J. Kenji López-Alt: A Life of Fortunate Accidents
Food writer, cookbook author and restaurateur J. Kenji López-Alt discusses his science-based cooking, how the pandemic is changing restaurants and his “say yes” approach to life.
J. Kenji López-Alt, food writer, cookbook author, and restaurateur
- While pursuing an architecture degree at MIT, Kenji’s part-time job as a line cook sent his life on a completely different trajectory than he’d planned.
- Kenji’s cookbooks are less about recipes and more about the science of cooking and the underlying techniques. The Food Lab is textbook-worthy at 950 pages.
- Kenji doesn’t worry about algorithms with his online articles and videos. He focuses on just putting out the best content and letting it find its audience.
- Kenji’s restaurants have had to streamline and simplify due to the pandemic, but they’ll stay that way even after it’s over, since it’s a better business model.
- Kenji López-Alt YouTube channel
- Kenji’s books on bookshop.org
- Kenji’s Serious Eats columns
- Kenji’s Food Lab videos (on Serious Eats)
IVAN STEGIC: Hey everyone! You’re listening to The TEN7 Podcast, where we get together every fortnight, and sometimes more often, to talk about technology, business, and the humans in it. I’m your host Ivan Stegic. This is episode 100 of the podcast. The number 100 is no more or less significant than any other number, but since we live in a mostly Base Ten world, it’s probably as good a time as any to reflect on the show for a sec. I was asked by a staff member really early on, Why are we even doing a podcast? And the truth is, we didn’t have a good reason when we started the podcast, it was an experiment. We wanted to iterate, we wanted to see what would happen.
We don’t have a huge, and having one has never been the goal. We produce the TEN7 podcast because we really enjoy doing so. We produce it because we have things to say about the world, about tech, about things we’ve built, about the people we work with. And most importantly, I think we produce it because there is an abundant supply of really interesting people to talk to. And like Bob Collins said in our last episode, “Everyone has a story.”
So, thank you Jonathan, our producer extraordinaire that whips every episode into shape from beginning to end. Thank you to Roxanne for the transcription of every word, and thank you to Charlene for pulling out the highlights and soundbites of every episode. This show would not exist without you guys.
And that leads me to my guest today, who is J. Kenji Lόpez-Alt. Kenji is many things: award winning chef and foot writer, children’s book author, restaurant owner, New York Times columnist, popular YouTuber, positive male role model, the list goes on. My wife Suzie and I think of him as one of those gifts of COVID. Google’s algorithm delivered and suggested one of his point-of-view cooking videos very early on in the lockdown to us, and we’ve been enamored with the channel ever since. I now own one of those hand blenders and make my own mayonnaise as a result.
Kenji, it’s a great pleasure to have you on the show. Thank you so much for joining me.
J. KENJI LÓPEZ-ALT: Oh, thanks for having me.
IVAN: So, you live in San Mateo, but you grew up on the East Coast in Boston and New York is my understanding. At least that’s what Wikipedia says about you.
KENJI: [laughing] Yes.
IVAN: I also know that you majored in architecture at MIT. How did you get to MIT? What’s the origin story of your heritage, your parents? How did that all start out on the East Coast?
KENJI: Well, my father is American, from western Pennsylvania. He grew up in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and my mother is Japanese, so she moved to the U.S. when she was 16 years old, and so the Japanese Kenji, which is actually my middle name. My first name is James. I’ve never gone by James though, but that’s where the Japanese first name and Alt, the German last name.
My father was a scientist and my grandfather on my mother’s side was a scientist as well. I grew up with my grandparents and my parents, and so, science is just kind of a common language of communication and thought within our house. And my Mom was sort of a typical Japanese mom, she pushed us very hard as kids, academically, and made us all practice violin and all those things that moms do.
I ended up going to MIT because I thought I was going to be a scientist. Biology actually is what my original major was. And I had spent a couple summers working in a biology lab at high school and then summer after my freshman year in college as well. And then by the time I got to sophomore year and I was taking organic chemistry, which is one of the requirements for biology. I really disliked organic chemistry, even though my grandfather was actually an organist chemist, I really just disliked the class.
Then it actually made me stop and start thinking about whether I was actually enjoying biology, whether I enjoyed the two summers I had spent working in a lab. I sort of realized then that I actually didn’t really enjoy the process of biology either. The lab work wasn’t something that I really enjoyed. It was just a little too slow paced.
So the summer after my sophomore year, when I was not really sure what I wanted to do, I decided not to work in a lab and instead spend the summer working as a server, like a waiter at a restaurant in Boston. But I couldn’t find a job as a server.
What ended up happening is I actually, sort of accidentally walked into a job as a cook, because one of the restaurants I went to looking for a job as a server said that, They had a prep cook who didn’t show up that morning and so they were short one prep cook, and if I could come in that afternoon and start cooking, start doing prep work, that I could have a job for the summer. And so, that’s what I did. [laughing] I had zero experience in the kitchen, zero real desire. I never really thought about working in a kitchen. It was just like, Oh, okay, that skill I don’t have, that’ll be a fun and interesting thing to do here. I always enjoyed learning new things and learning new skills, and so I thought it would be a fun and different thing to do that I’ve never done before. And it was. It turned out to be something that I actually really loved doing. So, that’s sort of how I fell into cooking.
I finished MIT with an architecture degree. After that summer I was working part time in restaurants the rest of my time at MIT, and then I went straight into full time after school, after college.
IVAN: How fortuitous that you would show up and there’d be a line cook job opening, [laughing] and that you would end up in a career in the food industry.
KENJI: My career has a lot of fortunate accidents. I consider myself extremely lucky, but it’s also one of the sort of like, you make your own luck things, where it’s like the more chances you take and the more you’re willing to learn new things and try new things, the higher the likelihood that you’re going to stumble on something that you enjoy.
It’s funny, I hadn’t really thought about it until now, but I just wrote this children’s book and the way that happened was also kind of just a very lucky fortuitous thing. My partner in that project, Gianna Ruggiero was the illustrator. I had this sort of vague idea, I had a daughter and she was an infant, and I had this vague idea, I kind of want to write a story for her, because I like kids’ books and I’m a writer. It was sort of just a vague idea and then I was like, Alright, well I wonder how that process works, maybe I’ll try and see if I can find an illustrator and we’ll just kind of mess around with it for a bit.
So I went on Twitter and I asked, “Does anyone know of an illustrator who is interested in working on a children’s book project with me?” As it turned out, just that morning, my illustrator, my partner Gianna, she had posted on Twitter a few hours before that, Hey, I just lost my job. Does anyone know of someone who is looking for an illustrator to work with on a new project? She was specifically looking for the type of project she hadn’t worked on before.
And so that’s basically how we met each other. We just both tweeted looking for each other at the same time and someone connected us on Twitter. I’d never met her before, but it turned out we both got along really well. We were both looking for a fun new project, a new and challenging project, in a field that we hadn’t worked in before. And it totally worked out. So, it was a very lucky thing there too.
IVAN: So, let’s talk about your children’s book for sec. It’s called Every Night is Pizza Night, and it just came out right, at the beginning of September?
KENJI: Yeah, exactly.
IVAN: This is your second book. It’s not as in depth as your first book. [laughing]
KENJI: It’s not as long, yeah.
IVAN: It’s not as long.
KENJI: Forty-two pages compared to 950 pages [laughing]. It’s shorter, but it was actually more difficult to write. I found writing for children to be more difficult than writing for adults. My first book The Food Lab, that style of writing I’ve been doing now for 15 years or so, maybe not quite 15 years, but for a while, well over a decade. I can write cooking articles aimed at adults and food science articles aimed at adults easily.
IVAN: In your sleep probably.
KENJI: [laughing] Well, in the middle of the night at least, if not in my sleep. But finding a voice and figuring out how to write for children was much more challenging than I thought it was going to be.
IVAN: But it’s an illustrated children’s book right? And you don’t do the illustrating, so you have to collaborate with this illustrator, Gianna. Do you tell her what to draw? Do you describe the characters? How does that whole process work?
KENJI: Well, when I first went into it, I thought, Okay, I’m the writer and she’s the illustrator. So at first I was like, I’m going to write everything and I have this idea of what it’s supposed to look like in my head, and so I’ll describe every page in detail. But then after talking with a few other children’s book authors, the general advice was, No, you’re the writer, she's the illustrator, so let her do the illustrations. Don’t tell her what to do. That’s her job. Like, You’re good at writing, they are good at visual things. That’s the reason why you’re collaborating with them.
