The CultureMap Interview

'Nerd king' reveals science of home cooking and geeky delights in popular cookbook and classes

'Nerd king' reveals science of home cooking and geeky delights

Kenji Lopez-Alt The Food Lab
J. Kenji López-Alt is teaching sold-out cooking classes at Central Market.  Photo by Vicky Wasik
The Food Lab cover Kenji Lopez-Alt
The Food Lab offers 1,000 pages of recipes and instruction. Courtesy photo
Kenji Lopez-Alt The Food Lab
The Food Lab cover Kenji Lopez-Alt

The "nerd king of Internet cooking" is in Texas this week. J. Kenji López-Alt, author of the bestselling cookbook The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science, is teaching a series of sold-out cooking classes at Central Market stores in Houston, Austin, and Dallas. 

López-Alt's celebrity status stems from the work he's published on the Serious Eats website, where his column takes a scientific look at questions such as whether searing a raw steak "seals in the juices" (it doesn't) and the steps necessary to cook the perfect burger (flip frequently!).

Those recommendations are much, much more are thoroughly documented in The Food Lab, which has been a smash hit since its publication in September. Following in the steps of people like Alton Brown and Mr. Wizard, López-Alt documents not just the hows of better cooking but also the whys. Not a surprising approach considering López-Alt graduated from MIT and describes himself as "part mad scientist, part cook."

Reviewers have agreed. The New York Times praised the way López-Alt makes "difficult concepts easy to grasp for those of us with a lifelong lack of aptitude for the sciences." Similarly, Epicurious notes that the author understands "the food nerds reading this book almost as much as you understand the way asparagus takes on a melt-in-your-mouth texture at 183°F."

CultureMap caught up with López-Alt from his home in California. He answered questions about his cookbook's success, why he's teaching an all-breakfast class, and provided some thoughts on whether a hot dog is a sandwich.

CultureMap: Have people responded to the book the way you anticipated?

J. Kenji López-Alt: Yes, but on a much bigger scale. From the type of audience the column has, I knew the types of people who would be interested in the book. I never anticipated it would be as popular as it is. It’s a good kind of shock.

There are some types of people who got interested who I didn't anticipate. I thought it would be most interesting to pop science fans and really nerdy home cooks . . . I didn’t really write it to be a recipe book, but some people use it that way, which is good.

CM: What recipes are people finding most useful/surprising?

KLA: A lot of people have mentioned they use my steak technique now. A lot of it is that whole chapter on quick-cooking meat. It really is sort of the ones I was expecting, the classic American dishes: steak, burgers, fried chicken. Potatoes au gratin that I have in there is the most popular recipe . . . It’s all that sort of comfort food. The stuff you don’t eat every day but you want it to be really good when you do.

CM: What recipes didn’t make this book that you hope to publish in the next one?

KLA: The book was originally 1600 pages long. It was going to be two, 800-page volumes. We decided at the end to cut it down to one volume. It seemed a little too ambitious to publish two volumes for my first cookbook . . . The first book was mostly American. The second book is going to contain more things like Chinese food, Mexican. Things that are familiar to Americans but come from a different part of the world. The second book will also have a lot of pizza.

CM: Will you preview some of your pizza secrets?

KLA: In the book, there’s five different styles of pizza and they’re all unique. For Neapolitan, it’s all about a high temperature . . . The overarching theme is how to make dough properly. I recommend a food processor or a no-knead method to produce superior flavor and texture to a stand mixer.

CM: You supported the Misen chef's knife Kickstarter. What are the criteria you use when deciding whether to endorse a product?

KLA: Basically, people send me things all the time. Most of the time I either delete the email or I say thank you and find a way to give it away to someone. This was something that came across my door that looks better than most new knives I’d seen in terms of design. I used it for about a month, and it turns out it’s a really great knife.

One of the most popular articles I’ve ever done is picking a chef’s knife. The difficult part with knives is it’s easy to get a cheap knife, but cheap knives don’t compare to a good quality knife. Most are $100 or more, a lot more. Finding a sweet spot between a good quality and price is something I’d been looking for. It hit the sweet spot.

CM: Why did you choose breakfast foods for your class at Central Market?

KLA: Every time I write about eggs it ends up being one of the most popular articles I’ve written. There’s something about eggs people love to read about. I also think its's the first kind of food most people learn to cook.

They start out as a mucousy liquid. You can make them hard, you can make them custardy . . . they just have so many uses. It depends on the process. Even with just one egg, you can come up with different textures and process. For someone who’s interested in process, eggs are a great ingredient.

CM: Finally, Twitter user @NickSeam asks: If Jell-O can be a salad, why can’t a hot dog be a sandwich?

KLA: I wouldn’t call Jell-O salads real salads (laughs). There is this sort of taxonomic question. If you come up with a sandwich of "sandwich," if you apply it to hot dogs you find out a hot dog is a sandwich. If you ask most people, they’ll say no fucking way (is a hot dog a sandwich). Rather than trying to force people to believe a hot dog is a sandwich, we need to find a new definition of sandwich. 

Portions of this interview have been edited for length and clarity.