Most Influential

Most Influential, Hospitality: J. Kenji López-Alt

Chef, author

By Chris S. Nishiwaki February 26, 2024


This article originally appeared in the January/February 2024 issue of Seattle magazine.

J. Kenji López-Alt was looking for a summer job in 2000 while on break from studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and was interviewing for a server job at a restaurant in Boston. At the end of the interview, the manager told him that a cook did not show up to work and that if he wanted a job, he could work in the kitchen starting that night. That launched a culinary odyssey that has made him one of the most in-demand food writers in the world.

“For me, it was just a summer job that I enjoyed, and I ended up sticking with it,” López-Alt says of his fateful decision.

López-Alt is a two-time James Beard Award-winner, with all three of his books making it onto The New York Times bestseller list. His latest book, The Wok, currently in bookstores, won him his second James Beard Award this year. His “Food Lab” column on the blog Serious Eats has become the go-to source on molecular gastronomy for seasoned professional chefs to home cooks, and was the genesis for his first book of the same title, also a James Beard Award winner. He also publishes a regular cooking column in The New York Times.

“I took the job mainly because my mom wants to see my name in The New York Times,” López-Alt notes with a smile.

His YouTube channel has more than 1.4 million subscribers. In addition, he was recently appointed director of the Community Curated Series for Seattle Arts & Lectures, “J. Kenji López-Alt Presents.”

His first cooking job would lead to another job cooking at a coeducational fraternity house at MIT, where about 80% of the residents were international students. He would meet his future wife, Adriana López, an international student from Colombia. He continued cooking until 2007, including at restaurants such as No. 9 Park by famed Boston chef and restaurateur Barbara Lynch.

The demand for food writing soon began to pull him away from commercial kitchens. He had started writing regularly for Cook’s Illustrated in 2006. By 2008 he was hired by Serious Eats to write its recipe program, which would lead to his regular column on that platform, and ultimately the breakthrough book Food Lab.

“I consider one of my primary skills is in explaining relatively difficult concepts in easy terms,” he says. “I do consider myself a writer more than anything else. For me, the ability to explain is so important. You can’t share knowledge if you can’t transmit it.”

López-Alt moved to Seattle from San Mateo, Calif., at the end of 2020 to raise a growing family, now with two children. He also wanted to be closer to the Northwest culinary bounty and active outdoors and cultural lifestyles. During the pandemic when traffic was lighter many of the activities his family enjoyed were a short drive away.

“Every single thing we wanted to do when we looked at the map was 15 minutes away,” López-Alt recalls. “I can go to a concert on a Friday night. I can go to a concert on a Saturday night. In between, if I wanted to, I could go fishing. If I wanted to, I could go kayaking during lunch in the middle of the week.”

As for his abbreviated and hyphenated name, he points to a diverse upbringing and family. The diversity is reflected in his writing and cooking. López-Alt was born James Kenji Alt in Boston to a German American father, geneticist Frederick Alt, and Japanese mother, Keiko Nakanishi, and was raised in New York. When López-Alt married the Colombian-born Adriana, the couple changed last names to López-Alt.

López-Alt will continue to pursue his dual passions for cooking and writing in 2024. He will also be adding to his figurative professional plate. He is launching a podcast with Deb Perelman of the award-winning blog SmittenKitchen, and will also be featuring Perelman as part of the guest author series he’s curating for Seattle Arts & Lectures.

In addition, the classically trained violinist will be collaborating with the Seattle Chamber Music Society on a special event paralleling music and food. Not bad for someone who was just looking for a summer job.

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