J. Kenji López-Alt

The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science is On Sale Now!

J. Kenji López-Alt is the Managing Culinary Director of Serious Eats, author of the James Beard Award-nominated column The Food Lab, and a columnist for Cooking Light. He lives in San Francisco. A New York native, Kenji cut his cooking chops the old-fashioned way by working his way up through the ranks of some of Boston's finest restaurants. With an education in science and engineering and as a former Senior Editor at Cook's Illustrated and America's Test Kitchen, Kenji is fascinated by the ways in which understanding the science of every day cooking can help improve even simple foods. His first book, The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science will be released this September, followed by a second volume in September of 2017.

My Favorite Food Books, Day 13: Authentic Mexican

Author's Note: I recently built myself a new bookshelf in the kitchen, and in the process of reorganizing my ever-expanding book collection, I ended up blowing the dust off of more than a few majorly dog-eared pages. Old friends that carried me through college, my early days of faking it in fancy restaurants, my time as a test cook and writer, and some newer volumes as well. So, every weekday through the end of October, I'll be writing a short post featuring a food book that I really like. All of these books had a major influence either on my career or on my day-to-day cooking. They aren't necessarily the best or most essential cookbooks out there, but they are all worthy reads.

Some folks would suggest that no list of influential cookbooks is complete without something by Rick Bayless, the Oklahoma kid-turned Mexican cuisine scholar/restaurateur/tv personality, and I'd rather live a life bereft of guacamole than give up my copy of Authentic Mexican.* Others might find it offensive that I choose to include him at all. Perhaps no other chef has been accused of cultural appropriation as fiercely or frequently as Bayless, (he's also been equally fiercely supported) and the topic is one that seems to be gaining traction rather than fading. This is a good thing for food and culture, but not particularly great for someone like Bayless who, other than the occasional bout of foot-in-mouth disease,** has done just about everything right when it comes to being a white guy cooking other people's food.

*This is actually not true. Guacamole is too good.
**Like claiming to be a victim of "reverse racism" in a Sporkful episode.

For starters, he did the research, living in and learning not just about the regional cuisines of Mexico, but immersing himself in the culture with his wife for over ten years before releasing his book. Before Bayless wrote his book, a comprehensive English language collection of regional Mexican cuisine did not exist, and it remains the standard to this day. More importantly, his book is packed with references to the restaurants, street vendors, ad individual people who he learned his recipes from, in most cases naming them by name. The enchiladas a la Plaza from a waitress in Morelia. The pozole verde from a friend in Almolonga, Guerrero.

His follow-up TV show, Mexico, One Plate at a Time is one of the greatest bits of accidental tourism PR ever created. It's no exaggeration to say that Bayless's output is directly responsible for my love of regional Mexican cuisine, and for several past and future trips around Mexico to taste the foods I've tried to recreate at home through his instruction in their home turf.

In other words, Bayless is thorough, understanding of his role as both a visitor and an ambassador, respectful of culture, appreciative of other people's work, and an advocate.** I have vague-to-concrete future plans to strap my baby to my back and take some time off to travel throughout my wife's native Colombia with the idea of learning more about her culture (and introducing our daughter to her mother's country in the process) while collecting stories, photographs, and recipes into a book that will introduce American audiences to the Colombia's hugely varied regions and cuisines. If it manages to do the job half as well as Bayless' Authentic Mexican, I'll consider it an immense success.

**I've seen people suggest that there is more Bayless could do. Make a public statement acknowledging or at least be aware of the privilege that his ethnicity and background has offered him in his career, or start a cultural coalition to help share his success with more Mexican cooks. Both of those things sound like good ideas to me.

I've always seen his work as a four-way win. He gets his books and his show and his restaurants, Mexico gets the right kind of exposure (and the visitors that surely come with that). The individual folks he invites on his show or asks to contribute recipes for his work get credited for their creations, and, most importantly, we the readers have access to all of it.

And what a trove it is! There's simple weeknight home cooking like gently poached chicken breast cloaked in green mole made with tomatillos, pumpkinseeds, and romaine lettuce laves. Pork enchiladas in a simple dried chile and tomato sauce thickened with a slice of bread. There's massive sections on snacks and antojitos;the tacos, turnovers, and quesadillas made with corn masa that form the backbone of a good fiesta. And of course there's the more esoteric fare—empanaditas stuffed with calves brains, or birria that starts with a young goat's hind-quarter.

Bayless's skills as a recipe-writer are also exemplary. Like any good recipe writer, his recipes are meticulously tested and designed with the constraints and knowledge of the home cook in mind. There are only a few photographs interleaved on glossy inserts, but the printed pages of the book are sprinkled with clear illustrations that demonstrate unfamiliar techniques, such as how to tuck banana leaves around chicken for pollo pibil (the original pit barbecue from the Yucatán), or how to filet whole fish for pescado a la Veracruzana (poached fish topped with tomatoes, capers, and olives).

Every single recipe in the book has a sidebar that lists and cross-references every technique you'll be using while preparing the recipe, in case you need to brush up on basics before beginning. Each recipe also has a miniature glossary of every unique ingredient you might come across, with suggestions for substitutions you'll readily find in supermarkets. All the recipes also include a section on how to prepare the dish in advance when possible, as well as traditional and contemporary variations to try out once you've mastered the basic recipe. It really makes you wish every recipe book came with these features (and now has me thinking I'll probably add some of them to my next book).

You can buy Authentic Mexican here.

My Favorite Food Books, Day 12: Washoku

Author's Note: I recently built myself a new bookshelf in the kitchen, and in the process of reorganizing my ever-expanding book collection, I ended up blowing the dust off of more than a few majorly dog-eared pages. Old friends that carried me through college, my early days of faking it in fancy restaurants, my time as a test cook and writer, and some newer volumes as well. So, every weekday through the end of October, I'll be writing a short post featuring a food book that I really like. All of these books had a major influence either on my career or on my day-to-day cooking. They aren't necessarily the best or most essential cookbooks out there, but they are all worthy reads.

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Translating a foreign cuisine to an English-speaking audience is a difficult balancing act between accessibility and authenticity. It requires a writer to be intimately familiar not just with the cuisine they're writing about, but also the limitations and expectations of their readers. The next few books in this series of reviews are from writers who I think manage to walk this tightrope exceptionally well.

The first is Elizabeth Andoh, an American writer who has lived in Japan for over 50 years now. She's been releasing books on Japanese cuisine since the 80s, but her finest work is Washoku, a 2005 tome on Japanese home cooking. I love the book. My Japanese grandmother lived in our apartment building on the floor below us while I was growing up, and was a good Japanese home cook. Flipping through the pages of Washoku always brings me back to her living room, where she'd eat while watching Japanese soap operas, the smell of soy sauce, smokey dashi, and vinegar in the air.

If all you know of Japanese cuisine is sushi, ramen, and teriyaki, there's no better way to find out the kinds of things Japanese people really eat at home than this book.

"Washoku, literally the "harmony of food," Andoh writes in her introduction, "is a way of thinking about what we eat and how it can nourish us. The term describes both a culinary philosophy and the simple, nutritionally balanced food prepared in that spirit." The first 90 pages of the book are taken up explaining a bit of the philosophy of Washoku, along with detailed sections on basic Japanese cooking techniques and ingredients ranging from a guide to noodle varieties, to a lengthy discourse on kombu (giant sea kelp) and katsuobushi(shaved smoked and dried bonito), the two ingredients in a classic dashi, the ocean-y stock that is the soul of Japanese cooking.

