J. Kenji López-Alt didn’t arrive in Seattle last winter with the buzz befitting such a cult figure in the culinary scene. The cookbook author and New York Times recipe columnist got busy with the low-key to-do list any newcomer has to tackle: registering his 4-year-old daughter, Alicia, for preschool and getting into a morning walking rhythm with his dogs, Jamon and Shabu.
But then López-Alt started to check out the local food scene, chronicling the meals he ate around Capitol Hill and beyond on his Instagram account, to his 378,000 followers. And oh boy, did Seattle take notice.
Recipients of a López-Alt food shoutout sometimes have their fortunes changed within hours. Bistros with a trickle of business suddenly find lines two blocks long. Delis reportedly sell out of what he orders and have to change their production schedule to suit the new demand.
Seattle restaurants have dubbed the phenomenon “The Kenji Effect.”
Less than 24 hours after López-Alt confessed his weakness on Instagram for the New York-style bagels at Rachel’s Bagels & Burritos, the Ballard shop sold out — and kept selling out every morning by 10:30 a.m., even though the kitchen doubled production.
“The Kenji Effect was real,” owner Paul Osher said. “It was as if someone had flipped on the light. For a long time, we had trouble keeping up with the demand.”
In April, after López-Alt, 41, raved about the wood-fired pizza and the pea ravioli with lemon cream sauce at Montlake’s Café Lago, the Italian bistro’s Instagram account gained 1,028 followers and owner Carla Leonardi woke up the next morning and thought it had been hacked. Finally, Leonardi found the post that launched a thousand follows: “Ah, it was Kenji.”
Since his arrival, López-Alt’s 2015 opus, “The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science,” has been a bestseller at the popular Book Larder in Fremont, and his illustrated book, “Every Night is Pizza Night,” has been the bestselling children’s book as well, the bookstore reports.
López-Alt may be the most powerful food influencer this city has seen in the social media age, say many in the restaurant industry.
But “influencer” doesn’t sit well with López-Alt because it comes with negative connotations of clickbait or free meals.
“I wouldn’t consider myself that,” he said. He doesn’t take money for restaurant endorsements, nor does he glad-hand with them for coverage, he said.
“The goal is to just find a good meal. And when something is good, to make sure I take the time to recognize the people who do that.”
But posting about great finds is also a two-way street that helps him find still more great food, he said. “If I post about a great teriyaki place, I know I will get a half-dozen great recommendations for teriyaki. And I will have that in my back pocket the next time I want teriyaki.”
Food scientist and recipe tester
Those who are late to the Kenji fan club would be forgiven for thinking that fame began with his recipe column in The New York Times food section, or for his chorizo grilled cheese video, which has been viewed more than 9.4 million times on YouTube.
But the cult of Kenji started 13 years ago.
The food scientist was a recipe tester at Cook’s Illustrated but gained stardom when he took his geeky shtick in 2008 to the website Serious Eats, where his recipes and experiments provided the foundation for his critically acclaimed 958-page tome, “The Food Lab.”
Through his videos and columns, the recipe tester debunks food myths and reveals how you can replicate the Shake Shack burger and other iconic fast-food dishes at home. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate can deconstruct any restaurant’s secret sauce. Fans claim Kenji can’t be stumped.
López-Alt’s neatest trick, though, is his ability to get a nation that hates learning about science to devour a riveting explanation of how salt dissolves meat protein and makes your burger patty sticky and yucky.
To explain to burger lovers why they should never add salt to ground beef before molding it into a patty, he channeled his favorite childhood TV science show, “Mr. Wizard’s World.” López-Alt used a trebuchet-like machine to hurl burgers at 44 mph against a wall. He showed how the inferior patties, in which the meat was salted before it was shaped, bounced off the wall like a rubber ball. Burgers whose exteriors only were salted disintegrated when they hit the wall. The lesson: If you want a juicy burger that falls apart appetizingly in your mouth, only salt a formed patty before cooking.
López-Alt’s latest obsession is the wok. He owns four wok burners and six wok pans in his Tudor-style house on Capitol Hill.
He just handed in the manuscript for “The Wok: Techniques and Recipes,” to be published by W.W. Norton in March 2022. The 400-recipe book, which includes his own photography, was going to be a chapter in his anticipated follow-up to his “Food Lab” cookbook. But after López-Alt handed in a draft that was closer to the size of a telephone book, his editor decided his wok manuscript could stand on its own.
