Hungry Onion Drooling Q&A with J. Kenji López-Alt. (Nov 11, 2016 11am PT)

Hmm. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes me think something is not going to work out. It’s something that comes with experience. Kinda like if you’ve played music long enough, you can look at the score and hear it playing in your head without having to actually gather an orchestra and have them play it. With most recipes, unless there’s some wild new technique going on, I can get a pretty good picture of what is happening without having to actually cook through it. But of course, there are always surprises!

Some obvious red flags are if an author doesn’t seem to understand basic technique - like if they recommend cooking something “x minutes per pound” instead of using a thermometer, or if they offer explanations for why things work that have been soundly repudiated. If someone says “seal in the juices,” instant red flag!

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Like sck, I’ve noticed a reluctance to give up traditional recipes or ideas about food, and appreciate your and Serious Eats’ (love the addition of Stella Parks even though I’m not that into baking) willingness to test traditional and new techniques and beliefs, and to present the most practical technique as such when it is almost as good as the best technique, but much easier…
I’m sure you noticed this is particularly true in cases where you’ve performed blind-ish taste tests of food wisdom, like the tomato truthers, who can’t believe refrigeration doesn’t ruin ripe tomatos (without testing themselves), or that our perception of eggs is mostly based on visual cues (yellow), or that risotto doesn’t need to be stirred constantly with only . What taste test/technique surprised you the most?

Vegan meatball, yes! I hadn’t thought about vegan sheng jian bao, but that’s a great idea. I actually just had dinner with Fuchsia last week. We had her Lion’s head meatballs from her new book Land of Fish and Rice, as cooked by the folks at Camino in Oakland. It was spectacular!


If there’s one great lesson ATK taught me, it was to learn how to think like a home cook. My training was all in restaurants and I had no clue how people really cooked at home. ATK made me focus hard on that and made me rethink many of the assumptions I made about cooking and recipe-writing. Focusing on accessibility and solving real-world problems have been my top priorities ever since.

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I gotta admit that at the time, and particularly in some of the kitchens I worked in, there was somewhat of an anti-intellectual bias going on and as the new guy in the kitchen with no experience, you get ragged on a LOT. Cooks were there to follow orders, not question them. But it’s all a good learning experience and I learned to put my head down, work hard, develop my skills, and got better and better as time went on.

I’m not in the industry any more, but these days I think it’s almost the opposite: thinking cooks are valued a lot, though following orders, hard work, and consistency are always going to be the most important things when hiring. Nobody likes a cook who thinks their entitled just because they are smarter or better educated than others.


Thanks- btw, did you grow up learning to cook at home? Or did cooking start at restaurants for you?

I was frankly surprised at how much attention that got, and I think I’m largely to blame for a lot of the blowback they ended up getting. Production delays occurred because they were trying to raise $30k and start small and instead raised over a million dollars and suddenly had hundreds of thousands of orders to fulfill. I’m sure that also led to some of the consistency issues that people have been reporting with knives coming off their line.

It’s something I have to be more aware of in the future because helping out small businesses with great products is something I’m passionate about, but I also want to make sure that it doesn’t end up backfiring and harming readers in the process.

In regards to the actual knives, I know that Wired magazine put out that piece slamming them as a sham. I really disliked that article. It focused on Rockwell hardness ratings as the most important measure of the quality of a knife, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. It reminded me a lot of PC reviewers from the late 2000’s who focus on tech specs and would label any consumer who bought into Apple products as sheep who were being blinded, without realizing that people buy products for reasons other than measurable numbers. Design is hugely important. Misen is a well-designed, well-balanced knife, and to me that is far more important than the hardness of the metal. It should also be noted that there are good and bad sides to having harder materials and in general, for a home cook, softer metal is probably better anyway. Easier to sharpen, less likely to chip, etc.



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I mean, that’s almost what I make my entire career out of, so yes!

I try not to be. Definitely not when I’m eating at a friend’s house. Eating out should be about enjoying your time out and the company you’re with and taking a break from things. If I were to start being really critical every time I went out, it wouldn’t be fun any more.

I’m far more concerned with good service than good food when I go out. A mediocre meal can still be really enjoyable if the service is great and you feel taken care of. But the greatest food in the world can’t save a meal in which you are treated poorly.

the first thing I do when I start working on a recipe is research. I want to know what the dish’s history is, and what it means to people, because that is what’s going to inform my approach to it. You have to respect the dish you’re working with and the culture it comes from. If you make that clear, then generally I find that people are totally fine with tweaks. Of course there are exceptions. You’re going to find hardliners in any culture (though Italians seem especially protective of their great cuisine), and they’re going to express opinions or call you names. I just try to ignore it.

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There is a large group of Bay Area eaters on this forum. Where do you like to go when you eat out? Anything around San Mateo?

I’m not sure about a travel book per se, though I do really love traveling and writing about it. Never say never!

One thing I do want to do is write the definitive English-language cook on the food of Colombia to introduce English speakers to the amazing cuisine of my wife’s country. I’d like to do it by spending a year traveling to every region in the country, photographing, writing, and cooking with people. I suppose in that sense it would be a travel book.


All the time. My dogs get a lot of failed experiments for dinner.


I’m assuming you’re talking about what happened on /r/food?

I honestly have no clue what happened. I used to frequent that subreddit as a commenter and a submitter. I always submitted posts through imgur albums, never as links to my own site. One day I got banned without warning. I asked the mods why it happened, and if I’d done anything wrong and how to fix it, one of them got back to me and said it was a mistake and rescinded it. The next day it was reinstated and I was stonewalled by the whole mod team when I asked about it.

It only resurfaced a few years later when other users started getting banned for mentioning me or linking to Serious Eats. At that point, one of the mods messaged me and also publicly started saying that in the past I’d cursed at the mod team, I’d spammed /r/food with links, and done some other terrible things. None of that is true and I publicly posted all of my exchanges with the mod team to prove it. You can probably go back and find those posts if you’re interested.

Since then I ignored it. It’s silly drama that can most likely just be attributed to some mod on the world’s smallest and least important power trip. Life’s too short to care!

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Once you get to some basic quality level, technique always trumps ingredient quality. A bad cook is gonna make great ingredients taste bad. A great cook can make even plain ingredients taste good. But of course having access to great ingredients when you can get them is swell.

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That would be amazing. Colombian cuisine seems to be under-represented in North America. Do you get to eat lots of Colombian food at home?

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My favorite place is in my garden :slight_smile:

But I like the farmer’s market in San Mateo (Tuesdays) and Burlingame (Sundays). I do my everyday shopping at either the latin fruit and vegetable grocer down the street from me, or at the nearby Whole Foods or Safeway, depending on what I’m looking for. Sometimes the Marina market for Asian ingredients or Nijiya in San Mateo for Japanese.

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Well, I’m an omnivore that generally favors vegetables and fish. Not quite a pescatarian. I do have the occasional burger when the craving hits.

I do like Japanese-style simmered fish. simmered in soy dashi. yum. Or Sichuan-style fish boiled in chili broth.

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Thinking of asking for either sous vide or pressure cooker for Christmas, which is more versatile?

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Bessarabsky Market, Kyiv. Ukraine
Credit: Juan Antonio Segal, Flickr