Speaking of dashi, you'll find that it comes up again and again in the book. Tiny whole fried smelts are served with a vinegary and spicy dashi sauce (wakasagi no nanban-zukéatsu tamago yaki). Pumpkin gets simmered in it along with ground chicken and scallions. It's literally everywhere. Cook from this book for any extended period of time and you'll come to realize what I did: Dashi is super stuff. It's made from only two ingredients (plus water), it takes only about 15 minutes to make start to finish (even less if you use powdered dashi), it can be made in large batches, and the depth of flavor it brings to the table is spectacular. It's one of those ingredients that isn't too assertive on its own, but it's wonderful for bringing out and complementing the flavors of other ingredients. The flavor-to-work ratio and versatility in dashi is through the roof, and Andoh's book will show you dozens of different uses for the stuff.

If there is one area where the book is a little lacking, it's in sheer quantity of recipes. The book feel like it should be as complete as it is authoritative, but it offers only a few recipes in each of its sections. 15 recipes for fish. 10 recipes for meat and poultry. Folks who like to jump straight into the recipes section and see what they can make with what's available on-hand will have a little trouble in this regard. Still, the introductions to each recipe section and the numerous notes and tutorials sprinkled throughout the pages should offer enough guidance to allow you to improvise once you've mastered Andoh's basics.

I don't normally think about health as a factor in determining the quality of a dish or a book, but in this case the it bears mentioning. The food you'll make out of this book is undeniably healthy. It's full of vegetables, whole grains, pickles, miso, and other fermented foods, and lean protein. Much of it is also the kind of food that works equally well served hot, at room temperature, or straight out of the fridge the next day. It's convenient when you cook out of a book primarily for flavor, but health and easy-to-use leftovers tag along for the ride as well.

You can buy Washoku here.

 

My Favorite Food Books, Day 11: Larousse Gastronomique

Author's Note: I recently built myself a new bookshelf in the kitchen, and in the process of reorganizing my ever-expanding book collection, I ended up blowing the dust off of more than a few majorly dog-eared pages. Old friends that carried me through college, my early days of faking it in fancy restaurants, my time as a test cook and writer, and some newer volumes as well. So, every weekday through the end of October, I'll be writing a short post featuring a food book that I really like. All of these books had a major influence either on my career or on my day-to-day cooking. They aren't necessarily the best or most essential cookbooks out there, but they are all worthy reads.

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Do you find yourself losing sleep arguing with strangers on the internet about the difference between poutine and disco fries?

Did you know (and more importantly, do you make sure that other people know you know) that Napoleon was actually above average height for his era?

When someone says, "Adding salt to water makes it boil sooner," do you respond with "Actually, it barely changes the boiling point at all. It simply adds nucleation sites?"

Are you the kind of person that gets a little buzz when you hear Alex Trebek's voice come on the TV at the bar?

If so, you sound like a well, technically... kind of person, and Larousse Gastronomique is a well, technically... kind of book. It's a big, fat, 1,300 page encyclopedia* of French cooking terms that run all the way from Abaisse (a term used in French cookery for a sheet of rolled-out pastry) to Zuppa Inglese (a Neapolitan dessert consisting of sponge soaked with kirsch, filled with confectioner's custard, and crystallized fruits, then covered with Italian meringue and browned in the oven). I'd consider it an essential volume for anyone who cooks at a professional level. It's a good-sized chunk of the common language of Western kitchens, all packed into a single volume.

* Well, technically, an encyclopædia**
** Okay, technically either spelling is correct, but why would you ever pass up the opportunity to use an ash, or to show people that you know what an ash is?

The book was first published in France in 1938, but I picked up my edition some time in 2002, when I was first starting to work in fancy restaurants that stressed French technique. Back then, Larousse (as it's popularly known) seemed like the perfect complement to the hands-on education I was getting in the kitchen. French technique reigned supreme. Even in modern restaurants that drew influences from all over the world, it was always "Thai ingredients and flavors paired with classic French technique," never "French ingredients with Thai technique."

What culinary lessons could we possibly learn from anyone outside France? So when I needed to know the difference between a sauté pan and a poêlon,*** when I wanted to feel like I was using my noodle (not to be confused with my knödel****) it was to Larousse that I'd flip.

*** Sauté pan: a round shallow pan with straight or slightly flared sides and a handle used to facilitate easy stirring. Poêlon: a small, long-handled lidded saucepan suitable for slow-cooking, simmering, or braising foods on the stovetop.
**** Noodle: long pasta. Knödel: A type of sweet or savory dumpling.

That France-knows-best attitude has, of course, changed since then, and with each new edition of Larousse, more and more non-French terms have been added. Whenever I come across one of these stabs at cosmopolitanism, I feel like I should gently take Larousse aside and whisper, stick with what you know.*****

***** I feel the same way when the modern Michelin guide decided to start awarding random stars to the mediocre Indian joint down the street.

These additions can make what was once a flawlessly authoritative manual feel a little quaint, or even provincial. The entry for "Taco," for instance, reads, "A cornmeal pancake filled with a thick sauce, minced meat seasoned with chili pepper, black beans, or avocado purée with onion"—a description that seems to have been written by someone whose only research into tacos was scanning the menu (without ordering) at the Taco Bell drive-thru. It's technically a description of a very specific taco, but this is one of those rare cases where technically right is definitely not the best kind of right.

Still, with its thousands of no-nonsense entries, hundreds of recipes (mostly leaning toward hoity-toity French haute cuisine), and dozens of full-color photographs, it's hard to think of a better single-volume resource for the well, technically...-type cook inside all of us. If you get the book and win on Jeopardy when the "French Culinary Terms" category comes up, technically it'll have already paid for itself. (And as you well, technically... people know, technically right is almost always the best kind of right.)

You can buy Larousse Gastronomique here.

My Favorite Food Books Day 10: The River Cottage Cookbook

I recently built myself a new bookshelf in the kitchen, and in the process of reorganizing my ever-expanding book collection, I ended up blowing the dust off of more than a few majorly dog-eared pages. Old friends that carried me through college, my early days of faking it in fancy restaurants, my time as a test cook and writer, and some newer volumes as well. So, every weekday through the end of October, I'll be writing a short post featuring a food book that I really like. All of these books had a major influence either on my career or on my day-to-day cooking. They aren't necessarily the best or most essential cookbooks out there, but they are all worthy reads

I can't remember when I first laid hands on my copy of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's The River Cottage Cookbook (has there ever been a more British name?). It wasn't published in the United States until 2008 and my edition is the 7th printing of the original 2001 British version, which leads me to conclude I must have picked it up in during the summer I spent living (and cooking a bit) in Northern England back around 2003. It's certainly not the kind of book I would have bought in the U.S. or expected to find particularly useful. It was years before I even realized that the book was based off of a successful television show of the same name.

The plot of the show is simple: British chef/writer with a funny name goes to live in a cottage where he grows, raises, fishes, and forages as much as he can, learning about sustainable farming and our place in the food chain in the process. The direct usefulness one can gain from the lessons Hugh learns are directly correlated to one's proximity to small cottages in England.

Back home in Boston, this was a problem. For one thing, it's almost entirely populated with ingredients I'm not likely to find without great difficulty (lamb's necks, puffball mushrooms, wild sorrel, etc). It's also full of techniques that are largely useless unless I've got a British farm or a British hedgerow to forage in. (It turns out that reading about how to succesfully remove the skin from an eel that has been smoked by hanging inside a chimney is a lot like reading about how to ride a bike—useless without a bike—or in this case some live eels and a house with a chimney—to practice on).

I can confidently say that every single recipe I've tried from the book has been an unqualified success, though I'll qualify this by saying I haven't actually tried any of the recipes in the book.

