Kenji López-Alt: The Nerd King of Internet Cooking

A look into the work of former MIT student and now professional chef

Dubbed the Nerd King of Internet Cooking, Kenji López-Alt ’02 is a culinary captain with over 1000 recipes published online, a devout cult following, and a bestselling bible-of-a-cookbook, The Food Lab (2015), under his belt. Ask him any question about home-cooking, and he’ll have an answer derived from at-home experiments. From experimenting with the viscosity of butter in cookie dough to testing the structural changes of freezing a french fry, López-Alt has done it all to create his near-perfect recipes.

Yet 20 years ago, this gastronomic genius was not dissimilar to all of us here at MIT. Back when López-Alt was an incoming freshman at MIT in the ’90s, his aspirations were akin to many of ours — to uncover groundbreaking discoveries through scientific research.

As a prospective undergraduate biology major, López-Alt spent his spare time working in wet labs. Yet, the seemingly endless pipetting drowned him in boredom. It would take months before López-Alt would know whether an experiment was successful, and his patience was coming to an end. In an effort to escape the slow-paced world of scientific research, López-Alt found refuge at a summer job at a local restaurant chain, Fire and Ice, after his sophomore year. The exhilaration of the kitchen — splattered aprons, spittling grittles, and smooth knives dancing along cutting boards — drew him in.

“Cooking has a much faster pace [than lab work], and you get more immediate feedback from customers; you immediately know if what you’re doing is good or not,” says López-Alt. It seemed as though a career spent experimenting with food would be more fun than with waiting on cell cultures.

López-Alt was able to dabble in cooking throughout his undergraduate years during weekends, IAPs, and summers, but it was during his senior year when he was able to fully invest himself in the craft. As a part of the international Number Six fraternity on campus, López-Alt had all his meals cooked by the house chef until the cook was fired for theft. López-Alt then started cooking all the dinners for his fraternity, replacing the professional chef. While this was a huge commitment, cooking for the whole house was a release for López-Alt — a buoy in the midst of MIT’s tsunami of academic work. After graduating, he continued to cook there for a good three and a half years, working at a restaurant during the day and coming back to make dinners at Number Six in the evening. With students from all over the world living there, López-Alt made the effort to talk to a different person in the fraternity each weekend to learn what their favorite foods were and what they missed from home. These dishes became the menu for that Sunday’s brunch. López-Alt had a rule never to repeat a dish, eager to explore realms of cooking he had never before tasted, felt, or smelled.

Unlike many other chefs, López-Alt’s culinary inception did not begin with a childhood full of cooking with tradition-laden family dishes. Despite living in a multicultural household, López-Alt grew up with little exposure to anything beyond the classic American diet. When López-Alt’s mother came to America from Japan at age 16, she tried very hard to assimilate, which meant that most of the food on López-Alt’s dinner plate consisted of Betty Crocker dishes — things that were definitely not Japanese.

“I didn’t know a very strong, personal, or cultural identity with any particular cuisine or food,” he said.

Instead, López-Alt’s connection to food was founded in technique and science. Rather than instilling a love of food, López-Alt’s parents nurtured an experimentally-minded curiosity in him to question why things work instead of simply accepting that they work, an approach he has carried into his professional life.

Although thermodynamics and organic chemistry topped the list of López-Alt’s least favorite classes at MIT, much of his culinary writing uses these concepts, ironically enough. His food science cookbook The Food Lab is the epitome of turning conventional wisdom on its head in a field hyper-focused on tradition. For many, the phrase “food science” brings to mind pretentious restaurants that serve foams on meat-infused jellies. There also exists a group of people who recoil at the thought of food science as something that threatens to replace the history and emotion of food with regimented measurements and dissection. For many people, identity is rooted deeply in food, and López-Alt by no means intends to annihilate tradition. He acknowledges technical perfection is not always everything; he, for one, does not toast his bagels and insists on sandwiches cut in triangles. Instead, in The Food Lab, López-Alt takes foods that everyone is familiar with, from meatloaf to boiled eggs, and asks questions about the way they are made as a springboard to explain the basics of food science. “Cooking has always been considered a craft, not a science,” says Lopéz-Alt, but perhaps the goldilocks of cooking is to realize that it is both.

For López-Alt, cooking is about the never-ending quest for knowledge (and also avoiding his least favorite food, bananas). If we can learn one thing about his journey from MIT student to celebrity chef, it’s what he says so eloquently in his introduction to The Food Lab: “Challenge everything all the time, taste everything at least once, and relax, it’s only pizza.”

Find more of López-Alt’s work on his hit blog on Serious Eats, and taste his food at his restaurant Wursthall in San Mateo, CA.

Restaurant recommendations in Boston by López-Alt: