And in this corner, weighing in at a hulking five pounds — The Wok: Recipes and Techniques by J. Kenji López-Alt. When his mammoth cookbook arrived, it required a massive effort to extricate it from my woefully listing mailbox. I’ll have to leave a ginormous Christmas bonus for the postal worker I muttered, lugging the 658-page, highly touted chef d’oeuvre to my office.
If there’s a sudden run on one of the world’s oldest cookware, Chinese Woks, you can lay the blame at the feet of recent Seattle transplant López-Alt, newly arrived in 2021.
Far from a Horatio Alger rags-to-riches hero — rising from poverty to wealth and success through persistence and laborious efforts — for the American chef and food writer, only a part of the Alger can-do tale holds true. The son of a German American geneticist and immunologist Frederick Alt (professor at Harvard Medical School) and grandson of Japanese organic chemist, Koji Nakanishi (chair of Columbia University’s chemistry department), James Kenji Alt attended The Dalton School – a leading private children’s university preparatory academy in New York City. The 2022-23 yearly tuition for grades K-12, is $57,970. Before proletariat pique and tsk-tsking commence, López-Alt’s dedication, hard work and perseverance more than warrant his well-earned awards and kudos . . . as well as public guesstimates of a net worth between five to 10 million dollars. By current Seattle standards, he fits right in!
His latest work is his tribute to “the most used and versatile pan in my kitchen.” He notes, “I’ve had the same wok I bought in college on my stovetop in every place I’ve lived for the last 20 years.” The Wok is his tribute to China’s 2,000-year-old cooking vessel and his current 2022 best seller.
Not your standard cookbook (an established archetype consisting of an ingredient list, instructions and smattering of plated photos), The Wok is a nontraditional specimen — its evolution as interesting as the work itself. The author’s voyage of self-discovery, fame and fortune was far from predictable. It was a challenging journey paved with determination, devotion, inventive imagination . . . and great timing.
As a youth he excelled at science, no surprise given his patri-matri-lineal heritages. As a student at MIT he tried chemistry, physics, computer science, finally ending with a degree in architecture after determining working in a lab for the rest of his life was not his ultimate calling. A few years after graduation in 2002, he worked at an architecture firm, but his eureka moment arrived while working in a nondescript Harvard Square restaurant during his sophomore year. “I loved it as soon as I began working in the kitchen” he said. “That day I started to cook, I knew I wanted to work in food.” He followed through, cooking in increasingly upscale Boston restaurants, but after years in the kitchen he was ready for a change.
“Working in restaurants, you don’t get a lot of opportunities to explore,” he discovered. “I always had the question of why we were cooking something a certain way.” He soon found his just-right Goldilocks job at Cook’s Illustrated, a food science magazine whose reputation was built on unlimited testing in its effort to create exceptional recipes. In another “aha!” moment, he declared, “It was the first job I had where I could pursue both my passions — food and science — at the same time.” As a recipe tester, transitioning quickly to a recipe developer, “I got paid to basically run little science experiments in the kitchen.”
In 2009, after marrying Adriana López (from Bogotá, Colombia) they hyphenated their last names to López-Alt. The two had met as students at MIT where she graduated with a degree in Math. When she moved from Massachusetts to pursue a Ph.D. in cryptology at New York University, he joined her in the Big Apple — the first of major moves in support of his marriage and his wife’s career.
Ever persevering and diligent, from their one-bedroom apartment López-Alt began freelance work for the Good Eater Collaborative blog and Serious Eats, a popular website/blog for food enthusiasts. There, he wrote a weekly food science column, The Food Lab, whose purpose was to “unravel the mysteries of home cooking through science” which was touted as “paying obsessive attention to details”. Focused on American dishes, it explored “how the scientific interactions between heat, energy, and molecules” created exceptionally good food. His first piece, for which he was paid $40, was How to Boil an Egg.
