Food Lab creator and Wursthall owner on his next cookbook, kitchen culture and ‘why it’s impossible to take politics out of food’
For evidence of the kind of cook Kenji López-Alt is, look no further than the recent egg-boiling experiment he conducted at his San Mateo restaurant.
Nearly 100 volunteers (some blindfolded to prevent visual cues from influencing their judgment) answered his call on social media to come in to Wursthall to peel and taste more than 700 eggs. López-Alt meticulously logged data on different variables — egg freshness, cooking method, ease of peeling, pH levels— to get at questions many of us have about how to boil the perfect egg but would never, ever devise an extensive double-blind experiment to answer. But those kinds of questions gnaw at López-Alt, who is a scientist at heart.
It’s fitting that this egg-focused deep-dive is the subject of his debut column in The New York Times, published last week, because the science of boiling eggs was also the focus of his first-ever “The Food Lab” column for renowned internet food hub Serious Eats in 2009. His science-minded cooking column would propel him to national fame, as would the publication of his cookbook of the same name, which became a bible for home cooks who are as fascinated as López-Alt by the chemical reactions that transform raw ingredients into delicious food. The cookbook earned him a James Beard award, the equivalent of an Oscar for the restaurant industry.
“Science can deepen your understanding of the interaction between heat and molecules, between taste and pleasure. It can undoubtedly make you a better cook. But there is far more to cooking than the pure science of the craft,” he writes in The New York Times. “I’m not here to tell you how to cook or to try and change your traditions and habits; my only job is to show you the data, demonstrate the science and deliver a tasty recipe or two.”
López-Alt, who opened Wursthall with his partners in 2018, was not a born chef. By his own admission, he didn’t even like food growing up. He played violin in high school and started as a biology major at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) but later switched to architecture. One summer, he took a break from the MIT labs to work as a prep cook in a restaurant and found his calling.
I had lunch with López-Alt recently at one of his go-to’s for Sichuan food, Chef Zhao Bistro in San Mateo, for the second installment of my “At the table” interview series. We talked about how cooking tugged him away from academia, the challenges of paying his staff a livable wage, the speakeasy bar he’s opening in the Wursthall basement, his next cookbook project (spoiler alert: it won’t be Food Lab 2.0) and, yes, the MAGA hat controversy that thrust López-Alt into the political fray earlier this year.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and condensed for length.
What was it about cooking that drew you in?
It was the alchemy of it. When I was working in a restaurant, it was like here are these things, I’ve seen these things in the supermarket. I can go buy these for a few bucks. And then this stuff that I’m doing to them, suddenly, now it’s worth $40 to someone in that room who’s paying for it. There’s this idea that just by using my hands and doing something, (I’m) creating value that is immediate.
With biology, of course, you do create value by doing experiments and making things. But the pace of feedback is really slow. I’d spend a summer doing one experiment and at the end, the results were not really useful. It’s a very, very slow feedback loop whereas with cooking, it’s immediate. … It’s one of those things where the more you learn about it, the more questions you have and the more opportunities to learn new things. There are a lot of layers to cooking. There’s obviously the science of it, the chemistry and physics and all that. But then there’s also history and culture and psychology.
How did the Food Lab column start?
I’d been cooking for years in restaurants and then eventually, I decided I wanted to leave restaurants, mainly because I had all these questions about cooking that I wasn’t getting satisfying answers to. In a lot of ways, I felt like unless my plan is to become a chef and open a restaurant, I’ve stopped learning at the pace that I would like to be learning. I started working for Cook’s Illustrated. They have a kind of science-based approach as well. When I was there, I took that opportunity to push the science as much as I could, because I finally found this outlet where … it’s your job to answer these questions that you’ve been trying to answer. In a restaurant, you just don’t have time to run those kinds of tests and very frequently a restaurant is not an environment of questioning. It’s just an environment of you do what you’re told.
Eventually, we moved to New York. I was still freelance editing and doing some science advising stuff for Cook’s Illustrated and writing a couple freelance pieces for Serious Eats. Ed (Levine), the founder of Serious Eats, called me. He’s like, ‘Let’s have lunch.’ I had a blog at the time. It was about sustainability and food and the environment. He was like, ‘You’re into science, maybe you should write a food science column for us.’ That was just like a light bulb. That’s how the Food Lab started. They paid me $30 an article.
Did you think you would want to open your own restaurant someday, or was that not even part of the plan?
