FOOD: J. Kenji López-Alt on Seattle, cooking and illustration


Essen, episode 2: J. Kenji López-Alt speaks to KNKX food commentator Nancy Leson.

I don’t know about you, but one of the pandemic rabbit holes I fell into was finding and watching cooking videos on YouTube.

Some of them are pretty simple – an overhead camera and a time-lapse of someone sweating something in a pan. Others look like formal cooking shows where someone looks at the camera in a beautiful kitchen and calmly explains what perfect dish they are preparing.

But J. Kenji López-Alt’s videos are different.

He straps a GoPro to his head and we look from his point of view at the countertop (and sometimes his bare feet on the floor below) as he mixes, stirs, chops, drops things and picks them up and moves around his kitchen.

Sometimes he feeds his dogs a little, and every now and then he brushes aside a toy on the floor that his little daughter has left there. Kenji’s kitchen is like my kitchen – inhabited, comfortable, and built more to be used than to be gazed at.

But make no mistake: there is someone with in-depth know-how in this informal kitchen. He is a professional chef, columnist for the New York Times, culinary consultant for Serious Eats, a self-proclaimed science freak, and author of two cookbooks. His first was “The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science” and his second “The Wok: Recipes and Techniques” will be released in early March. He’s also published a children’s book and, going back to the cooking videos, has almost a million followers on YouTube watching the videos he publishes as “Kenji’s Cooking Show”.

KNKX food commentator Nancy Leson has been a fan of Kenji since his early days as a writer and recipe tester for Cook’s Illustrated and later Serious Eats. When she found out he had moved to Seattle, she knew we had to talk to him.

Nancy did what anyone (brave enough) would do when a celebrated star of the culinary world moves to your town. She invited him, then asked him to rummage through her refrigerator for whatever he could find and to cook something.

And he did. Kindly even. Kenji made a lovely fish-scented eggplant dish while talking about the benefits of wok cooking.

This Sichuan dish was improvised from the ingredients it had, but here is its very similar recipe from Serious Eats. By the way, “fish-scented” just means that the same spices are used that you could use for seafood. It does not contain fish. Not that we complained if it were.

He also sat down at her dining table with Nancy to talk about Seattle, cooking, and cultural appropriation in the culinary world. Listen to our conversation above and stick with it until the end if Nancy Kenji asks another favor, this time with a guitar.

Nancy Leson is a food commentator for KNKX and a Seattle-based food writer, cooking instructor, and speaker. Find them at Ed Ronco moderates All Things Considered from 3pm to 6pm on weekdays. “Food” is broadcast monthly on KNKX.