To illustrate why burger lovers should never add salt to ground beef before shaping it into a patty, he used a machine to hurl burgers at 44 mph against a wall, demonstrating that meat salted before it was shaped, bounced off the wall, while burgers whose exteriors were salted after they were formed fell apart when they hit the wall. The lesson: If it’s a juicy burger you’re after, salt a formed patty’s exterior, not the interior, before cooking. He continues as a consultant for the site, which currently racks up over 7 million monthly readers.
It is interesting to note that Molecular Gastronomy, the scientific discipline concerned with the physical and chemical transformations that occur during cooking was established in 1988 at the University of Oxford. One goal was to develop new ways of cooking that were rooted in science. Research laboratories were often created for scientific research or for university education. Molecular Gastronomy was believed to be an excellent educational tool, allowing students in chemistry, physics, and biology to observe and understand the practical use of the theories that they learned. New York University’s Experimental Cuisine Collective was launched in 2007; in 2010 Harvard University debuted a new course on science and cooking.
The discipline’s impact has influenced culinary concepts for over three decades and continues to shape how we think about how food is best prepared.
In 2015, after persistent years working “from midnight to 4 a.m.”, a burgeoning, enthusiastic horde of followers of López-Alt’s Food Lab column provided motivation and the launching of his critically acclaimed 958-page book The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking through Science. A New York Times Bestseller, it was recognized by hyperventilating reviewers as “a seminal work . . . encyclopedic in scope” and an “online monopoly on rigorously tested easy-to-follow, sure-to-work recipes”. The following year it captured the James Beard Foundation Award for General Cooking category as well as the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) award for Best American Cookbook and Cookbook of the Year.
By the time his Food Lab book hit the streets, the López-Alts had moved across the country in 2014 to San Mateo by the bay. His wife, who had been a Research Intern at Microsoft from 2012 – 13 during the early stages of a career in software engineering, had earned her Ph.D. in cryptography and secured a job as a software engineer working on production security at Google headquarters in Silicon Valley. With the Golden State opportunity beckoning, and Wok in tow, the López-Alts headed West.
On speed dial in San Mateo, the sedulous López-Alt continued to work on his food column. Then in 2016, a GoPro camera with a built-in microphone strapped to his forehead, he launched Kenji’s Cooking Show. The side gig “anti-cooking” program demonstrated recipes and cooking techniques from his home kitchen to YouTube audiences everywhere. Featuring spontaneous commentary and often unfiltered footage, it has well over a million social media subscribers today. An early example: Late Night Chorizo Grilled Cheese at http://www.viewpure.com/9OVNG7JpnJA?start=0&end=0 was posted with his comments: “I made a grilled cheese sandwich. The chorizo I keep in the freezer (along with a stick of pepperoni) so that I can grate it on a box grater and add flavor to fillings for things like grilled cheese, quesadillas, or pizza toppings. It’s cooked on a Baking Steel Griddle and the tool is a mortaring trowel from home depot, which is my favorite press (and cheap!)”.
While his upward bound life has seemingly unfolded as smoothly as an Edo-Sensu Japanese fan (stylish, on-the-go, empathetic, filled with a sense of justice), like most mortals López-Alt has had his share of downers.
In 2017, the energetic entrepreneur, along with two partners, López-Alt opened Wursthall Restaurant & Bierhaus, a German-Austrian beer hall restaurant. Prompted at the height of the Trump “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) campaign, he out-tweeted the then President and let it be known that anyone wearing a hat emblazoned with the Trumpian slogan or wearing “any other symbol of intolerance and hate” would not be served. While applauded by those in agreement, his ultimatum captured local and national headlines, causing some backlash of negative comments from those taking issue with him. Some of his employees, feeling the sting of vocal community members at the policy he had invoked, complained. After discussions with his partners and staff, realizing the hurt he had unintentionally inflicted on his workers, he deleted his tweets and issued a published apology to the staff: “Making a public statement without taking my team’s thoughts into consideration was disrespectful and reckless. My goal . . . was to be a restaurant where all employees and staff are treated with respect and trust, and by making that public statement without your consent, I failed at that goal.”