It wasn’t in the plan. It was one of those things where it was like, that would be a fun, interesting thing to do if the timing was right and if it just fell on my lap. And it did. I don’t really have any interest in doing it again, although I might.
Aren’t you opening a second Wursthall in San Jose?
We are. Right now we’re working on opening a bar in the same location we’re at, in our basement. After that our plan is to open probably in Santana Row. We’ve been in discussions with them and there are a couple different locations that they’re offering us. It depends on the timing. It depends how ready we are.
When we first opened, we were crazy busy. All these people started … giving us offers. We were like, ‘We should jump on this now because who knows whether we’ll have this opportunity in a year.’ And then six months went by and we were still busy and people were still giving us offers. We were like, ‘Let’s pump the brakes on this.’ We have the freedom of — the restaurant’s doing fine, so we don’t have to jump on the next thing to try and raise more money. We can take the time to do it. For right now, we’re focusing a lot on testing and streamlining operations on this restaurant with the idea that once we have every single detail of the operations in place, when we open a new place, it’ll just be like, we know exactly what we have to do, we know exactly who we have to hire, what equipment we need. It’s a lot of getting our ducks in a row.
But the goal is to open more than one location. It’s literally impossible to make a living as a single restaurant owner. It’s actually not a source of income to me at all. I never planned it to be my main source of income, but for my partners, it is. For them, it’s essential that they have multiple businesses.
After going through the process with Wursthall, what do you think is the biggest challenge in opening a restaurant in the Bay Area?
Staffing. Finding good cooks is really, really hard. When we were first opening, it was a nightmare. We have 140 seats and from the first day we were open there was a line out the door. We were doing like 450 covers at night. It’s like these brand new people, a brand new line (in the kitchen), it’s chaos. People don’t like working in chaos. The first few weeks turnover was super, super high. Within the first four months there were probably only six people who had been there since we first opened up out of 20. But those six people are actually still with us. … Now our turnover is really low. We pay better than other restaurants, (though) still not enough.
How much do you pay your staff?
We start at $18 or $19 (per hour for back of house). Our starting cooks get $18 (per hour). Our highest paid person is $24. We have a few salaried cooks now as well. But it’s still not enough, obviously, to live in the Bay Area. But people are not willing to pay prices for food that reflect what it should actually be costing if you want to give every restaurant worker a real, good living wage.
Could you talk about that balance in pricing that restauranteurs have to strike?
Every restaurant owner, we’ve played the pricing game. We don’t hide the fact that we pay our employees well and we have policies in place in our kitchen to make sure our employees are respected. There’s no yelling in our kitchen. There’s no cursing in our kitchen. There’s no publicly dressing down. If a cook messes up in the middle of service, the chef’s not allowed to yell at them in front of other cooks. You wait until after service, you take them aside and talk to them. These are all problems I dealt with in restaurant kitchens and I think a lot of people (did), especially women.
We try to make the working environment and the compensation as good as we possibly can but at the same time, we’ve tried playing pricing games with the menu. If the chicken sandwich goes to $19 instead of $18, people don’t buy it or people complain. … People know what the cost of housing is here. But what people are willing to pay for food doesn’t go up proportionately with that. It’s a really hard problem to figure out.
What will Wunderbar, the new bar you’re opening at Wursthall, be like?
Speakeasy cocktails. It’ll be run as a separate business from the restaurant. You can’t order Wursthall food in there. You can’t order cocktails from there at Wursthall. Right now in San Mateo, there are not many cocktail bars. There’s a bunch of dive bars; there’s a tiki bar; and then there’s Mortar and Pestle. Mortar and Pestle is packed all the time, to the point where it’s just uncomfortable to go. It seemed like a clearly underserved market in San Mateo. People want cocktails. [Editor’s note: He hopes to open Wunderbar this year but didn’t disclose when.]
You’re chief culinary consultant for Serious Eats. What does that title mean?
It means if I have editorial ideas, I shoot them over and someone might execute them. It means I’m sort of on call if staff there has questions either about cooking or about any legacy Serious Eats content that they want to change or are thinking of repackaging. There’s a podcast that comes out 12–15 times a year … I’ll be doing a segment on that each episode where I’ll be answering listener questions. It means if I have an article, it generally goes to Serious Eats first. It’s a way of letting readers know that despite the fact that I’m not producing as much content as I used to ever since having my daughter that Serious Eats is still my online home.
