YOU MIGHT BE familiar with the work of J. Kenji López-Alt if you’ve ever looked for a straightforward way to cook something, or the “best” recipe for pizza or no-knead bread. He’s also known for compelling answers to questions like, ‘Can I make tater tots at home?’ or, ‘What is American cheese, anyway?’ He’s written an expansive cookbook titled “The Food Lab”; is a columnist for The New York Times; the chief culinary adviser for Serious Eats; a James Beard Award-winner; and a chef and partner at the San Mateo, California, restaurant Wursthall.
Perhaps most important to López-Alt, though, is that he is a “hands-on father.” When his daughter was born, he stayed home with her for the first six months. By the time she turned 1, he had approached his publisher with the idea for a kids’ book.
His daughter is nearly 4 years old now, and López-Alt’s book “Every Night is Pizza Night,” illustrated by Gianna Ruggiero, was released Sept. 1.
“Even if it doesn’t sell at all, it succeeded in what I set out to do … at the end of the day, I wrote it for my daughter, and she likes it,” López-Alt says during a recent phone call.
The story centers on a girl named Pipo and her friends and neighbors. In Pipo’s mind, pizza is scientifically the best food. But after her parents challenge her to try something else, she sets out on a data-gathering romp through the neighborhood, trying all kinds of dishes and expanding her view on what the word “best” might truly mean.
“She’s sort of based on a combination of me and my daughter. Definitely based on me as a kid, the sort of stubbornness but also willingness to examine things and change her mind … [Pipo] has opinions but is open to evidence,” López-Alt says.
As Pipo scampers from neighbor to neighbor gathering evidence, López-Alt says there’s a larger element to the story he hopes some of his adult fans will absorb.
It’s partially the importance of immigrant communities — bibimbap, dumplings and tagine are among the dishes Pipo samples — but it’s also about listening to others.
López-Alt says one thing he sees, particularly from his 18-to-25-year-old male fans, is that they use his work to “put other people down,” commenting on posts on Instagram or Reddit that the poster “did it wrong” if they don’t adhere to López-Alt’s advice.
“That really bothers me, because it’s the opposite of my general cooking philosophy,” he says. López-Alt believes the word “best” is always contextual and should never be taken as an absolute. It’s something Pipo learns.
“It’s relevant for kids but also for adults to understand that different people have needs and thoughts and ideas, and usually you can learn from them,” he says.
Pipo’s world is brought to life through the illustrations of Ruggiero, an artist López-Alt met after posting a request for collaborators on Twitter. True to form, he doesn’t say she’s the best illustrator, but that she was “the perfect fit” for the project.
“She really enjoys drawing urban scenes and especially scenes that combine urban settings with semi-magical stuff. She has a good way of illustrating buildings that makes it feel really special,” he says.
Her illustrations bring Pipo, her friends and family, and their food to life in a vibrant and engaging way. Pipo’s emotions — from skepticism to elation — are rendered in a way that makes you identify wholly with her flavor journey. Each page is filled with details that make each character feel three-dimensional.
López-Alt says he and Ruggiero have talked about what might come next for Pipo, including the possibility of taking the other characters and giving them their own stories. “Sort of like an ‘Every Night is Pizza Night’ cinematic universe,” he says with a laugh.
Plus, there are jokes.
“I wanted it to be a story kids could relate to but also at least moderately funny for adults to read,” López-Alt says.
He bought hundreds of kids’ books of all kinds — from classics where kids and food intersect, like “Strega Nona,” to more recent bestsellers like “Dragons Love Tacos” — and says all that reading helped him figure out what the voice of Pipo would sound like.
His first draft was 10,000 words long, but he knew, “In a kids’ book, every word has to count,” he says. The finished product — complete with a recipe for pizza — is just right. Here’s hoping this isn’t the last we see of Pipo and her friends.