(The “Food Lab” update may instead turn into an expanded, 10th anniversary edition, tentatively scheduled for 2025.)
The “Kenji Effect”
With publishing deadlines behind him, López-Alt has started roaming the bagel shops, pizzerias and other cafes around Seattle, including an old favorite, Windy City Pie.
No one has gotten more from a López-Alt rave than Windy City Pie owner Dave Lichterman. Back in 2015, Lichterman tweeted to his “hero” López-Alt, who was living in California then, about deep-dish, talking about the types of pans used and whether cornmeal should be added. After several exchanges, an intrigued López-Alt said he would be in Seattle on Sept. 27 for his book tour and wanted to swing by Lichterman’s pizza operation.
Lichterman panicked. He had left out one small detail: He didn’t even have a restaurant yet, as his was a guerrilla pizza business; he was flinging pies illegally out of his Capitol Hill condo.
He scrambled to secure a commissary kitchen in Sodo two days before López-Alt visited, and made Kenji two pies.
“I told him, ‘This is the best Chicago pizza I have had anywhere, including in Chicago,’” López-Alt recalled. “I still maintain that.”
López-Alt went on social media then as he did again this year to coronate Windy City Pie.
“I owe a lot of my growth in business to that visit,” Lichterman said. Afterward, he called his parents and wept, telling them about López-Alt’s praise. “For better or worse, I experienced a need for external validation. I know that is not a healthy thing but [López-Alt’s validation] means the world to me.”
Today, Lichterman’s Windy City Pie has a real restaurant and bar on Phinney Ridge and also an offshoot, his Chicago-Detroit hybrid pizza spot Breezy Town on Beacon Hill.
Recently, López-Alt started exploring Seattle’s chicken teriyaki scene and found a favorite, Grillbird Teriyaki in West Seattle. One day at lunch, López-Alt laid out trays of chicken teriyaki, fried cauliflower, braised pork and chicken katsu over the hood of his SUV for a photo, an Instagram shot that would be worth gold to the owner of this teriyaki joint when it appeared in a few hours.
He held up the deep-fried cauliflower, admiring how the deep-fried shell remained crispy 20 minutes into our interview. The kitchen must use a starch with maybe rice flour to achieve that crunchy coating, he concluded. (It was indeed cornstarch with rice flour, Grillbird confirmed.) In between bites, López-Alt raved about his new adopted home, calling Seattle one of the most welcoming and best cities he has ever visited.
He and his wife, Adriana, a software engineer for Google, wanted to move from San Mateo, California, to a city rich in culture and the arts and to be closer to nature to hike, ski and sail. Seattle checked all the boxes.
“From anywhere in Seattle, you can see tall buildings and mountains and green trees,” he said. “As a city, the living experience is perfect for us.”
He’s still learning his way around Seattle, exploring the neighborhoods the best way he knows how — through his empty stomach.
“A city restaurant caters to its people and influences by its population. Absolutely, food is the best way to explore any city,” he said.
And explored he has.
He declared that the shrimp and grits at Fat’s Chicken and Waffles in the Central District rivals 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 might be the best in the Northwest. “They do it so well. Crunchy, light and flavorful. Everything you want fish and chips to be — other than having to wait an hour and a half for it. … I love the beer batter. A lot of places in Seattle do the breadcrumbs.”
On the bagel sandwiches at Old Salt pop-up in Fremont, he posted, “If I were in a ‘it must embody bageliness’ mood, this bagel is a little less bagel-y and cheffier than I’d like (a little softer and less dense than a NY bagel, and the crust I think is an egg wash as opposed to a normal crackly boiled bagel crust), but as a full sandwich experience it completely aces the ‘is it delicious?’ test and that’s an important test.”
And the smoked fish here is top-notch, he said.
If anything, López-Alt says Seattle’s bagel scene feels more exciting than The Big Apple’s because it’s still in its infancy — in the discovery and experimental stage. And López-Alt is all about experimenting. He loves that Rubinstein Bagels in the Denny Triangle area uses a sourdough starter to add a nice, light tang. He loves that bagel shops sprinkle caraway seeds, nori and caramelized shallots on top.
After our interview at Grillbird, López-Alt banged out 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 was the katsu. Fried cauliflower has a sort of eggshell-like batter that stayed crispy even an hour after I ordered it.”
Within three hours, that rave received 4,394 likes; within 48 hours, Grillbird reported that it had gained about 800 followers on Instagram and got a bump in teriyaki chicken sales for a couple of weeks.