I saw you had the Popeye’s fried chicken sandwich. What did you think of it as a sandwich? What did you make of the whole craze about it?
I think it’s a great sandwich, not just by fast food standards but by fried chicken standards. I’ve said many times that in any city that has a Popeyes, Popeyes makes the best fried chicken in that city. Which is obviously not literally true, but it’s pretty close to being true. It’s a very good sandwich.
As far as the craze, I’m not generally that interested in internet crazes, food crazes, food trends, but I was happy to see this one. I just finished this big anti-Chick-fil-A campaign. We raised $54,000 (for LGBTQ advocacy organizations). … I think that is largely what was driving it. There are all these people who are like, ‘I’m going to Chick-fil-A to own the libs’ and the libs didn’t have their response to that. And now they do. I think it is a political statement via fast food. I think that’s good.
I want to ask you about the whole MAGA hat thing.
I’m not sure I’m gonna say anything about it.
Now that a few months have passed, in hindsight, what is your perspective on it? How do you feel about what happened now?
I wrote a little apology that I put on social media. Basically everything I said in that is what I still think. It was very dumb of me to put my staff, my crew in an uncomfortable position without their consent. It was dumb and I just have to be a little more careful and understanding about the fact that my words affect other people, and not just me, which my wife reminds me of all the time.
More broadly, it raised questions about the divide between people who feel strongly that politics have no place at restaurants and others who believe they have an obligation to speak up about political issues. Where do you fall on that spectrum?
I think it’s impossible to take politics out of food. I think as a business owner, you do have a responsibility to your staff and you have a responsibility to your community, and that involves both your city and and the country. As a business owner, you should be running your business in a way that is consistent with your political beliefs as much as possible. As a customer, you can of course just come in and ignore politics. But the fact is that there are immigrants making your food. There are people who are earning probably half of what a reasonable salary in this city is making your food. Those are political things and you can’t ignore them — at least as a business owner, you can’t ignore them. As a customer you can temporarily ignore them. But I think you do have a responsibility to act on those things — probably in a more measured and smarter way than I have.
It’s come up in restaurant criticism, too. That’s starting to change in terms of critics not just evaluating the food but asking, is the owner treating their workers in a fair way? Are they paying fair wages? Have they sexually harassed their female employees?
I’ll frequently call out Gordon Ramsay-type kitchen culture on social media and talk about how he specifically is actively making restaurants more difficult places for people to work. It’s already an abusive environment, then he makes it worse. Whether he’s like that in real life or not, it influences people to behave that way in kitchens. Inevitably, every time I (post about that), there are always some macho cook people who are like, ‘If we didn’t do it that way, it wouldn’t get done. We do it that way because we require perfection.’ Even if that’s true, as a customer, if you’re going to a restaurant and they’re telling you, ‘In order to make this food for you, we have to abuse our staff,’ are you OK with that? Wouldn’t you want to know that?
Are there any new dishes for Wursthall that you’re working on right now that you’re excited about — or that have been frustrating to develop?
There’s a slot on the new menu for a shareable, meat-based appetizer that doesn’t require share plates, something that you can use fingers or toothpicks (to eat). Our tables are kind of small. This is one of the things that non-restaurant people don’t think about too much: You have to design your menu based on your space. You can’t just put whatever you think tastes good.
When we make our sausages, there’s always scrap leftover that doesn’t get pushed into the casing. We were thinking of doing some kind of Scotch egg thing for a while. But the labor on that is just too hard. It takes too much practice to do it well and it’s just too time consuming. The other problem is they’re not really easily shareable because they’re big. The idea that I’ve been playing with since then is more of a deconstructed Scotch egg. We take little balls of sausage, bread them like schnitzel and fry them. On the side there’s a soft-cooked egg that’s garnished with mustard seeds and some other stuff. You pick up the balls and dip them in this egg. You get all the flavor of a Scotch egg but it’s easily shareable. It’s much easier on prep. … Menu design for restaurants is not simple.
Wursthall uses a lot of Impossible Foods’ plant-based meat, which I find interesting given it’s a beer hall and sausage place.
I write a lot of vegan recipes. Since having my daughter we eat a little more meat at home, but we mostly stick to vegetables and fish. Every February I go vegan for the whole month. I’m very familiar with how vegans are treated at restaurants and how crappy most vegan and vegetarian food is at restaurants. That was super important, too, from the start that we’re a sausage place but we want to be the kind of restaurant where if you’re with a group of friends and four of your friends eat meat and you’re vegan, you can go out to this place with them and you don’t feel like you’re a second-class citizen. Developing a menu that had a lot of strong vegan and vegetarian offerings was a goal from the start and one that we’ve maintained.