What I did was I came up with short biographies for each character, so like one paragraph about every character who appears in the book, and who they are and where they’re coming from, and then just the words of the book. So from there she fills in all the pages. Then it’s a collaborative process. We go back and forth, both on the words and on the illustrations. So she has a lot of input in what the words are and the messaging in the story and the plot and all that. And likewise I would give her feedback on the direction of the drawings.
It was a very, very collaborative, equal partnership we had which I found different and wonderful. I’m very used to working alone. I work from home, I have for the last five years I’ve worked from home alone, and I do my writing and take my own photos, so I don’t really collaborate with anyone in general on writing projects. So this is a very different process, but extremely fun and rewarding. We have definite plans to do more.
IVAN: I love to hear it. I read on your website, you have a great About page that’s written in both first person and third person, and the third person part, I was trying to paraphrase that for myself so that I could give you an intro in the podcast. And what the third person part really opened my eyes to is that you’re an author, according to that part of the bio. But I’ve seen you on YouTube, and I’ve seen the fact that you have a restaurant, and the fact that you are an amazing cook. What do you consider yourself? Are you an author? Are you a chef? Are you a business owner? Maybe you’re a complicated mix of all of them, I guess. [laughing]
KENJI: [laughing] I would consider myself a writer primarily, because that’s what I spend most of my time on, and that’s where my source of income. Although now YouTube, it’s not what I spend most of my time on, but it is becoming a significant source of income, which is not expected and actually pretty nice, because I have fun doing those videos, which means it’s sustainable to keep doing them. I guess I consider myself a chef in the sense that I operate a restaurant, and I’m in charge of all the food there. I’m not a cook anymore. I was a cook for a long time, but I’m not a cook anymore. Most chefs don’t actually cook in restaurants except at very small places. So, my job is more menu planning and overall direction and operations and all that kind of stuff. But, yeah, I would consider myself a writer more than anything. If I had to select one on that census form it would be writer.
IVAN: How did you end up on the West Coast?
KENJI: My wife got a job out here. I grew up in New York, lived in Boston for 10 years and then back in New York for five years when my wife was in grad school. And after grad school she got a job out here, so we moved out here, because I can write from anywhere, and she got a job out here so we moved. [laughing] Pretty straightforward.
IVAN: And you wrote The Food Lab and it came out in 2015, almost 1,000 pages, six pounds in weight. And I love the title, the qualifier is, The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking through Science.
IVAN: It’s been described as a textbook-like cookbook with roots in scientific reasoning. Why did you write this book?
KENJI: I wrote the book mainly at the urging of my partner and former boss Ed Levine. I started writing this column called The Food Lab. When I moved back to New York after being a cook in Boston for a while, I was working as a private chef and as a freelance writer. And so I was doing short articles for various newspapers, and I was a remote editor for Cook's Illustrated magazine. And I’d always had this interest in science, and I knew cooking pretty well at that point. So, I sat down with Ed Levine who is the founder of Serious Eats, a website that at the time was mainly a sort of restaurant review website that would talk about food news and restaurant news. But he was interested in starting a recipes section. So he first approached me to see if I wanted to do a weekly column, and it was sort of his idea to do a column on food science. In fact he even came up with the name The Food Lab. It sounded like a fun thing to do and so I said, Sure, and the first article I wrote was about boiling eggs, and it was 3,000 words about boiling eggs. I wrote it and I was like nobody is ever going to read this, and I put it up and people really responded well to it. And so, I kept going.
That was one of the nice things about writing online, because I’d been used to writing for newspapers and magazines, where you are very limited in space. And most magazines and newspapers are pretty risk averse, because they have an established subscriber base, they know what works and they have an established voice. So, when I was working at Cook's Illustrated magazine every article sounds and behaves pretty similarly. And even though I was one of seven or eight other writers, your freedom was quite restricted because all the articles had to be the same length, they all had to have that same Cook’s Illustrated tone to them.
