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

J. Kenji López-Alt stands next to a walk, cooking lunch as KNKX food commentator Nancy Leson looks on. Both are smiling as they talk.
Ed Ronco
J. Kenji López-Alt, cooking with KNKX food commentator Nancy Leson, in Nancy's kitchen."

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

Some of them are pretty basic — an overhead camera and a time-lapse of someone sauteing some stuff in a pan. Others look like formal cooking shows, with someone in a gorgeous kitchen, looking into the camera and calmly explaining whatever perfect dish they’re making.

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

He straps a GoPro to his head, and we watch from his point of view, looking down 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 a little bit to his dogs, and once in a while he brushes a toy aside on the floor, left there by his young daughter. Kenji’s kitchen is like my kitchen — lived in, comfortable and built more to be used than to be ogled.

J. Kenji López-Alt, in a Blackbird Bakery t-shirt, washing onions at a sink with picture windows in the background
Credit Ed Ronco / KNKX
J. Kenji López-Alt, washing onions as he cooks a meal in Nancy Leson's kitchen from just what he can find in her fridge and shelves.

But make no mistake: Inside that casual kitchen is someone with deep expertise. He’s a professional chef, a columnist for The New York Times, culinary consultant for the website Serious Eats, self-proclaimed science geek, and the author of two cookbooks. His first was “The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science,” and his second, “The Wok: Recipes and Techniques,” is due out in early March. He’s also released a children’s book, and — back to the cooking videos — has nearly a million followers on YouTube who watch the videos he posts 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 developer for Cook’s Illustrated and later for Serious Eats. So when she found out he moved to Seattle, she knew we had to talk to him.

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

And he did. Graciously, even. Kenji made a beautiful fish-fragrant eggplant dish, while talking about the virtues of cooking with a wok.

This Sichuan dish was improvised from the ingredients on hand, but here’s his very similar recipe from Serious Eats. And by the way, “fish-fragrant” just means it uses the same seasonings you might use on seafood. It contains no fish. Not that we’d have complained if it did.

He also sat down with Nancy at her dining room table to talk about Seattle, cooking and cultural appropriation in the culinary world. Listen to our conversation above, and be sure to stick with it to the end, when Nancy asks one more favor of Kenji, this time involving a guitar.

Nancy Leson is KNKX’s food commentator and a Seattle-based food writer, cooking instructor and public speaker. Find her at Ed Ronco hosts All Things Considered weekdays from 3 to 6 p.m. “Food” airs monthly on KNKX.

Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.