you to cook something. And it’s also easy…[to] just take for granted that everybody is going to have the same sort of basic skills…So that’s the hardest part about writing, just making sure that you cover all your bases and make everything foolproof. And really get in the mindset of a home cook.”
Reading is good. Do it more.
“I honestly don’t read too much, I probably should. I spend so much time writing that I don’t really have much time to read other things, so I should…I’m a huge Kurt Vonnegut fan, Slaughterhouse Five, Breakfast of Champions. I liked Catch 22. [On blogs] I like lucky peach, I like Ideas in Food, Food52, The Kitchn…those are sort of the main ones I look at.“
Social media is here to stay, and we should embrace it.
“I’ve been on social media for years… I’ve been on Facebook since whenever it was available for me, which I think was in college. So it’s something I’m used to and something I enjoy, and it’s something I would do even if it wasn’t part of my job… Our audience has evolved with social media, you know picking up social media, but the viewer demographic is pretty much the same as it’s always been.”
But it can really drain your time.
“Well social media definitely takes up a lot of time, it’s one of [Serious Eats’] biggest traffic drivers. It does, these days, take up more and more time because of all the different channels now, like it used to be just Facebook and Twitter, and then Pinterest got added, and then Instagram, and now there’s always things coming up like Periscope, so it’s hard to stay on top of all that stuff. So we are actually at the point at Serious Eats where we’re finally going to hire a full time social media manager.”
You can fake it as you go, to a certain extent.
“[The social media manager will] be helping coordinate social media stuff for Serious Eats, making sure that we’re promoting stuff on the right channels…someone who figures out what’s really effective, whether our readers go through Twitter or go through Pinterest, so that’ll be sort of a new effort, because right now we’re just flying blind and doing what feels right.”
On food? Try everything.
“…there’s no food I would never try, so long as it was raised and slaughtered up to some basic ethical standards. I think I would try human flesh at some point, if I knew that the human wanted to be eaten.”
More often than not, our gut feeling is wrong.
[On his foie gras article.] “If you read the responses to pieces like that, all of the critics are people who have sort of major gut reactions, and it’s very rare, or I don’t think I saw a single response that addressed the issues from a rational standpoint and offered evidence, it was all just…most of the critics were sort of just knee-jerk reactions…if you can’t offer evidence and you can’t back up your opinion with evidence, then it’s not really worth addressing. Without evidence, all of it is gut feeling and you can’t judge things on gut feeling.”
And don’t get into bar fights.
“…or run away as fast as you can.”
So to everyone out there, take these words to heart. And whether you like food, making food, reading about making food, or reading about making food with the help of fantastic photographs of food (or anywhere in between), add The Food Lab to the top of your reading list. You won’t regret it.