Whereas writing online back then, everything online back then was like the Wild West, it’s like where is the money going to come from? Who are you writing for? What works, what doesn’t? The Google algorithm would change every month, so predictability in your audience would vary all over the place. It was really fun and interesting. What it really meant was that, when I was writing my columns, I could do whatever I wanted. If there was an audience that liked it, great. If there wasn’t then, okay, there’s going to be four more articles appearing the same day on Serious Eats. So okay, so this one didn’t do well, who cares.
KENJI: So, that was wonderful for me and the team there, me, Carey Jones, Erin Zimmer, Adam Kuban, all of whom are successful in various other fields now as well. All we did was we would have meetings and say and do whatever sounded fun to us, that’s what we would do. So, it’s like, Hey, I’m in California today. I’m going to go to In-N-Out and order everything on the secret menu and I’m actually going to get one of the employees to help me find everything on the secret menu, and then I’ll write about that. So, we’d just do that. There was never a No. It was always just like, Yeah sounds good.
And it worked really well with my general philosophy I’ve had basically through my whole career, which is that I do my best work when I’m passionate about something and when I’m really having fun and when I’m interested in it. So that’s gonna be what I do. I’m going to do what interests me, and I’m going to write about things that interest me, and by doing that I know I’m going to be putting out my best work, and hopefully people are going to respond to that.
What I discovered 10 years ago when I started that was that people do respond to it. People like authenticity and passion. So if you bring those things to your work not only does it mean you get to do what you want to do, but if you’re lucky it means that people also are going to find that work interesting or inspiring or whatever it is.
It’s the same thing I do with my YouTube videos now. It’s like I have no idea how the YouTube algorithm works. People talk about it on other channels, they talk a lot about this YouTube algorithm, and it’s sort of how I remember articles and talking with other editors from other websites back in the early days of the web, where it’s like, the Google algorithm and the SEO getting on the front page and all these things and all these tricks you should be doing to making sure that your stuff appears at the top.
I ignored it then. And with YouTube I ignore it now. I just do what I want to do, put out the best content I can and the stuff that I’m interested in, and then hope that people at Google or YouTube or wherever who are writing the algorithm are good enough at writing it that my content will make its way in front of the people who want it.
IVAN: I think it’s working. I have no idea why the video that I saw of yours the very first time showed up in our stream. And I say our stream because we use Apple TV to watch tv together as a family, and it’s my account. So my family has all of their own preferences on that Apple TV, so I think the algorithm’s actually really confused, [laughing] because it has teenage preferences, my wife’s preferences, my preferences. But it showed up, and it was the video that you did with Cacio e Pepe I think. It was the pepper pasta sheet. I tried making that. I was so inspired, totally failed, but it didn’t matter. I subscribed, and it’s been great.
So now I’m the resident expert on eggs, and how to buy them in the grocery store, because of one of the videos you made, which was the one about how the eggs have the Julian date, the carton has the Julian date printed on them. Those are probably the most fresh. You should be buying the ones with the Julian date that have the highest number. I guess my question in this extremely long preamble [laughing] is to ask you did you figure that out, or did someone tell you? How did you figure that out?
KENJI: It’s not publicized normally, so what you’re referring to is on every carton of eggs there’s a little three digit number that goes from 0 to 365, anyway that number represents the date that the eggs were packed in that carton, which in general correlates to the date that the eggs were laid. So the higher that number, other than when you’re going over the new year, but the higher that number the fresher the eggs are going to be in general.
When I was writing my first book, the first chapter’s all about eggs, and so there’s a huge Q&A section about eggs. I’m sure I came across it in my research probably on the USDA website or the Egg Council’s website. It’s not hidden secret knowledge, it’s just not something that the egg companies necessarily advertise. There’s a lot of things on packaging that are useful for stocking shelves and for supermarkets for keeping track of things, like keeping track of freshness, as well as the manufacturers that aren’t necessarily advertised to the public, but a lot of that information is just there on the cartons, if you know where to look.
IVAN: Do you think a certain manufacturer would have a competitive advantage on another if they use that in their marketing? If I saw the number that was big and bold and I didn’t have to look through all the cartons in the co-op, I’d be more likely to buy those.