So what makes it worth reading? Turns out that the usefulness is hidden in its prose. It's Hugh's geeky but down-to-earth fascination with raising and foraging your own food that will either fascinate your or bore you. For me it was fascination, and reading this book is directly responsible for my spending time volunteering on farms, learning how to slaughter and butcher whole animals, and learning what little I know about gardening and foraging. Each of the four chapters—Garden, Livestock, Fish, and Hedgerow—starts with a lengthy study of not just how to grow and harvest vegetables, livestock, seafood, and wild plants, but also what has the best flavor when, and the environmental impacts of the various choices you can make.

It's these sections that I find really inspiring. Hugh has an infectious honesty about him. Other books I've read about sustainable eating and living, even those by well-established authors, tend to have an air of brand-building or even snobbery about them. "Sustainable eating is what educated liberals do these days, so I must write my volume on it and you should feel bad if you don't farm your own mouse melons." Hugh doesn't have to build his brand because he is his brand and his enthusiasm for each new project—whether it's planning his week around the slaughter of the two pigs he raised from birth (Monday starts with asking the "slaughterer to save the liver, heart, lights, spleen, stomach, and blood," and Sunday begins with "a civilized breakfast of sausages and black pudding.") or stuffing socks with balls of human hair and hanging them from his chicken coop (a surefire fox deterrent, he's heard)—carries the book along even without immediately applicable lessons or recipes.

In a way, this is actually a good thing. Rather than spelling out a step-by-step plan with a set of rules for you to follow, instead Hugh inspires us to think about the way we get our own food and to begin examining our own food system and how we can comfortably start to refocus the way we eat.

"Each household," Hugh writes in the introduction, "operates somewhere on a 'food acquisition continuum' (a phrase I've just invented) from, at one end (the far right, if you like), total dependence on the industrial food retailers to, at the other (far left) end, total self-sufficiency." Most Westerners occupy a place close to the right end, while only a handful are truly self-sufficient, he continues explains. "The continuum really does exist, and all of us have the choice to move ourselves along it, in either direction. My contention is that any thoughtfully executed move from right to left, however small, is a move in the right direction. It will bing benefits to the individual in body and soul, benefits to the community, in spirit and commerce, and benefits to the land and those who farm it, in a more direct and profitable relationship with the end consumer. In fact, the only people who may not benefit are the industrial food producers and retailers. But as far as I'm concerned, they've had it their way long enough."

It's a pretty simply and non-judgy philosophy, and one that's hard to argue with. If you find it in any way inspiring, then you'll probably love this book. By the way, The River Cottage Meat Book and The River Cottage Fish Book are equally incredible single-subject tomes that have the same delightfully rigorous-yet-light approach to sustainable eating. They also have the same potential problems with a brit-focused repertoire of recipes and ingredients.

Also note that this review is specifically about the original British version, Though I've thumbed throug the American editions of his books as well. They're largely the same but with American terms for cuts of meat (when applicable), American measures, and, notably, new diagrams for cuts of meat. In the British version there are dotted lines superimposed over photographs of cute farm animals showing how each one will be broken down into dinner. In the American version those photographs are replaced with diagrams. I'm not particularly fond of this change.

My Favorite Food Books, Day 9: Down and Out in Paris and London

I recently built myself a new bookshelf in the kitchen, and in the process of reorganizing my ever-expanding book collection, I ended up blowing the dust off of more than a few majorly dog-eared pages. Old friends that carried me through college, my early days of faking it in fancy restaurants, my time as a test cook and writer, and some newer volumes as well. So, every weekday through the end of October, I'll be writing a short post featuring a food book that I really like. All of these books had a major influence either on my career or on my day-to-day cooking. They aren't necessarily the best or most essential cookbooks out there, but they are all worthy reads.
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First published in 1933, George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London bears the distinction of being the oldest book on my monthlong list of recommended reading. It's also George Orwell's first book, written as a novel, though in reality it's an autobiography. Before the cynical parable of corrupted revolutions, populated by anthropomorphic farm critters, in Animal Farm; before the nightmarish, dystopian, but all-too-realistic future of 1984, George Orwell's primary research was on class struggles and the realities of blue-collar work and poverty.

 

Orwell, then going by his given name of Eric Blair, was neither born nor raised poor, but he always had a fascination with that sector of society. In a less gonzo (or skilled) writer's hands, the type of research he did could have ended up smacking of a type of Orientalism, an outsider-looking-in perspective that treated the poor more as specimens for examination rather than complex lives. When Orwell found himself penniless after the theft of his savings from teaching, rather than turning to his family for aid, he embraced the life of poverty (as well as such a life can be embraced), falling in with criminals, smugglers, drug dealers, and cooks. If he could have escaped this life at any moment and moved back to a comfortable middle-class existence on the Thames, he doesn't show it.

Kinda like Batman. But with less punching and capes.

"When you have a hundred francs in the world," Orwell writes, "you are liable to the most craven panics. When you have only three francs you are quite indifferent; for three francs will feed you till tomorrow, and you cannot think further than that. You are bored, but you are not afraid. You think vaguely, 'I shall be starving in a day or two—shocking, isn't it?' And then the mind wanders to other topics. A bread and margarine diet does, to some extent, provide its own anodyne."

His accounts of working as a plongeur—a dishwasher—under an abusive chef in a bug-infested basement in Paris are a remarkable look at what restaurants were like in the early 20th century. It's Kitchen Confidential before Kitchen Confidential and, unlike that great work, contains very little in the way of BS. Orwell's prose is clear but unromantic. His thoughts are confined to only his own experiences among the destitute, with very little in the way of philosophical musing or intellectual proselytizing. Who has time for such things when you're literally scraping the bottoms of barrels to earn your next meal?

And yet, his words convey insight into class struggles and the nature of poverty. "To sum it up," he writes, "a plongeur is a slave, and a wasted slave, doing stupid and largely unnecessary work. He is kept at work, ultimately, because of a vague feeling that he would be dangerous if he had leisure. And educated people, who should be on his side, acquiesce in him and consequently are afraid of him.... These are only my own ideas about the basic facts, made without reference to immediate economic questions, and no doubt largely platitudes. I present them as a sample of the thoughts that are put into one's head by working in a hotel."

There's not much of a lesson or story arc in this book. There is no real metamorphosis of character or position in life. It starts with the protagonist struggling to scrape by in Paris; the middle is full of....again, stories of how he struggles to scrape by; and it ends with him borrowing two pounds to scrape by for the next eight days in London. The Paris half of the novel revolves mostly around themes of poverty and hunger, while the second half, set in Depression-era London, focuses on unemployment and the different sorts of problems it brings to society. Perhaps the closest the book comes to having a moral is in its exploration of the various characters that populate the underworld, and its assertion that even the lowliest tramp or beggar is a complicated character who may be worthy of charity, but not of pity.

"I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant. That is a beginning."

This book is short, easy to read, and packed with firsthand insight. Required reading for anyone who wants to know what being truly destitute means.

You can buy Down and Out in Paris and London here.

My Favorite Food Books, Day 8: The New Best Recipe

I recently built myself a new bookshelf in the kitchen, and in the process of reorganizing my ever-expanding book collection, I ended up blowing the dust off of more than a few majorly dog-eared pages. Old friends that carried me through college, my early days of faking it in fancy restaurants, my time as a test cook and writer, and some newer volumes as well. So, every weekday through the end of October, I'll be writing a short post featuring a food book that I really like. All of these books had a major influence either on my career or on my day-to-day cooking. They aren't necessarily the best or most essential cookbooks out there, but they are all worthy reads.

