J. Kenji López-Alt is Seattle’s most powerful food influencer — and its most reluctant one


J. Kenji López-Alt didn’t come to Seattle last winter with the hustle and bustle that deserves such a cult figure in the culinary scene. The New York Times cookbook author and recipe columnist tackled the nondescript to-do list every newcomer has to make: signing up his 4-year-old daughter Alicia for preschool and getting his dogs into a morning run. Jamon and Shabu.

But then López-Alt started exploring the local food scene, reporting to his 378,000 followers on his Instagram account about the meals he ate around Capitol Hill and beyond. And oh boy, did Seattle notice?

For recipients of a López Alt-Food-Shoutout, their fate sometimes changes within hours. Bistros with a trickle of shops suddenly find queues two blocks long. Delis is reportedly selling out its orders and has to adjust its production schedule to meet new demand.

Seattle restaurants have dubbed the phenomenon “The Kenji Effect”.

Less than 24 hours after López-Alt admitted his penchant for New York-style bagels at Rachel’s Bagels & Burritos on Instagram, the Ballard store was sold out – and sold out every morning until 10:30 a.m., although the kitchen doubled production.

“The Kenji effect was real,” said owner Paul Osher. “It was like someone had turned on the light. For a long time we had problems keeping up with demand. “

After López-Alt, 41, raved about the wood-fired pizza and pea ravioli with lemon-cream sauce in Montlake’s Café Lago in April, the Italian bistro’s Instagram account gained 1,028 followers and owner Carla Leonardi woke up the next morning and thought it was hacked been. Finally, Leonardi found the post that started a thousand followers: “Ah, it was Kenji.”

Since his arrival López-Alt’s opus “The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science” from 2015 has been a bestseller in the popular Book Larder in Fremont, and his illustrated book “Every Night is Pizza Night” is the bestseller, also a children’s book, reports the bookstore.

López-Alt is possibly the most powerful food influencer this city has seen in the age of social media, say many in the restaurant industry.

But “influencer” doesn’t go well with López-Alt because he has a negative connotation with clickbait or free meals.

“I wouldn’t call myself that,” he said. He doesn’t take money for restaurant advertisements, nor does he happily take them for reporting, he said.

“The goal is simply to find good food. And when something is good, to make sure I take the time to recognize the people who are doing it. “

But posting about great finds is also a one-way street that helps him find even more great food, he said. “When I post about a great teriyaki place, I know I get half a dozen great teriyaki recommendations. And I’ll have that in my back pocket the next time I want Teriyaki. “

Food scientist and recipe tester

Those late for the Kenji fan club should think the fame began with his recipe column in the New York Times food section or with his chorizo ​​grilled cheese video, viewed more than 9.4 million times on YouTube became.

But the cult of Kenji began 13 years ago.

The food scientist was a recipe tester at Cook’s Illustrated, but gained fame when he brought his geeky shtick to the Serious Eats website in 2008, where his recipes and experiments formed the basis of his critically acclaimed 958-page tome, The Food Lab.

In his videos and columns, the recipe tester debunks food myths and reveals how to recreate the Shake Shack burger and other iconic fast food dishes at home. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate can decipher the secret sauce of any restaurant. Fans claim Kenji cannot be caught off guard.

López-Alt’s nicest trick, however, is his ability to get a nation that hates learning about science to devour a compelling explanation of how salt dissolves meat protein and makes your burger patty sticky and gross.

To explain to burger lovers why they should never salt ground beef before shaping it into a patty, he channeled his favorite childhood science show, “Mr. Wizarding World. ”López-Alt used a Trebuchet-like machine to hurl burgers against a wall at 44 mph. He showed how the inferior meatballs, in which the meat was salted before it was shaped, ricocheted off the wall like a rubber ball. Burgers that were only salted on the outside disintegrated when hit against the wall. The lesson: if you want a juicy burger that crumbles appetizingly in your mouth, just salt a shaped patty before cooking.

López-Alt’s latest obsession is the wok. He owns four wok burners and six wok pans in his Tudor-style home on Capitol Hill.

He has just submitted the manuscript for The Wok: Techniques and Recipes, which is due for publication in March 2022 by WW Norton. The 400-recipe book, which contains his own photographs, should be a chapter in its expected sequel to his cookbook “Food Lab”. But after López-Alt submitted a draft that was closer to the size of a telephone directory, its editor decided that his wok manuscript could stand on its own.

(The “Food Lab” update could instead become an expanded 10th anniversary edition, tentatively planned for 2025.)

The “Kenji Effect”

With the release deadlines behind him, López-Alt has started roaming the bagel shops, pizzerias, and other cafes in Seattle, including an old favorite, Windy City Pie.