Do you think all these meat alternatives actually have the potential to change the way people consume meat?
Yeah, because the alternative is that the world burns up in a fiery inferno and everyone’s dead. We have to change the way we eat meat. Any channel that gives people the opportunity to do that is a step in the right direction.
What’s the most popular dish at Wursthall?
The (Korean) fried chicken, by far. And (the) burger. When we first opened we were like, ‘We’re not going to do a burger and we’re not going to do fried chicken. We’ll do chicken schnitzel. Everybody does a burger.’ Right when we opened people were like, ‘Why aren’t you doing a burger?’ We were just like, ‘Fuck it. We’ll do a burger.’ It sells really well. It’s one of the higher profit menu items. The burger and the fried chicken fund us to do other stuff.
Are you working on another Food Lab cookbook?
Not The Food Lab (book, more like) a spiritual sequel.
Food Lab, the way I thought of that book… the recipes are the framework for teaching these science lessons. A lot of the recipes are these big, American, heavy (dishes) and a lot of project-based things you do on a weekend — mac and cheese, meat loaf, spaghetti and meatballs, things like that. The interesting part of the first book to me was the science. But personally I literally never make anything out of that book. The second book is focused a lot more on the way I actually eat. It’s less about teaching the science and technique of cooking and … is more about teaching general cooking techniques for how to become a more efficient home cook.
Like if you have a mortar and pestle and you’re making a Thai curry paste, you can sit there pounding, pounding, pounding, pounding, and it will take you a long time and you get great flavor. (Or) you can throw it in a food processor and you don’t get great flavor because it doesn’t bust up the cells in the same way. I figured out (that) you can rough chop your stuff and freeze it. The action of freezing actually ruptures all the vegetable cells. It forms a much smoother, much more strongly flavored paste. You can do that with a Thai curry paste but it also works for things like pesto.
What do you like about Chef Zhao Bistro? Why did you choose it for our lunch?
I like Sichuan food and I’ve eaten around a lot in the Bay Area. Every place is hit or miss, but this place is pretty consistently better than most places. (It has) cleaner flavors than … Z & Y Bistro in San Francisco. There are a few (Sichuan restaurants) in the city that people say to go to and it always tastes muddy. I think it’s cleaner flavors, better technique (here).
What do you think about the Peninsula’s food scene in general?
I mostly stick to family restaurants. We go to this little place down the street (La Fonda de San Mateo) where the food is decent Cal-Mex but I know the chile relleno is going to be the same every time and we can go there with my daughter and as soon as we walk in the cook will make a quesadilla so it’s on the table when she sits down. I like places like that, where people know you. I much prefer living in smaller (cities) where they have a few good options. Every Thursday I go to karaoke at The Swingin’ Door. Staff and customers, I know everybody there. I go to the Mexican restaurant and I know everybody there. … As far as exciting or great food, there’s a lot more coming up. There’s Camper in Menlo Park, which is great. There’s Bird Dog. I like Flea St.
Your most indispensable cooking utensil at home? Knife, but that seems lame. That’s obvious. I would say mortar and pestle. I use that almost every day.
Food trend you hate. I hated poké bowls. The idea of fish served with an ice cream scoop — not for me.
Guilty pleasure food. I don’t believe in guilty pleasure. I will preface this by saying I don’t feel guilty eating this, but probably a McDonald’s quarter pounder with cheese, which I get with no ketchup and add Big Mac sauce and lettuce. I guess the guilt I feel eating that is that it’s probably shitty beef from tortured cows. But I don’t feel guilty for health reasons.
Favorite fast food. I think Popeye’s is the best but I probably most frequently get McDonald’s.
Most common cooking question that you get. Oftentimes, people ask me what knife they should buy. I don’t have a good answer for that. A lot of times people ask me questions that you can’t answer in 180 characters. People often ask about what temperature they should cook their meat to. And again, there’s no great answer to that. I get a pretty broad range of questions.
Dream restaurant concept. A fast-casual place that serves only three things that are really good. It could be sandwiches, it could be pizza, it could be vegan fried chicken. It doesn’t really matter as long as it’s a very limited menu — one of those places where people come for the one specific thing and you do it better than anybody else.
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