When it comes to perfecting your craft, there is often far more process going on behind the scenes. There is no dumb luck. There is dedication, and there is practice. There are also two frequently overlooked aspects of improvement: setting goals and developing a process by which to obtain them.
As an accomplished culinary innovator, J. Kenji López-Alt knows a thing or two about perfecting his craft, and he has also cooked up some clever processes in order to keep innovating in the kitchen and elsewhere. Kenji is the Managing Culinary Director at the website Serious Eats and, more importantly, the man behind The Food Lab.
In The Food Lab, Kenji brings a focused approach to creating the ultimate recipes, breaking down the key components of a dish by analyzing the flavors, ingredients, and steps to achieve the desired end result. He does this by first establishing what works and what can be improved in a dish, whether it is the ultimate vegan queso dip or a foolproof béarnaise, and then perfects every step in the recipe until each component works.
All of us can take this workflow out of the kitchen and into our own lives. Whether it’s refining our graphic design skills, writing a great album, or mastering the finesse of rock climbing, all we need to do is establish goals, develop a process, and iterate.
To celebrate all of Kenji’s deliciously hard work in The Food Lab we’ve put together a meal planning board for the month of May, full of recipes that are sure to inspire.
As a bonus, Kenji took a few moments to share a behind the scenes look at what inspires him in the kitchen and a few simple ingredients that can go a long way in your meals.
Where do you find the inspiration to innovate in your cooking? What flavors and trends are driving you wild these days?
I find inspiration in day to day life. Sometimes it's as obvious as seeing a great ingredient for the first time since last season (think: asparagus). Sometimes it's friends I have coming over that I haven't seen in a while so I'll throw a dinner party. Sometimes it's suggestions from Twitter or Facebook. I don't really follow any trends so I can't say I'm inspired by current food events, but in general I love bold spicy dishes. Cuisines like Thai, Mexican, and Sichuan are some of my favorites.
What sets you apart from so many other chefs is your passion for learning and understanding the key components of what makes a dish the best that it can be and then documenting your methods in wonderfully readable detail. What is your process for organizing and experimenting in the kitchen?
Lots and lots of testing! I start by doing research on a dish, identifying where problem spots might be, identifying an end goal (too many people don't go into a recipe development phase with an actual goal in mind!), and then go about figuring out the best route to get there.
How do you incorporate technology in your lab (aka kitchen) when making new discoveries?
I don't purposely go for new technology or try to incorporate anything specifically. Kitchen tools are all just that: tools. Whether they're new or old doesn't make much difference. I pick the right tool for the job, and in some cases, if the best tool doesn't exist I'll team up with people to make it happen.
We frequently make excuses that we never have enough time to cook and a lot of your research & recipes incorporate making delicious meals without spending the entire night in the kitchen. What are some of your favorite time saving tips for maximizing productivity in the kitchen?
Keep your pantry stocked with super flavorful items like hot sauces, chili pastes, citrus, vinegars, great olive oil. Those are the things that make even simple food pop. A salad made with a great vinaigrette that uses excellent olive oil and lemon juice? That's a perfect side dish for a weeknight meal that takes just minutes to make.
Check out J. Kenji López-Alt’s new book The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science which is available now.