Nobody has gotten more from an old López rave than Windy City Pie owner Dave Lichterman. As early as 2015, Lichterman tweeted to his “hero” López-Alt, who was living in California at the time, about deep dish, talked about the types of pan used and whether cornmeal should be added. After several conversations, a fascinated López-Alt said he would be in Seattle on September 27 for his book tour and that he wanted to stop by Lichterman’s pizza shop.

Lichtermann panicked. He had left out one small detail: he didn’t even have a restaurant since he was a guerrilla pizza shop; he illegally tossed cake from his Capitol Hill condominium.

Two days before López-Alt’s visit, he tried to secure a kitchen in Sodo and made two pies for Kenji.

“I said to him, ‘It’s the best Chicago pizza I’ve ever eaten, including in Chicago,’” López-Alt recalls. “I still say so.”

López-Alt went on social media back then, as this year, to top off Windy City Pie.

“I owe much of my business growth to this visit,” said Lichterman. Then he called his parents, cried and told them about López-Alt’s praise. “For better or worse, I felt the need for external validation. I know this is not healthy, however [López-Alt’s validation] means the world to me. “

Today Lichterman’s Windy City Pie has a proper restaurant and bar on Phinney Ridge and also an offshoot, his Chicago-Detroit hybrid pizza spot Breezy Town on Beacon Hill.

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López-Alt recently started exploring Seattle’s chicken teriyaki scene and found a favorite, Grillbird Teriyaki in West Seattle. One day at lunch, López-Alt put trays of chicken teriyaki, roasted cauliflower, braised pork, and chicken katsu over the hood of his SUV for a photo, an Instagram photo that would be gold to the owner of this teriyaki store if it did appeared in a few hours.

He held up the fried cauliflower and admired how the fried bowl stayed crispy after 20 minutes of our interview. The kitchen needs to use a starch with maybe rice flour to get that crispy coating, he concluded. (It was actually cornstarch with rice flour, confirmed Grillbird.) Between bites, López-Alt raved about his new adopted home and called Seattle one of the most welcoming and best cities he had ever visited.

J. Kenji López-Alt is Seattle’s most powerful food influencer — and its most reluctant one

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He and his wife, Adriana, a software engineer at Google, wanted to move from San Mateo, California, to a city rich in culture and art, and be closer to nature for hiking, skiing, and sailing. Seattle ticked all the boxes.

“You can see tall buildings and mountains and green trees from all over Seattle,” he said. “The living experience is perfect for us as a city.”

He’s still learning about Seattle and exploring the neighborhoods as best he can – on an empty stomach.

“A city restaurant is aimed at its people and influences its population. Either way, food is the best way to see any city, ”he said.

And he has explored.

He stated that the shrimp and grits at Fat’s Chicken and Waffles in the Central District rival that of the acclaimed Husk restaurant in Nashville “as one of the best.”

He believes the fish and chips at Proper Fish on Bainbridge Island could be the best in the Northwest. “They do it so well. Crunchy, light and spicy. Anything you could want for fish and chips except waiting for an hour and a half. … I love the beer batter. Lots of places in Seattle make the breadcrumbs. “

On the bagel sandwiches at the Old Salt Pop-up in Fremont, he wrote, “If I were in a ‘It must embody bageliness’ mood, this bagel is a little less bagel-y and cheffier than I’d like it to be (a little softer) and less dense than a NY bagel, and the crust is an egg wash in my opinion as opposed to a regular, crispy cooked bagel crust), but as a full sandwich experience, it’s totally awesome: “Is it yummy?” Test and that is an important test. “

The best bagels here, like Rachel’s Bagels & Burritos, Rubinstein Bagels, and Loxsmith Bagels “are just as good as the best bagels in New York,” he said.

And the smoked fish here is top notch, he said.

If anything, López-Alt says that Seattle’s bagel scene feels more exciting than The Big Apple’s because it’s still in its infancy – exploring and experimenting. And at López-Alt everything revolves around experimentation. He loves that Rubinstein Bagels in the Denny Triangle area use a sourdough starter to add a nice, light flavor. He loves it when bagel shops sprinkle caraway seeds, nori and caramelized shallots on top.

After our interview with Grillbird, López-Alt published a post on Instagram: “Whoah. The teriyaki chicken at @grillbird is something else. Super juicy chicken and a nice smoky char. The slow-cooked Hawaiian-style pork shoulder is also great, as is the katsu. Fried cauliflower has a kind of eggshell-like batter that stayed crispy an hour after I ordered it. “

This rave received 4,394 likes within three hours; Within 48 hours, Grillbird reported that it had gained around 800 followers on Instagram and had seen a surge in teriyaki chicken sales for a couple of weeks.