When a friend of mine forwarded me a job listing under the heading "Test Cook" in the summer of 2006, I wasn't aware that I was about to embark upon the most important part of my career. In fact, I wasn't even aware of what the company that was doing the hiring really was. Cook's Illustrated? I'd seen the thin, stark magazines with the hand-drawn covers in the checkout lane at the supermarket, perhaps, but I'd never leafed through an issue and certainly had no idea that they had a popular show—America's Test Kitchen—on public television.

This may seem surprising, but considering that nearly all my time since the first episode of ATK (as it's called within the company) aired was either occupied pulling all-nighters at the architecture studio or working double shifts six to seven days a week at restaurants, watching a public television cooking show or reading a magazine was not high on my priority list.

Still, I was getting a little stir-crazy (no pun intended) with life in the back of the house. It wasn't so much the lack of free time, it wasn't the physical and mental suffering, and it wasn't even the nonexistant social and family life that was bugging me. It was more the culture of "oui." The idea that no matter what you were asked to do, no matter how you were told to cook something, the answer was "oui, chef"—yes, chef—and you did it that way, no questions asked. For someone who grew up being taught that everything should be questioned, this approach became increasingly frustrated. It was right about the time that I was told by a fellow cook "there are such things as stupid questions," that I realized that a change was necessary if I was going to find the answers I sought.

It was pure serendipity that that job listing came when it did. Intrigued by the description, I picked up a few copies of Cook's Illustrated, and headed to the bookstore to have a thumb through The New Best Recipe, Cook's Illustrated's flagship book that contains over 1,000 of the meticulously tested recipes from the magazines and TV show. I ended up sitting on the floor of the Barnes & Noble in Harvard Square for over four hours, engrossed in its pages and, despite it being out of my meager line cook's budget, I added to my credit card debt and walked home with it that afternoon.

It was unlike any recipe book I'd ever seen. There were recipes, sure, but in between those recipes were engrossing stories filled with scientific experiments (moist air transfers heat more efficiently than dry air in a barbecued brisket!). There were failed attempts at recipes with detailed notes on what went wrong and why (No, you can't just toss the cheese and milk together with the pasta if you don't want your macaroni & cheese to turn out greasy). There were blind product tastings that upended some deeply-held beliefs I had (true vanilla extract is not always better than—or even discernible from—its cheaper, artificial cousin!).

This was the job I'd been waiting for and I immediately started on the lengthy application process, which turned out to be a microcosm of the entire Cook's Illustrated ethos. The bulk of the application is in the form of a recipe and article, written in the style of Cook's Illustrated. My task was to come up with a recipe for cranberry-nut muffins. Simple, right?

Well hang on. First off, there are the basic problems inherent in every muffin: testing the ratio of flour, fat, water, eggs, and leavening to strike that balance between moist, tender, and hearty. Maximizing efficiency (since nobody wants to dirty multiple bowls before breakfast) while still maintaining good results. Testing various oven temperatures and pan placements, etc etc. A few dozen batches of muffins in all before I even got around to adding the cranberries and walnuts. That's where the real problems kick in.

Add your cranberries whole and they end up all floating to the top of the muffin, leaving you with a delightfully cranberry-filled muffin top and plain muffin underneath. Chop them first and they end up staining the muffins red and wreaking havoc with the internal pH, which in turn changes how baking powder and baking soda react, leading to overrisen or collapsed muffins. Dried cranberries lack cranberry flavor, while cranberry sauce gives you the same pH problems. (Solution: use frozen cranberries and toss them in a bit of flour before adding).

To address flavor issues, I dived into my copy of On Food and Cooking, which contains a breakdown of all the chemicals that give cranberries their distinct aroma and cross-referenced them with various other spices and ingredients to see what I could add to complement and boost those flavors. (Solution: a touch of orange juice concentrate and an indiscernible dash of cinnamon make the cranberries taste more like cranberries).

This kind of research, testing, and detail is just a fraction of what goes into each of the recipes published in Cook's Illustrated and collected in The New Best Recipe. Add to this panels of in-house tasters that offer feedback each step of the way, weekly editorial meetings in which problems with each recipe are discussed by dozens of cooks and editors, a multi-step editorial process in which every test and conclusion are drawn into question, and several more weeks of testing, and you begin to get an idea of the amount of work involved in producing a volume with over 1,000 such recipes.

Once the recipe is written, there's even more testing. Each recipe is sent out to a panel of 2,000 home cooks, a couple hundred of which end up cooking the recipe and reporting back with notes on the process. The most important part of this survey is the "make again" rate. That is, the number of home cooks who enjoyed the recipe enough to want to make it again, perhaps putting it into their regular rotation. Unless this rate is 80% or higher, the recipe gets reworked or scrapped. In my several years as a test cook and editor at Cook's Illustrated, I had more than one recipe chucked in the recycling bin. A from-scratch cassoulet recipe that was too difficult ("Who has time to confit their own duck or make their own Toulouse sausage?"). An Italian ricotta torta was too esoteric ("I prefer my Philadelphia cream cheese cake"), and others.

I have no doubt that The New Best Recipe has a higher man-hour count than any other cookbook on the shelf, and that shows in its reliability and breadth.

Yes, there are some problems that may turn people off from the Cook's Illustrated Kool-Aid, or as I call it, the Cook's Illustrated Sausage. Why sausage? Well the biggest issue I've had with them over the years is that despite having hundreds of different writers, editors, and contributors, no matter who develops a recipe or story, it all gets sent through the Cook's Illustrated editorial sausage grinder and comes out the other end tasting like Cook's Illustrated Sausage. Tone and personality are stripped away in favor of uniformity. For some people this can be comforting. They have a no-nonsense, authoritative voice that is as unchanging from year to year as a McDonald's french fry.

For others, this can be, well, boring. I want my stories to have some personality. I want to have some emotional investment with my writers. I want to know their motivations for cooking and feel their frustrations along the way. I want my reading to be fun, not just informational.

Cook's Illustrated is also myopic in its worldview of food. It's a publication based out of New England and aimed at an audience that does their shopping in large supermarket chains. That same policy that guarantees an 80% make-again rate for recipes also means that almost by definition, the recipes are designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Like the writing, it's hard to find fault in any of the recipes, but it's also hard to find any personality. There are surprises in the process and techniques that are upturned, for sure, but as far as the finished dishes go, this is a book to turn to when you want to be reliably comforted, not challenged or surprised. (I'd strongly recommend against following any of the recipes outside of those from American and Western European traditions.)

That said, if you are tired of pancakes that fall flat; If you are sick of roast chicken that looks lovely on the outside but is dry and stringy inside; If you get paralyzed by choosing between the dozens of banana bread recipes a quick google search turns up; if you've never made a meatloaf in your life and want to make sure it comes out right the very first time, the The New Best Recipe (or any of the other, smaller titles from America's Test Kitchen) is an invaluable resource that you'll turn to again and again.

You can buy The New Best Recipe here.

My Favorite Food Books Day 7: the Joyce Chen Cook Book

I recently built myself a new bookshelf in the kitchen, and in the process of reorganizing my ever-expanding book collection, I ended up blowing the dust off of more than a few majorly dog-eared pages. Old friends that carried me through college, my early days of faking it in fancy restaurants, my time as a test cook and writer, and some newer volumes as well. So, every weekday through the end of October, I'll be writing a short post featuring a food book that I really like. All of these books had a major influence either on my career or on my day-to-day cooking. They aren't necessarily the best or most essential cookbooks out there, but they are all worthy reads.

The Joyce Chen Cook Book, first published in 1962 and out of print for… who knows how long, is an unusual entry into this list of my favorite/most influential books in that it’s the only one that I hadn’t actually read until just this past year. Yet it is perhaps the most influential of all, reaching back to almost my earliest food memories.*

*Any time I write one of these stories I get text messages from everyone in my family telling me exactly what I'm misremembering and what I'm exaggerating. So I'll be up front: most of my memories are probably made up.