In a fairly recent interview, he revealed, “I had a little mental-health crisis a couple years ago. I was depressed, I was self-medicating with too much pot and alcohol . . . .” Ascertaining the harm he had done to others while in this state, he spent years apologizing. Open and candid, López-Alt appears to live his life learning as he goes, addressing what needs to be done to rectify his misdeeds when they occur.
In 2018, as the director and self-described foodie “nerd-in-residence” at Serious Eats, López-Alt received the IACP award for Best Culinary Website, and the James Beard Foundation Award for Best Food Blog and Best Video Webcast — a testament to his growing status as a mega-influencer of significant repute in the culinary world.
Seemingly tireless, with abundant energy to burn, in September 2019, the industrious López-Alt became a monthly recipe columnist at NYT Cooking. With a new young daughter at home, he released a children’s book, Every Night is Pizza Night, in 2020 which debuted on the NY Times Children’s Bestseller list. Posted on social media is a link of him reading the book on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wMQwf9LUa3A.
Since 2021, his wife has been Principal Security Engineer at Square in Seattle. Once again, it was an incentive for the family to pack up his wok and resettle – this time in the Northwest, an environment López-Alt has enthusiastically described as one “rich in culture and the arts . . . (close) to nature to hike, ski and sail.”
In 2022, López-Alt culminated his wok obsession with a full-on authoritative book (The Wok: Recipes and Techniques) detailing in minute narratives covering key information: its history, purchase guidelines, metallurgical qualities, design preconditions, maintenance requirements and cooking accessories. More than most wok enthusiasts might expect or require, he is driven by a need to “explain the science” of how and why a wok works best as a primary cooking implement.
“I grew up surrounded by scientists and people who stress the importance of understanding how things work and testing hypotheses . . . . It affected the way I think about food. . .”, he stated. “It’s not good enough to know how to do something, you want to know why it works and how it works. . .” His wok-focused recipes are encompassed by reams of absorbing, scholarly pages and expansive informative sidebars that provide the “how and why” backdrop on food preparation, often complimented with photos and precise descriptions of the specific preparation skills required.
The book’s main chapters, all centered around wok-prepared recipes, exhibit the vessel’s technical versatility. They include The Science of Stir-Fries, where chicken, pork, beef, lamb, seafood, eggs, tofu and vegetable preparations are given. This is followed by a section dealing with Rice. Chapter three is focused on Noodles. The fourth chapter is all about Frying, which includes Panfrying and Deep Frying. The focal point of chapter five is on Simmering and Braising, and provides a variety of different soups, stews and poached ingredients. The final chapter is comprised of a mix of ten recipes, such as Simple, No-Cook Sides (like Leftover Vegetable Salad with Soy-Dashi Dressing), Honey Mustard-Miso Dip for Vegetables, and Mixed Greens with Savory Sesame Ginger Vinaigrette.
In The Wok López-Alt has delivered a transformational take on cookbooks that is as absorbing as it is mind-boggling. With over 200 recipes augmented by a thousand impressive self-shot color photos, it is an exhaustive, staggeringly comprehensive, fascinating, phenomenal work. Caveat emptor, on opening the book you may find it too engrossing to put it down, risking never setting a wok to burner. As a result, you will have missed tasting the delicious food from the recipes he has provided.
For those bereft of a current or future wok, the Jack-of-all-trades, master-of-many author seemingly relents, “Most of the recipes in this book will work reasonably well in a larger skillet or, better yet, a . . . saucepan with gently curved corners, so if that’s all you’ve got, by all means use them.” In the end, however, he remains on point: “That said, get a wok. They are inexpensive, mostly indestructible, and will make a noticeable difference in the quality of your food.”