He’s the modern Mr. Wizard
This is a new biweekly column that explores the intersection of culinary arts and kitchen science.
Just after his sophomore year as a biology major at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt knew what he was going to do with the rest of his life. His epiphany came not in the bio lab, but while he was working part time in the dingy kitchen of a Harvard Square restaurant. Today, Lopez-Alt, 35, has made a name for himself geeking out on the minutiae of culinary science. Don Herbert of "Watch Mr. Wizard," Lopez-Alt's childhood inspiration, would be proud.
The self-described kitchen nerd, who earned his culinary street cred working in local restaurants with chefs Barbara Lynch, Ken Oringer, and Jason Bond, and in the test kitchen of Cook's Illustrated in Brookline, is the managing culinary director of Seriouseats.com, a website that founder Ed Levine calls "an online clubhouse for people passionate about cooking and eating."
As obsessive recipe developer and author of the site's popular column, The Food Lab, Lopez-Alt shows a quick wit that seamlessly morphs into approachable scientific expertise. Lengthy posts, which unravel kitchen quandaries like how to get the shell off hard-cooked eggs without gouging the whites — he went through several hundred just to determine how eggs stick to their shells — have garnered equally obsessive devotees among techies, scientists, and ordinary cooks.
The writing, says Levine, sounds like culinary science writer Harold McGee meets "The Simpsons" because Lopez-Alt is also enmeshed in pop culture and never met a pun he could pass up. "You get something that no one else is doing," says Levine.
Lopez-Alt lived in New York until 2014. His wife, Adriana, who also went to MIT, got a job at Google, so they moved to the Bay Area. His new book, "The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science," which describes how practical food science can help people become better cooks, was an Amazon bestseller before it was published, and is now on the New York Times bestseller list.
Though it has many of the trappings of an ordinary cookbook, this 1,000-page tome is meant as a tool to free home cooks from the constraints of recipes. "It's a book about learning the basic science behind food and the basic techniques behind cooking and how to apply those to your own food to make it better," says Lopez-Alt on the phone from his home in San Mateo, Calif. He doesn't want to give readers recipes that reinvent eggs Benedict, but rather teach them that science can "enhance the eggs Benedict-yness" of the dish.
The recipes are conventional but the techniques and ingredients are not. All-American meatloaf and short-rib chili include his "umami bomb," a mixture of Marmite, soy sauce, and anchovies, to increase the savory taste.
He describes how to cook steak, rack of lamb, and cheeseburgers sous vide (his method involves a plastic bag and a beer cooler in lieu of the expensive device). Readers won't just whip up a batch of pancakes, they'll know they can use baking soda to promote the Maillard reaction and whipped egg whites to make them fluffy. The author writes that cooking is "a scientific engineering problem in which the inputs are raw ingredients and technique and the outputs are deliciously edible results."
But he never loses sight of who's on the other end of the equation: the home cook, to whom he is devoted.
J. KENJI LOPEZ-ALT will appear Oct. 24 at the Boston Book Festival in Copley Square, 12:30 p.m.; Oct. 25 at Burgers and Fried Chicken pop-up at Roxy's Grilled Cheese, 485 Cambridge St., Allston, from 7-10 p.m.; and on Oct. 27 at Pop-up Fried Chicken Dinner at The Kirkland Tap & Trotter, 425 Washington St., Somerville, from 5:30-10 p.m.