J. Kenji Lopez-Alt Talks About His Accidental First Job Cooking - Exclusive

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Today an accomplished chef and celebrated food writer, growing up, food was rarely on the mind of J. Kenji López-Alt. Or rather cooking or studying or writing about food wasn't often occupying his thoughts, but during a recent exclusive Mashed interview, Kenji did describe an ongoing culinary quest led by his father, saying, "I had a little bit of an interest in food, particularly Chinese food and Mexican food, [which] were things that my dad loved, so we went looking for great Chinese food and Mexican food around New York when I was growing up. As far as cooking goes, I had no real interest in it."

What was he interested in? Just about everything else, with his interests largely informed by the large number of scientists he had in his family: "Science [provided] this idea that it's not good enough to know how to do something, you want to know why it works and how it works. I was one of those kids that would take the top off the VCR — when VCRs still existed — and poke around all the bits and see how things were connected."

It wasn't until the summer after Kenji's freshman year of college — he was studying architecture, nothing food-related at all — that he had anything to do with the professional culinary scene. Seeking a way to make some extra spending money, Kenji decided to take a job waiting tables, as he knew a good server could make quite a lot of cash and rather fast, too. When he reported to work that first day, the managers explained that they didn't need a server, but they were in need of some help.

Cooking takes a hold of the chef

"I accidentally got my first cooking job when I was looking for summer work," Kenji explained. "One of the restaurants I went to said they had a cook that didn't show up that morning and I could start working as a cook that day for the summer if I wanted to try it. I said 'OK,' and I ended up loving cooking. I started getting my interest in cooking after I got my first job as a cook."

Even then, Kenji hardly thought food would become the center of his professional life for the next couple of decades. "I was working part-time as a cook through college because I enjoyed it," he explained, but he finished his architecture degree at MIT, still not sure which direction he would head in life. 

Upon graduating, he stuck with food: "After [school], I went full-time into cooking and then I worked at a number of different restaurants and essentially I left restaurants after I felt like, 'OK, I'm in sort of a higher position here now, I enjoy teaching other people, but there's still a lot for me to learn' ... I thought it would be fun to learn the other side of the industry, the writing and the recipe development and all that. I went into that and that's where I've been ... in the recipe writing and recipe testing field now since 2006 or 2007."

True to form, despite his success in food writing, Kenji imagines he'll pivot from it soon enough, saying,: "I'm not one of these people that thinks super long-term, as far as career goes ... I'm not even sure that food is going to be my career for life, but it is my career now."

Chef Kenji's new book "The Wok" is now available at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.