New York Magazine


Can the nerd king of home cooking conquer the restaurant world?
J. Kenji López-Alt has devoted months to testing ingredients for the beer hall he’s opening in Silicon Valley.

THIS PAST SPRING, THE COOK AND FOOD WRITER J. KENJI LÓPEZ-ALT took the stage at Italy’s Teatro Scientifico del Bibiena, in the small city of Mantua, with sacrilege on the brain. López-Alt, known to his devotees simply as Kenji, is a soft-spoken 38-year-old partial to sandals and backyard woodworking, but his laid-back affect obscures a taste for provocation. Mantua is in Lombardy, the birthplace of risotto, and López-Alt, in town to speak at a food festival, had come to tell his audience that the way they’d always made the dish—a technique passed down by two centuries’ worth of beloved, rice-whispering nonnas—could stand some rejiggering. “Italians are the most emotional people in the world when it comes to their food,” López-Alt says. “So I knew I was in for some trouble.”

Making risotto the time-honored way involves three basic steps: Sauté aromatics in fat, toast rice in that mixture, then stir in broth slowly so that the starch thickens to create a creamy sauce. The problem, López-Alt argued onstage, is that this method pits the dish against itself. If only you could prolong the grain-toasting stage, you’d get a huge enhancement of flavor—“a nutty-brown aroma, almost like toasted pine nuts”—but all that toasting would destroy your starches: no creaminess. So he proposed a workaround. Rinse your uncooked rice with broth first and set aside that starchy liquid; toast the rice like crazy; then stir the broth back in, reintroducing the starches you safeguarded in step one. “This way,” López-Alt explains, “you get creaminess and flavor.”

Not everyone in the room saw it that way. When the post-talk Q&A began, a woman tried to ask López-Alt something about freezing basil. Suddenly, another woman cut her off and, in a stream of angry Italian, “told me I was disrespecting risotto and shitting on hundreds of years of tradition.” A stammering moderator managed to return the microphone to the frozen-basil lady. Then, perhaps fearing further revolt, he ended the session altogether. “It’s a very unorthodox way of approaching risotto,” López-Alt concedes.

López-Alt’s best-loved recipes crackle with an elegant, egghead contrarianism. At the Food Lab, the hit blog he writes at Serious Eats, he delights in telling readers that the way they’ve always cooked something is suboptimal, proposing crafty alternatives arrived at through obsessive trial and error. Among his most popular posts is a 2010 investigation into

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