KENJI: I doubt it in this specific case, because eggs actually last a very, very long time, longer than you would expect them to. An egg, after it’s laid it’ll last at least a few months without going bad. And so, what I would worry about as a manufacturer is that, I think most people don’t know that the eggs that they’re buying are probably a few weeks old already by the time they’re buying them at the supermarket, but they’re still going to last even longer after that. So, what I’d be worried about was that if I was a manufacturer and I put this date on it, Hey this was the date these eggs were packed, and we’re going to go, Eww, that’s like two weeks ago, I’m going to go with these other eggs, they’re probably fresher. Whereas two weeks is actually about as fresh as you are going to find on the supermarket shelf. I think it would actually end up hurting sales if you were to really promote the date that they were packed.
IVAN: Well good, because now I feel like I have secret info [laughing]. We did a test at home with the eggs we had in our fridge and eggs that I bought that were more recent, and we tried to make poached eggs just like you had suggested. And the ones that were fresher absolutely were a million times better than the ones that weren’t, that were still in the fridge.
KENJI: Yeah, fresher eggs generally hold their shape a little bit better.
IVAN: So you’re working on a book now about wok cooking is that right?
IVAN: And is the format of the book going to be similar or different to The Food Lab? What can you tell us about the book?
KENJI: Yeah, the format will be similar. It’ll have recipes in it, something around 200 or 250 recipes is what the count is at right now.
KENJI: But like The Food Lab, it’s less about the specific recipes and more about the underlying technique and science. Because I think understanding technique and science is really what allows you to cook more freely in the kitchen and be more expressive and work with leftovers and bring what you have in your head to life on the stovetop. It’s similar to The Food Lab in that it's really technique and science focused and not necessarily recipe focused. Although if all you want to do is follow recipes, they’re in there as well.
It’ll also be similar in format in that the chapters are broken down by technique, so there’s not a chapter on chicken and a chapter on pork, but rather there’s going to be a chapter on using your wok for deep frying. There’s one on smoking, steaming, braising, stir frying. There’s a chapter on rice and all the things you can do with rice. So it’s really broken down more by general cooking principle and technique. Who knows how long it’ll be in the end, but most likely not 950 pages?
IVAN: [laughing] And six and a half pounds.
KENJI: [laughing] But it’s growing more every day so who knows. [laughing] A few hundred pages at least for sure.
IVAN: That’s awesome. I’m looking forward to getting it and seeing it on the shelves.
KENJI: Yes, I’m looking forward to it too, [laughing] I’ve been working on it for a while now.
IVAN: I’d love to talk about Wursthall, the beer hall restaurant you have in San Mateo. What’s the genesis of Wursthall? How did that idea come to pass?
KENJI: My partners, they owned a beer and wine bar together in the space where Wursthall is now was opening up. They had been in business for seven years before Wursthall and so they were ready to take on a new project. It was actually their idea to open up a restaurant and to make it a beer garden, because my partner Adam has a deep knowledge of beer, both domestically, all the California breweries and West Coast breweries, and imports. And a beer garden seemed like a natural thing because San Mateo is demographically shifting to being a lot more younger families, as well as people interested in beer. And so that family-friendly atmosphere with a focus on beer seemed like a natural thing to do in the area. They approached me about consulting, which is something I had done in the past with other restaurants. And so I said, Sure.
And then I mentioned on Twitter that I was working on this project, and when I did that I got a call from someone at Eater, I can’t remember who their reporter was, but someone at Eater said they wanted to interview me about this beer hall project. So, I talked about it. But the way they wrote that article the headline was like, Kenji Lopez-Alt is opening a restaurant, which wasn’t really at the time, I was just a consultant. And then Eater was kind of like, This is Kenji’s restaurant, and I was like, Oh crap, I guess I’m opening a restaurant. There was a really good response.
So I sat down again with my partners both of whom said, Yeah, well maybe since everyone thinks this is your restaurant now you should be one of the partners and get a little more involved. And that’s [laughing] how it happened. I was kind of forced into it. It’s definitely been a learning experience. Not necessarily an experience I would repeat, but I don’t regret it. I don’t have plans to go full-time into another restaurant anytime soon, because I have a lot of other projects I want to work on first.
IVAN: It sounds like it happened fortuitously just like you ended up being that line cook in Boston.