See, my parents had picked up a copy of the book when they were living in Cambridge. At the time, Joyce Chen’s eponymous chain of of restaurants were still around and it was where my dad first picked up his taste for Northern Chinese cuisine. He wasn’t the only one. Opened in 1958, the Joyce Chen Restaurant was one of the earliest Northern Chinese restaurants in the country (the Chinese restaurant landscape up to then was mostly dominated by the Cantonese cuisine made popular by a number of Chinese chefs in New York City). Cantabrigians at her restaurant at 617 Concord Avenue were among the first in the United States to taste now-ubiquitous dishes like Peking duck, Moo Shi pork, hot and sour soup, pan-fried dumplings (for which Joyce coined the term “Peking ravioli”), wonton soup, and Shanghai-style soup dumplings (xiao long bao).

I wasn’t old enough to remember eating at any of Joyce Chen’s restaurants in Boston, but I know her food intimately well.

Joyce Chen self-published her cookbook in 1962, but the version my parents had was from 1978. The bright red sauce-stained cover stuck out on the kitchen bookshelf, and when my dad pulled it out on a Saturday afternoon and said “let’s have Moo Shi pork for dinner” I knew it was gonna be a good evening. He’d mix up the hot water dough for the Mandarin pancakes, carefully rolling it out into a log and cutting it into 1-inch sections before passing them off to me and my sisters. Our job was to flatten two disks out with our hands, brush the top of one with sesame oil, place the second disk on top, then roll them as flat as we could with a rolling pin. My dad would then place them in a hot, dry pan until they were brown and spotty on both sides. Finally, he’d pass them back so that we could peel them apart, revealing two paper-thin pancakes that we’d stuff with pork stir-fried with day lily bulbs, wood ear mushrooms, and eggs. I still keep a big bag of dried day lily bulbs and wood ear mushrooms in my pantry, and just like the ones my parent’s kept, they’ve got no expiration dates that I can decipher and seem to never deplete, despite dipping into them at least a couple times a year for hot and sour soup and stir fries.

I finally got my own copy of the book a few months ago when I started working on a recipe for the book I’m currently writing. I’m calling the dish “Moo Shi Mushrooms” and it comes with those same Mandarin pancakes. As I leafed through the pages, I started recognizing dishes I distinctly remembered eating at the family dinner table. The velveted chicken my dad made for my little sister (he called it “Pico’s Bland Chicken). The flank steak stir-fried with snow peas in a light soy-based sauce my mom made (none of your gloopy Chinese-American stuff here!). Those dry-fried beef shreds where you shallow-fry strips of beef until dry and chewy to allow them to soak up the MSG-packed sauce (delicious). Peking noodles (AKA zhajiangmian) made with Western spaghetti. The Chungking pork my mom used to make.

I did a double take as I stumbled onto that last one. My mom’s “Chungking pork” is a dish that has stuck in my memory as firmly as the dry, lean piece of pork she made it with used to stick in my throat. I dreaded those nights, even though I knew the recipe came from the book. I’d always figured that the use of lean pork loin in the dish was my mom’s own attempt at trying to keep us healthy, but there it was, right on page 132: “1 pound lean pork.” What was even more shocking to me was that this dish is actually meant to be Sichuan-style twice-cooked pork, a dish more commonly made with fatty pork belly or shoulder!

This is one of the many charming anachronisms you’ll find in the book, which contains a foreword by famous Boston-area cardiologist Paul Dudley White. At the time, fat was the enemy, and in what was presumable an attempt to entice a Western audience to try a cuisine that already had a reputation for being mostly gluey stews, Joyce Chen decided to use health as a selling point. This is why we end up dishes like twice-cooked pork belly made with lean pork loin, but flavored with MSG, a seasoning against which Western audiences had yet to pick up their prejudices.

I’ve found that you can greatly improve every recipe in the book by simply omitting the word “lean” (the MSG can stay).

Some may claim that these types of changes and concessions to Western palates renders the recipes inauthentic. This is true, and Joyce Chen says as much herself. Her recipes and restaurants were created for an audience that was interested in learning about Chinese food, but had no frame of reference and very little access to exotic ingredients. One of her greatest talents was in walking that fine tightrope between authenticity and accessibility. That’s a talent I greatly admire as I frequently try to wobble my way along that line myself.

Even if you’ve never heard of Joyce Chen, even if you never pick up a copy of her outdated, out-of-print cookbook, even if you aren’t a big fan of Northern Chinese cuisine, I can flat out guarantee that Joyce Chen has changed the way you eat or cook.

Maybe you own a company that sells chafing dishes, or perhaps you’re the landlord of a suburban strip mall. Well, Joyce Chen invented the Chinese lunch buffets that are the bread and butter of your business.

Perhaps you’re one of those unfortunate souls who doesn’t have a wok range at home and instead resorts to stir-frying in a flat-bottomed wok.* Guess what? Joyce Chen is the original patent-owner for that flat-bottomed woks. 

*This, by the way, is the best vessel for stir-frying in at home! I'd recommend picking up a carbon steel model at your local Chinese market, or this Joyce Chen model from Amazon.

Do you like watching chefs cook on television? Joyce Chen was one of the pioneers of that medium as well. Her show Joyce Chen Cooks ran for two seasons from 1966 to 1967. It was the first nationally syndicated cooking show to be hosted by a woman of color. (You can read more about that fascinating history in this article on Food52, and watch full episodes in the WGBH Open Vault.)

Perhaps you’re one of those patrons of the 41,000 Chinese restaurants in the U.S. that has an awkward time pronouncing some of the Chinese words and prefer to order your dishes by number. Thank Joyce Chen once again for this innovation.

Oh, you can also add the introduction of bottled stir-fry sauces and polyethylene cutting boards to her list of American contributions as well.

There are those, like Allen Salkin, that argue that ultimately Joyce Chen was unsuccessful in her mission to make Chinese food accessible to American home cooks, and perhaps he’s right. Despite gaining popularity, Chinese cooking still remains more intimidating for the majority of home cooks than, say, French or Italian cuisine.

But ultimately, it’s impossible to deny that Joyce Chen cleared the path for generations of restaurateurs, TV chefs, and cookbook authors to come. I can tell you for certain that the Chinese-inspired dishes that are going to populate large chunks of the book I’m currently writing would never have been there had it not been for her.

You can try to buy the Joyce Chen Cook Book here, or check your local used bookseller.

My Favorite Food Books Day 6: Jacques Pepín's Complete Techniques

I recently built myself a new bookshelf in the kitchen, and in the process of reorganizing my ever-expanding book collection, I ended up blowing the dust off of more than a few majorly dog-eared pages. Old friends that carried me through college, my early days of faking it in fancy restaurants, my time as a test cook and writer, and some newer volumes as well. So, every weekday through the end of October, I'll be writing a short post featuring a food book that I really like. All of these books had a major influence either on my career or on my day-to-day cooking. They aren't necessarily the best or most essential cookbooks out there, but they are all worthy reads.
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I seriously debated whether or not to include Jacques Pépin's Complete Techniques in this collection of book recommendations. Not because it's not a great book, but because I just wrote a lengthy paean to it a year and a half ago.

However, considering it is perhaps the most influential book in my career, how could I not include it? The following is that article, reprinted in full. I apologize profusely for the repetition


Reprinted from Serious Eats, February, 2016.

It was the summer of 2001, and, like any good college student, I was on a beach in Mexico with sand between my toes as the clock struck midnight. I licked my thumb and tasted the salt. This wasn't shot-of-tequila salt; it was the savory, mildly fishy dried-on salt you get from a day spent trolling for Spanish mackerel. My thumb moistened, I turned the page. There were no partygoers on the beach—this was a few years before Cabo would turn into the new Cancún—there was no music blasting; in fact, there was nobody else on the sand there with me at all. I'd snuck out of my family's hotel room around 11 p.m. while my parents and sisters were asleep, a copy of Jacques Pépin's newly released Complete Techniques tucked under my arm. It's how I would spend the next four nights.

I'd started cooking professionally a couple of summers before that, and, while my obsession with food had grown, I'd never had much of a chance to hone my technical skills. I didn't go to culinary school. I didn't learn to cook on my mother or father's knee. My first job was as a Knight of the Round Grill at an all-you-can-eat Mongolian barbecue joint, and when I took the job, I didn't even know how to hold a knife properly. That was okay. The gig demanded more of my theatrical skills, like juggling shrimp with my spatula tips and exchanging day-old flowers for phone numbers, than any real cooking. I managed to fake my way through it (as well as stints at a few other corporate, family-friendly chains) for a couple of years before I thought to myself, Kenji, you need to learn how to cook  if you want to be a cook. Culinary school was out—I needed to finish my undergrad degree, and there's no way my parents would help me pay for another one right afterward—so I looked for the next best thing.

That's where Jacques came in.

I'd grown up vaguely knowing who Jacques Pépin was. I'd seen his show on PBS, tucked between episodes of The Joy of Painting and The Frugal Gourmet. I knew he was a French guy who seemed to know what he was talking about. But I was unprepared for the depth of detailed information he packs into his Complete Techniques. This wasn't a book of recipes, it wasn't a book of pretty pictures or flowery prose; this was the first book I'd ever seen that really taught how to cook, not just how to fake your way to dinner tonight.

It was through Jacques's photographs and clear descriptions that I learned how to properly hold my knife and hone it. He gave me the basics of cookware and how material choice might affect the way my food comes out. It was through him that I learned the most efficient way to slice or dice an onion. He showed me how to debone a chicken with minimal effort and minimal waste. He showed me how to make a vinaigrette (and why my salad greens should be absolutely dry before I dress them).

This was the kind of stuff I'd been craving. The kind of things that they never teach you on television or in the fancy chefs' cookbooks I'd been collecting. (Those books ended up doing a bit of their own collecting: dust.) And not only did Jacques explain how and why I should be doing something a certain way, he did it with full step-by-step photographs. This was recipe blogging years before recipe blogging even existed.

The book is a collection of La Technique and La Methode, two separate volumes published in the late 1970s, and it does show its age in a few areas. Encasing a bottle of vodka in a block of ice is one of his basic techniques. He shows you how to carve olives into rabbits and hard-boiled eggs into clown faces. I'd love to see a fully updated version with more modern techniques, but there's plenty of charm to be found in these artifacts.

In a way, it was perfect timing that I got the book just before a beach vacation. If I'd gotten it back home, I would have jumped straight into it, knife in hand, following along each step of the way, paying too much attention to the photos and the results rather than the explanations and theories. (I'm the kind of guy who doesn't bother reading instructions in full before turning on his power tools.) Instead, I read and re-read that book a half dozen times on that beach in Mexico, taking in everything the master had to say before ever attempting to try it for myself.

And make no mistake: Jacques Pépin is a master, and I don't use that word lightly. Just watch him make an omelet or debone a chicken on YouTube, then reach down and pick your jaw up off the floor.

There are plenty of great chefs in the world, but very few who are also great teachers.

The first time I met Jacques in person, I was a line cook at a restaurant in Boston. He'd come in to dine, and our chef, knowing my history with his book, asked Jacques if I could come out to the bar, where he was enjoying an after-dinner cocktail, to chat with him. I was nervous walking through the dining room in my cook's whites—cooks never walk into the dining room—but he was as instantly personable and warm as he appears on television. What a relief!

He'd just finished a meal that started with a dish that had come off of my station: pommes soufflé stuffed with caviar. Pommes soufflé, a preparation I first read about on that beach in Mexico, is not an easy dish to get right. You have to cut potato slices to just the right thickness, fry them once, chill them, then fry them again. If you slice and cook the potatoes just so, they puff up like magic, turning into crispy potato balloons with translucent, paper-thin walls that shatter like glass. I had a puff rate of around 40%. I mentioned my troubles to Jacques, and he instantly got up and came back to the kitchen to look at my potato slices.

"You can tell if they are going to puff by looking at them," he said to me, then pointed out how potatoes with too many veins inside would not form the proper shell, as he set aside about half of the potatoes I had cut. Nearly every one of the remaining slices puffed perfectly as I cooked them. I thanked him profusely and blustered a bit about how his book had changed my life. He smiled, shook my hand, and wished me luck. I've met him a few times since then, and he never remembers me, but I don't blame him. The man has many, many students.

Jacques first inspired me to be a better cook: There is nobody who gets me excited about wanting to perfect my technique in the way that he does. These days, he inspires me in a completely different way: to become a better writer and teacher. Jacques's most remarkable skill is his ability to make you feel like you can cook, arming you with the basic tools and information you'll need, giving you the motivation to go out and practice, and it's this skill that sets him apart from every other cookbook author or TV chef out there.

It's no exaggeration to say that every step of my current career—from the genuine pleasure I get out of practicing even the simplest of knife skills to the desire I have to try to break down complex techniques into straightforward language—owes a big chunk of its existence to this book. I probably would have ended up a cook and a writer either way, but I've never regretted that beach vacation when I chose la technique over la tequila.*

* I know, I know. It's el tequila. But I'm allowed a little poetic license, aren't I?

You can buy Jacques Pépin's Complete Techniques here.

My Favorite Food Books, Day 5: How to Read a French Fry

I recently built myself a new bookshelf in the kitchen, and in the process of reorganizing my ever-expanding book collection, I ended up blowing the dust off of more than a few majorly dog-eared pages. Old friends that carried me through college, my early days of faking it in fancy restaurants, my time as a test cook and writer, and some newer volumes as well. So, every weekday through the end of October, I'll be writing a short post featuring a food book that I really like. All of these books had a major influence either on my career or on my day-to-day cooking. They aren't necessarily the best or most essential cookbooks out there, but they are all worthy reads.
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I strongly feel that there are certain times in life where the only reasonable thing to do is to make mayonnaise. High up on that list of times is right after finishing Russ Parson's How to Read a French Fry. Read it and you'll find that even if your mind protests, your legs will start carrying you to the kitchen, your arms already reaching towards the eggs and oil. You know that feeling, right?

So far my book picks have ranged from those about the industry (Kitchen Confidential and The Making of a Chef) to those about food science and history (On Food and Cooking and The Man Who Ate Everything). Today I'm expanding that spectrum into a third dimension: home cooking.

How to Read a French Fry is partly a book on food science and partly a recipe book, but more importantly, it showed me not what a food science book can be, but what a food science book doesn't have to be. For one thing, it's relatively short at around 300 pages, over half of which are recipes. If you just sit down to read the prose, you can easily breeze through it in a day, and to be frank, once you start reading it, that's probably what you'll end up doing. For another, most of those recipes don't even have headnotes—they simply accompany lengthy introductory sections in each chapter. And the book works just fine like this.

Parson's book doesn't try to be everything to everyone, and it doesn't pretend to be an encyclopedia of food science. Instead, it's a well-curated package of just the most useful and interesting scientific tidbits with a straight-forward, "just the facts, ma'am" approach. Each of the six chapter is about a single basic concept of food science: how frying work, how vegetables ripen, how beans and pasta soften, how meat reacts to heat, how eggs are the most useful culinary tool on the planet, and how fat, flour, and water come together to form pastries and cookies. Each of those chapters starts with a lengthy essay covering the basic scientific principles involved, followed by a few pages of bulleted cooking tips and tricks, along with a handful of recipes (about 100 recipes in all).

Six subjects. That's it. Yet the book doesn't feel incomplete or light. He's smart about the topics he picks, choosing techniques that typically inspire fear in home cooks (deep frying and pastry!) or ingredients that people cook frequently enough to have opinions on (pasta, eggs, meat). It's a method of attack and organization that I ended up using in my own book which, despite its length, is actually pretty limited in its scope (there's hardly any seafood, baking, and dried beans or grains, for instance).

When I finished reading it, I did get a bit of the same, "wait, I was watching that!" feeling I got when Heroes was cancelled, but that thought was quickly supplanted by thoughts of mayonnaise. I just had to make some. It was like Christmas morning, I'd just gotten a new nail gun, and I couldn't wait to (bang!) start nailing things. The book made me feel empowered. Not only did I understand the basics of emulsions and how to stabilize them, but I also knew what to do if things started going wrong. Wobbly bowl? Pow! Damp tea towel ring to stabilize the base. Emulsion starting to break? Boom! Mustard to the rescue. Ended up with oil-and-egg-soup instead of mayonnaise? Ka-pow! Break out the food processor and drizzle it in.

It turns out I didn't need to actually use most of those tricks, but simply knowing I had them in my tool kit made me realize that often the only thing lacking in our basic cooking skills is confidence. This idea of offering readers detailed troubleshooting guides and tips to incrementally improve their recipes is a lesson I took to heart and consistently try to implement in my own writing. It's the lifetime manufacturer's warranty of recipes: something you might never have to use, but are going to be damn happy you had in your back pocket for those times when you really need it.

You can buy How to Read a French Fry here.

My Favorite Food Books, Day 4: The Man Who Ate Everything

I recently built myself a new bookshelf in the kitchen, and in the process of reorganizing my ever-expanding book collection, I ended up blowing the dust off of more than a few majorly dog-eared pages. Old friends that carried me through college, my early days of faking it in fancy restaurants, my time as a test cook and writer, and some newer volumes as well. So, every weekday through the end of October, I'll be writing a short post featuring a food book that I really like. All of these books had a major influence either on my career or on my day-to-day cooking. They aren't necessarily the best or most essential cookbooks out there, but they are all worthy reads.

People have called my book the spiritual successor to a number of other works, but in my mind, Jeffrey Steingarten's collection of essays in The Man Who Ate Everything is really where The Food Lab started. It's the first book I read that combined insanely detailed research on food history and food science with the humor and prose to make it easily digestible; Goals which I aspire to in every Food Lab essay or book that I write.

I'm of the mind that we do our best learning when we're in the company of friends and colleagues, not professors or bosses, and Steingarten is the ultimate colleague. I can't help but feel an affinity for anyone who roasts a chicken "whenever [he has] nothing better to do." I'd probably be roasting a chicken right not if I weren't busy giggling to myself as I reread paragraphs from the book and its equally wonderful follow-up It Must Have Been Something I Ate.

He's the friend that not only convinces you that bread (or choucroute, or wagyu beef, or Olestra, or whatever he's writing about at the moment) is not just the best thing in the world, but that it's the only thing. He grabs your hand and whisks you away to modern Paris and ancient Egypt, where naturally leavened bread were respectively perfected and invented. He gives you a blow-by-blow narrative of his own early attempts at pain au levain dragging you along, breathlessly, as he brings life to a bowl of flour and water ("The chef has swelled and smells tangy, somewhere between beer and yogurt. I'm proud as a parent!").

No length is too far in his quest for not just culinary perfection, but a complete understanding of the history and science of whatever food he happens to have aligned in his targets. “The goal of the arts, culinary or otherwise," he says, "is not to increase our comfort. That is the goal of an easy chair.” 

Despite its fast pace, self-deprecating style of humor, and easy readability, there's an insane amount of useable information packed into every paragraph and what's more, you find yourself actually remembering the stuff. Not everything he writes about is immediately useful in the kitchen,* but you are guaranteed to be successful at cocktail parties and Jeopardy! tournaments alike.

*Did you know your metabolic rate is directly related to the amount of lean muscle mass in your body? By this logic, Steingarten concludes, lifting weights would allow one to eat more. "All I have to do is go out and buy a set of sixteen weights ranging from two to thirty pounds each. I am confident they will change my life once I have figured out how to carry them home."

Steingarten, who was a lawyer up until he took his position as Vogue's food critic in 1989, is a nerd's nerd and a researcher at heart. The book starts with an opening essay explaining his goal of attempting to get over every single one of his food aversions (they range from kimchi and anchovies to desserts in Indian restaurants and Greek food), and it's this premise that makes every article a true voyage of discovery where he intentionally thrusts himself into uncomfortable positions or onto impassable trails, using his wits, the help of his thankless assistants (Gail Simmons used to be one of them!), and stacks and stacks of books and papers to claw and hack his way out.

He's writing about bread, but he's referencing gas chromatographs! He's documenting the 59 species of yeasts and 238 strains of bacteria found in a sourdough starter! His stories have triumphs (perfect french fries!) and failures (he gets booted from a chemical factory while quoting Shakespeare on a mission to make a perfect bottle of mineral water). This is the real lesson I learned from this book: having a good recipe with detailed testing is not enough. In order to get those lessons to really stick, a good cooking article needs to be a good story first. 

You think I'm obsessive? Steingarten does what I would have done if a) Serious Eats had an expense account as big as Vogue's, b) I were willing to sacrifice my body and soul for my art the way Steingarten does,** and c) I was much more clever and hard working.

**“Subsistence, I am happy to report, is not much of a problem for me these days either," he writes. "I could probably subsist for a decade or more on the food energy I have thriftily wrapped around various parts of my body.”

A little disclaimer in case I am accused of cronyism: In the fifteen years or so that have passed since I first read his books, Jeffrey and I have actually become regular correspondents and occasional dinner companions. He wrote the foreword for my book. (I still pinch myself from time to time about this). Every single email he writes to me (most frequently about pizza) is as witty and information-packed as his books. This is a problem for my self-confidence. I currently have an email from him sitting in my inbox from September 25th. It is about pizza and it is blindingly funny. It will likely sit there a few weeks longer before I finally find my way to a response clever enough to send back.

Jeffrey—if you're reading this, the reason it takes me so long to write back to you is due to edits, rewrites, and nervous procrastination.

You can buy The Man Who Ate Everything and It Must Have Been Something I Ate here.

My Favorite Food Books, Day 3: The Making of a Chef

I recently built myself a new bookshelf in the kitchen, and in the process of reorganizing my ever-expanding book collection, I ended up blowing the dust off of more than a few majorly dog-eared pages. Old friends that carried me through college, my early days of faking it in fancy restaurants, my time as a test cook and writer, and some newer volumes as well. So, every weekday through the end of October, I'll be writing a short post featuring a food book that I really like. All of these books had a major influence either on my career or on my day-to-day cooking. They aren't necessarily the best or most essential cookbooks out there, but they are all worthy reads.
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"You're reading that? He's kind of a dork, isn't he?," my chef asked me one day while I was changing into my whites.

But I like dorks, I thought to myself, though I didn't say it out loud. I just sheepishly slipped my copy of Michael Ruhlman's The Making of a Chef into my locker and headed downstairs to start making chicken stock. If it were today, I'd waste no time defending him.

Ruhlman is a dork, but in the best possible way. The kind of dork that I aspire to be. You probably know him these days as the exacting author of modern classics like Ratio (a book that distills cooking down to its most essential ratios), Charcuterie (a more authoritative book on the subject has yet to be written), or as the co-author of The French Laundry Cookbook (!), but before he wrote any of those, before he became one of the most authoritative voices in cooking today, he was a young writer from Ohio with a single book about all-boys education under his belt and an interest in cooking. So, in 1997 he decided to enroll in the Culinary Institute of America and write a book about what it was like.

The Making of a Chef is gonzo journalism at its finest. It's Hunter S. Thompson meets Alton Brown. It's what Kitchen Confidential might have been if Anthony Bourdain were more interested in technique and high cuisine instead of sex and drugs. Is it sensationalized? Of course it is, but only because to a new cook, the life is sensational. Ruhlman captures the rush of acquiring new skills and having them immediately put to the test with earnest zeal.

Despite the exaggerations, he gets so much right. Through his writing you feel the nervousness all young cooks get when the fate of universe hinges on the quality of their shallot brunoise, and the surge of adrenaline  that comes every time a perfect plate walks out the door and comes back licked clean. You understand why after working in kitchens, everyone in the real world seems to move in slow motion as you catch yourself accidentally saying behind you while twisting past strangers in the supermarket.

The Making of a Chef is required reading for anyone who has ever considered going to culinary school or wants a feel for what it's like to dip your toes in the profession. You need not be a dork to appreciate his approach. (His follow up books, The Soul of a Chef and The Reach of a Chef are fantastic reads as well.)

You can buy The Making of a Chef here.

My Favorite Food Books, Day 2: On Food and Cooking

I recently built myself a new bookshelf in the kitchen, and in the process of reorganizing my ever-expanding book collection, I ended up blowing the dust off of more than a few majorly dog-eared pages. Old friends that carried me through college, my early days of faking it in fancy restaurants, my time as a test cook and writer, and some newer volumes as well. So every week day through the end of October I'll be writing a short post featuring a book that I really like. All of these books either had a major influence in my career or in my day-to-day cooking. They aren't necessarily the best or most essential cook books out there, but they are all a worthy read.
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I don’t remember exactly when I got my first copy of On Food and Cooking, the seminal food science tome by Harold McGee, but I do know that it is, has been, and will probably always be the most important, most referenced, and and most cherished book in my library. My copy lost its dust jacket long ago. The spine is torn off. There is a forest of crinkled Post-It notes lining its edges. The bottom corner of every page is stained red from that time I fell asleep reading it in the bath.

Alton Brown has called it “the Rosetta Stone of the culinary world,” but that doesn’t quite do it justice. McGee didn’t simply translate the history and science of the kitchen into layman’s terms; he collected, translated, collated, and rewrote hundreds of primary research documents into the most complete and useful collection of cooking science ever conceived.

Want precisely what chemical it is that makes cinnamon taste like cinnamon? It’s in there on page 425. Or at what temperature the ovalbumin in your egg whites begins to coagulate? Check the chart on page 77. Ever wonder about the growth cycle of a blueberry (a true berry) and how it differs from strawberries (hint: the “seeds” on a strawberry are in fact entire dried fruits themselves, while the “berry” part is the swollen base of the strawberry flower)? See page 360.

Before McGee wrote this book in 1984, food science was relegated to the realms of industrial production and laboratories. McGee took that information and brought it into the world of the practical. He transformed it into something that cooks, both professional and amateur, could learn and apply to their craft. Not only that, but he manages to strike the perfect balance between approachable and authoritative. It's written in a style entertaining enough that it makes for a good way to kill an hour in the bath, but detailed enough that you don't feel like it's written for dummies, which too many pop-science books seem to do.

It’s no exaggeration to say that without this book, my career would have taken an astonishingly different trajectory. On Food and Cooking proved that not only can science help us understand and cook our food better, but that there’s a wide audience of folks, cooks and non-cooks alike, who are interested in reading about this kind of stuff. Alton Brown, Heston Blumenthal, Nathan Myhrvold, Wylie Dufresne, Aki and Alex Talbot—all of them have walked (and expanded) down the trail that McGee blazed.

I believe that we’re currently in the golden age of food science (at least as it applies to home and restaurant cooking), but I’m not gonna lie: On Food and Cooking is approachable but dense, and compared to modern food science books, it can be a little difficult to figure out exactly how to apply the lessons learned in your every day cooking. There are no recipes (other than for historical context), and there are no simple “do this to get that”-style instructions. On Food and Cooking is like a bag filled with every Lego shape you could ever want, but it’s up to you to figure out what you want to build.

You can buy On Food and Cooking here.

My Favorite Food Books, Day 1: Kitchen Confidential

I recently built myself a new bookshelf in the kitchen, and in the process of reorganizing my ever-expanding book collection, I ended up blowing the dust off of more than a few majorly dog-eared pages. Old friends that carried me through college, my early days of faking it in fancy restaurants, my time as a test cook and writer, and some newer volumes as well. So every week day through the end of October I'll be writing a short post featuring a book that I really like. All of these books either had a major influence in my career or in my day-to-day cooking. They aren't necessarily the best or most essential cook books out there, but they are all a worthy read.
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Is it embarrassing to admit that Kitchen Confidential—the 2000 memoir by Anthony Bourdain that injected sex, drugs, and rock and roll into the tame world of celebrity chefs—was the book that made me consider cooking as a career? Because it was.

I'd actually started cooking professional the year before it came out,* but it wasn't until my dad lent me his copy of Kitchen Confidential that I saw cooking as anything more than a summer job.

*if you could call flipping shrimp and juggling asparagus tips as a "Knight of the Round Grill" at the local Mongolian grill "cooking," that is.

"Anthony Bourdain is just such a badass," I thought to myself as I, a college junior, punted my way through another problem set. I couldn't get the book out of my head. The world of cooking, as Bourdain described it, was like living every day in a post-apocalypse survival-horror TV show. Your wits and your brawn were tested at every turn. It didn't matter what your past life was. It didn't matter how important you thought you were. You and the motley crew of cooks around you survived on merit and performance alone. Every dinner service was a full syringe of adrenaline straight into your veins.

After flying through the last macho, drug-fueled, exhillerating page, I told my girlfriend at the time "I think I want to be a cook."

"No you don't, Kenji. You want to be an architect."

"No really, I think I want to be a cook."

She eventually took me at my word and bought me a Global chef's knife for my birthday (I still have that knife to this day). Right after graduation, I packed it into my knife roll and went door-to-door begging for a job at every worthwhile restaurant in the Boston area and I was off to the races.

Skimming through the book now, 17 years later, after having gone through the ringer in the restaurant business, the word "badass" comes with a bit of an eyeroll. Bourdain's world is the world of pre-Disney Times Square. His compatriots are thieves, drug addicts, misogynists, and ne'er do wells. It's the kind of stuff that seemed cool to a socially repressed 19-year-old, but doesn't exactly cause a stirring in my loins these days. Don't get me wrong. Working in a restaurant kitchen is like a nightly shot of adrenaline, but the darker sides of those pages only come to life you try real hard to make sure they do.

The types of kitchens Bourdain writes about in Kitchen Confidential still exist, I'm told, but they're becoming more and more scarce. This is a good thing: Kitchens that are run with discipline and order, kitchens that encourage curiosity and experimentation, kitchens where bullying and misogyny are treated like the anachronisms they are; These are the kitchens that are thriving these days, and our food is all the better for it.

Still, who doesn't like to immerse themselves in the world of badasses (eyeroll) every now and then, especially when that world is so vividly and humorously brought to life?

Who should read it: Folks who are in the Venn-diagram intersection of "loves cooking," "loves survival horror," and "loves rockumentaries".

You can buy Kitchen Confidential here.