KenjiLopez-Alt-HERO-min

Kenji Lopez-Alt will delete your comments if you’re a dick

One of the internet's most famous food writers talks about cultural appropriation, personal goals, and how to handle the inevitable trolls

On any given day, J. Kenji López-Alt might read hundreds of comments about what he cooked for dinner. With 1.47 million YouTube subscribers, he is constantly flooded with feedback, which he sees as (mostly) a good thing. The exposure might be stressful to many, but the food writer has been heavily online since 2009, when he joined Serious Eats to develop its recipe program. (Today, he’s the publication’s chief culinary advisor).

His personal following has ballooned since he published three bestselling books, The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science, The Wok: Recipes and Techniques and the children’s book, Every Night is Pizza Night. He is also a New York Times food columnist.

These days, he lives in Seattle with his wife and two young children. To use a bad cooking metaphor, he has a lot of pots on the stove: in addition to various projects for his YouTube channel, he’s working on a new cookbook that he sees as a successor to The Food Lab that will be more applicable to everyday cooking. He’s also writing another children’s book and launching a podcast with his friend Deb Perlman, the founder of Smitten Kitchen. And he’s parenting two young kids.

 

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I spoke with him about what it’s like to be famous, how his heritage influences his work and life, and other topics.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Annie Atherton: How has it been to gain such a big following? Do you read the comments?
Kenji López-Alt: I read pretty much every comment, especially on my videos. Years ago, when I was managing Serious Eats, it was pretty well known for having a positive community. Our policy was that you can say what you want, but you can't be a dick. We never thought of it as a free speech issue because it was a private platform where we were trying to foster a certain kind of discussion.

So in my comments, I'm going to delete people if they're being a dick because there's just not room for that. I want people to come to my social platforms and feel comfortable and not like they have to tread carefully. So I moderate comments pretty heavily to make sure that my platforms maintain that atmosphere. 

A man in a yellow apron smiles for the camera while standing in a kitchen.

J. Kenji López-Alt

Courtesy of J. Kenji López-Alt

AA: Oftentimes, a sort of cult can form around food personalities. Is that something you've observed and are trying to avoid?
JKLA: I’ve definitely observed it. Part of the idea behind my children's book, Every Night is Pizza Night, was inspired by the way I saw a lot of my audience taking my first book or my earlier columns. 

I would see someone post a picture of a dish they’d made and felt happy about. Then someone would come and say, “Oh, did you roast that steak before you sliced it? Kenji said this,” and then they’d link to an article I wrote. I saw that something I did could be weaponized like that.

In a lot of my earlier recipes, I’d use the word “best.” But what I really meant was, I'm going to discuss every factor that could affect the outcome of this recipe. I'll offer one version of the best. But you'll have the information that you need to make your own version of the best. 

So the message in Every Night is Pizza Night is that “best” is contextual, depending on who you are, where you are, or what mood you're in. That can always change. It’s the idea of having a little more tolerance around where people are and what they're trying to accomplish with their cooking. So I try to consciously lean away from that kind of language and that kind of culture these days. 

AA: I’ve heard that you didn’t cook much growing up. How do you feel your heritage and background have influenced your approach to food, if at all?
JKLA: A lot of the comfort food we cook at home is similar to what I had growing up, which is a mix of American and Japanese food, combined with what my wife had in Colombia.

As a kid, I lived in the same apartment building as my grandparents and uncle. My grandmother didn't speak English and cooked mostly only Japanese. So we definitely ate a ton of Japanese food growing up, and that certainly influenced the way I cook at home. But I don't know if I write Japanese recipes any more than I do other kinds of recipes.

 

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My parents have had a lot of influence on my career, but I don't think it boils down to a particular ethnicity or country. My dad grew up in rural Western Pennsylvania, and left by going to college. He’s also a workaholic. For him, it's just like all science, all the time. And then my mom, as many first-generation immigrants are, wanted us to be very successful academically.

So when I went to college, I realized that I don't have to do biology. I was like, “Oh, I have this freedom,” and then after working as a cook, I was like, “Wait, this could be my choice.” It was a bit of a rebellious choice.

AA: Do you think about how you might be a role model for other children of immigrants, or anyone who wants to go off the beaten path?
JKLA: I don’t know. When I was growing up, I went to Japanese school every Saturday, and I was the only non-fully Japanese kid in my class, so I got picked on there all the time. So I had this bad experience that made me feel like I'm not exactly Asian American. So I always kind of felt that I'm not really Asian. As I've gotten older, that feeling has changed. I certainly do feel Asian now. 

But I've never really thought about how Asian people might think about my experience and see me as a role model. 

AA: In a way, just being an Asian cook who doesn’t just make Asian food pushes back on stereotypes in itself, right?
JKLA: Yeah, it is one of those things where if you're watching a competition cooking show, there's always the challenge where it's like, “You have to cook your food,” and what the judges are really saying is like, “Cook the food of your ancestral people.” It's difficult, especially in the world of cuisine, for people to find connections to food outside of those historical ethnic ones to be as relevant as those connections. 

I'm guessing it's the same in many of the arts. It's the thing people think when they think of a connection, they think of your DNA instead of your experience.

AA: How does one distinguish between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation?
JKLA: I think a lot of it comes down to always listening, and being open to criticism, and open to hearing the voices of people from the culture that you may think you are appreciating.

If you want to make food or art that takes inspiration from another culture, recognize that you're first and foremost a visitor to that culture, the same as being a visitor in someone's home. You want to be respectful of them, make sure you have their permission to do things before you do them. It’s difficult because there's no hard barriers. But always being respectful and listening to others is the most important thing. 

Beyond that, there’s the issue of whether you're benefiting professionally or financially by borrowing from another culture. And in those cases, I don't know that there's a hard line. There are things that are clearly wrong, like when, like when a non-Asian person opens a pho place and advertises it as “clean” or “healthy.” 

 

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AA: How do you view the fact that chefs are often mixing and matching traditions?
JKLA: I think that’s great, but there should be some professional courtesy wherein, when you get an idea, you acknowledge where it came from, and you put in the effort to find out whether the way you're applying that idea is appropriating. That could include interviewing people and making sure that you're getting it right. 

I was conscious of that when I was writing The Wok. The wok is not a Japanese tool, even if it’s widely adopted in Japan. And I'm not Chinese, so why should I be writing a book about this tool? Then again, I bought a wok when I was 19, and I've cooked in it for more than 20 years now. So I can talk about it through the lens of my experience. I wanted to find ways to connect it back to my own story, and present it through that lens. At the same time, with that book, I did much more interviewing and research outside the kitchen than I did for The Food Lab. I wanted to make sure that when I wrote about dishes that I'd mainly experienced through restaurants and travel, that I was understanding them properly and being respectful of them. 

AA: Is there any particular dish that you guys are enjoying a lot recently?
JKLA: Mapo tofu is my daughter's favorite dish. It’s a Chinese dish, but it came to Japan in the 1970s and my mom made it. It was my favorite dish growing up. It's like a 10-minute recipe. 

And then my wife grew up in Colombia. And so we frequently make a dish called ajiaco, which is a chicken and potato soup.

Published on March 14, 2024

Words by Annie Midori Atherton

Annie Midori Atherton is a writer, editor, and parent living in Seattle, Washington. She covers a variety of topics including parenting, work, and entertainment, and is particularly interested in the way culture and media influence our understanding of ourselves and relationships.