KENJI: Yeah. [laughing] You know, I think a lot of it just has to do, again with it being in my personality to just say yes to things, especially things that I think I’m going to learn from or a new experience for me. So when they approached me, I said, Yeah, okay, it sounds fun.
IVAN: That’s awesome. That’s really awesome. So, you guys closed pretty early on in the lockdown back in March.
KENJI: Yeah, we actually closed pre-lockdown.
KENJI: Yeah, the day before the lockdown was official, we internally decided to close, mainly because of staff, we felt we couldn’t put our team at risk as well as our customers. We started doing indoor dining with distance seating, but even then it didn’t feel completely safe. So we decided to close down completely.
Now just recently San Mateo County started allowing indoor dining again, but we don’t currently have any plans to resume indoor dining. Again because now we have enough outdoor dining space, that in the California Bay area you’re lucky enough that people can eat outdoors pretty much year round. We’ve sort of got operations to the point where we’re basically at maximum capacity as far as staffing density can go. If we were to put another cook on the line, they would have to be standing closer to each other than six feet. And so we figured alright, well, we’re at maximum capacity as far as staffing density can go, and we have a good customer base right now. So it’s working out for us now, so we don’t really have any reason to open up the indoors, which would only put people at risk again, and we really want to be careful about that.
IVAN: Yeah, that’s what I was going to ask about is, how the crowds have changed, and it sounds like you’re doing well with having crowds outside, and you’re putting people in your thoughts, and you’re being careful about it.
It feels like every industry has changed with the pandemic, and it’s really made a lot of people and a lot of industries rethink how they do business and how they operate. What aspects of what’s changed in your industry do you think will remain after the virus goes away? That’s a hard question to answer, I think.
KENJI: So there’s been a trend in the restaurant industry for a long time towards casual dining, and this is something that chefs have been seeing since the financial crisis in 2008. Restaurants have been shifting from fine dining and full service to more casual dining and fast casual service. And I think one thing that this has done is forced a lot of places that were running on momentum before into completely rethinking their operations. Because right now full service dining is not really an option for most places. Certainly not an option for us. So I think that’s one thing that might change. It’s definitely going to change permanently for us. We’ve really streamlined our menu and changed our service style to accommodate the current situation, but it also turns out that for us it’s a more efficient, better business that way anyway.
So this is something that we plan on keeping. Even if we were to fully open again, we would change the volume of customers we could serve and hopefully hire back some of the staff that we’ve had to lay off, because we just don’t make the revenue we used to, and because of safety. But our service style I think is not going to change back to what it used to be, which is actually a good thing for us business wise.
One of the real big changes I think we’re going to see is that a lot of restaurants aren’t going to survive this. I think we are, but who knows how long this is going to last. But a lot of restaurants aren’t going to survive this, and the ones that do are going to tend to be the bigger chains and the ones with the deeper pockets who can weather the storm without the same level of revenue. Which means I think the restaurant landscape, once we find a vaccine and things hopefully start to get back to normal, the restaurant landscape is going to look really different from what it did. I think we’re going to have fewer mom and pops and fewer independent locations, and more of the big chains that are going to move in and scoop up some of those places that mom and pops used to be.
IVAN: That’s sad for me to hear. I’ve seen all the restaurants that have made it in the Twin Cities here where I am, and those that haven’t, and those that are weathering the storm. And I miss the ones that have gone out of business, and I feel helpless because there was nothing really that I could do to keep them around, even though we tried to buy gift cards and tried to order the delivery service.
KENJI: It’s not the same.
IVAN: It’s not the same.
KENJI: And you know even gift cards are useful short-term, but really a gift card is just putting off debt until later, because at some point that gift card has to get redeemed anyway. Yeah, there’s no easy solution.
IVAN: No. I hope all those people and all the skills that they have, I hope they land somewhere else and do something else. I know people are resilient, and they’ll figure it out, but I feel like we have to be doing more as a society to support them, and the government should be doing more as well to support them. Just keep eating out and doing what you can I suppose to support them.
IVAN: On one of your videos you have a mat, and when you look down it says, People who live in fear are destined to have uncomfortable feet.
KENJI: Oh right. [laughing]
IVAN: What does that mean? [laughing] I couldn’t figure that out.
KENJI: [laughing] You know, that was something a viewer sent in. I cook at home, and I cook the way I walk around at home. I grew up in a Japanese household and it’s customary to not wear any shoes in the house. So, we don’t wear shoes in our house, and so I cook in bare feet when I’m at home, obviously not at the restaurant. But when I cook at home I’m in bare feet. And sometimes people comment, You shouldn’t be frying in bare feet because you’re going to burn your feet. Or, What if you drop a knife on your foot? So, I think in some video I said, If I drop a knife on my foot, well, you know, I guess I can’t live in fear of that. People who, I don’t remember what the exact quote is, but it says something about, I’d rather have the comfort of no shoes on than worry constantly about hurting my feet. So, one of my viewers actually made that kitchen mat and sent it to me. [laughing] It was a gift from a viewer.
IVAN: That’s awesome. You have to be pretty thick skinned on the internet these days, and one of the things I really appreciate is that you don’t give a shit, if I may say so, when people leave nasty comments, or they think that you don’t do things a certain way. You don’t care, and I love that. And you empower people to just do what they love, and I think that’s a really great quality.
KENJI: My days as an editor at that Cook’s Illustrated, one of the lessons I learned there is that, a comment section is only as good as the moderator allows it to be. And so I do go on Reddit, and I browse Reddit and whatever, and I understand some people’s philosophy, it’s like, Oh there should be free speech. Don’t delete any comments. Don’t moderate comments. If people want to be jerks, they’ll be jerks.
But what I find is that most of the time left to their devices people on the internet especially behind anonymous usernames, the comment sections will devolve. And even people who generally would be nice people in real life, and be nice and empathetic in real life, get sucked into these back and forth ever devolving conversations on the internet.
And so, ever since my days at Serious Eats, I’ve read a few essays and articles about the subject of comment section moderation. And so at Serious Eats the philosophy was, You gotta be nice to each other, here are basic rules. No ad hominem attacks, no cursing, no being mean to each other, and if you start doing that, we’re just going to delete your comment. And that’s sort of what I do on my YouTube channel also. So people will sometimes tell me, You have such a positive, great comment section, it’s nice for people to have a conversation here, as opposed to Twitter or Reddit where it’s just people insulting each other. And the reason that’s the case is, because I pretty carefully monitor comments, and if someone starts to get nasty, then I delete the comment. I don’t delete comments because I disagree with them, I delete comments because...
IVAN: They’re hateful.
KENJI: Yeah, and I think if you want to have positive discussions with people that’s almost a necessity in the modern comment section. But like you said, as far as the content that I put out, and sometimes I’ll make political statements on my various platforms because I don’t think it’s possible to avoid politics these days, and I don’t think people should be avoiding politics these days, given what’s going on. And people will tell me to, Stay in my lane, or You’re a cook, just talk about this and just shut up and cook. Get back in the kitchen.
IVAN: So rude.
KENJI: At least in our country politics is everybody’s domain. We have a reality TV show host as the President.
IVAN: Yes, we do.
KENJI: It’s like, if you’re going to tell me to stay in my lane, it just doesn’t make sense in this country because politics is everybody’s lane. I have no trouble voicing my opinion on my own show. And if people tell me to shut up, it just makes me want to do it more. [laughing]
IVAN: [laughing] That’s awesome. Well, I really appreciate your time today. I’ve been inspired by your channel to spend more time in the kitchen. I thank you for that. I thank you for inspiring me. Thank you so much for agreeing to do the podcast and for spending your time with me today. It’s been great talking to you.
KENJI: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me. It was fun.
IVAN: J. Kenji Lόpez-Alt is not only the author of New York Times bestseller, The Food Lab, and the new children’s book called Every Night is Pizza Night, but is also the chef and a partner at Wursthall in San Mateo, California. You can find him online at kenjilopezalt.com, and he’s on Twitter and Instagram as @kenjilopezalt, and be sure to check out his YouTube channel as well. You’ll find the link in the show notes of this webpage.
You’ve been listening to The TEN7 Podcast. Find us online at ten7.com/podcast. And if you have a second, do send us a message. We love hearing from you. Our email address is [email protected]. Until next time, this is Ivan Stegic. Thanks for listening.