the Little Red Reviewer

Interview With J. Kenji Lopez-Alt!

Posted on: August 21, 2020

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, and if you follow me on twitter, you know that I love to cook.   One of my favorite food websites has long been Serious Eats, home of recipes, knife skills videos, How-To’s, podcasts, and all sorts of “how the heck to make this?” info.   Since I’ve been following Serious Eats for ages, I’ve also been following J. Kenji López-Alt for ages, everything from how to make perfect hard boiled eggs, to him showing us how to make Detroit Style Pizza (I love you Buddy’s!),  to his tips for just about everything else, and me drooling over The Food Lab.  Those pickles I never shut up about, and put on everything? They’re based on Kenji’s recipe.

 

J. Kenji López-Alt is currently the Chief Culinary Advisor at Serious Eats, and the chef and partner at Wursthall in San Mateo, California. His first book, The Food Lab, won the James Beard Award for General Cooking.

His newest book, Every Night is Pizza Night, is a children’s book about a little girl who goes on a culinary adventure. Illustrated by Gianna Ruggiero, it comes out on Sept 1st and is currently available for pre-order.  Every Night is Pizza Night promises to get even the pickiest eater excited about trying something new!   You can learn more about Kenji at his website www.kenjilopezalt.com, or by following him on twitter @kenjilopezalt, and you can learn more about illustrator Gianna Ruggiero by checking out her website, www.giannaruggiero.com.

 

(Yes, I know this is a book blog, and I know it is a science fiction and fantasy book blog. But I love cooking just as much as I love reading!  and I love reading about cooking, and I love home made pizza, and I love pizza from Buddy’s Pizza!)

 

When Kenji posted on twitter that he had a new book coming out, and would any bloggers be interested in interviewing him, I leapt at the chance.  He is a cooking hero of mine.  And that is how an interview with a chef, about a children’s book, showed up on a science fiction and fantasy book blog.

We better get to the interview, before I spend this entire blog post just telling you cool Kenji is.

 

Little Red Reviewer:  You’re a chef, a food columnist, and a kitchen science educator. Why write a kid’s book?

J. Kenji López-Alt: Because I had a daughter! I’ve loved books and especially children’s books for my whole life, and having my own child gave me the kick in the pants I needed to try and write one myself. I wrote the book just for her, but I’m lucky enough to have a wonderful relationship with my editors and publishers at W.W. Norton and now my illustrating partner, Gianna Ruggiero, which allowed me to bring it out into the wider world. It comes out September 1st, but I’ve been reading an advance copy to my daughter now for several months. She loves it and asks me to read it to her regularly, so no matter how well the book does as far as sales go, I feel like I’ve already accomplished my goal in writing it.

LRR:  Where did the idea for Pipo and and her neighborhood-spanning eating adventure come from? What were your inspirations for Pipo’s experiences with her friends?

J.K.L.: As the son of a Japanese mother and American father, now married to a Colombian woman, food diversity and cultural diversity has always played a huge role in my life. I was lucky enough to grow up in a city with immigrants from all over the world. In college, I lived in a house that was around 80% international students, and as I was learning to cook, I took that opportunity to talk to them about food from their homes and learn as much as I could about cuisines from all over the world. I think food is an important window into culture and history, and being open to new food experiences helps people be open to differences in culture and background. It’s a lesson that I think is important for young kids (especially picky eaters), so it seemed like a natural theme for me to explore. The shape of the story and her neighborhood was a total collaboration between me and my partner Gianna. We both grew up in multicultural cities, and I think Gianna’s illustrations of the neighborhood are incredible. I knew from the start that I wanted Pipo to learn about foods from all over the world, but the idea to contain it all within a single neighborhood came from me and Gianna’s collective experiences growing up.

LRR: What was it like to work with illustrator Gianna Ruggiero? How did the two of you work together to ensure her artwork conveyed the story you were telling? Do you have a favorite image that she created?

J.K.L: The experience was incredible. Gianna has such an imaginative, intelligent, and thoughtful mind and that’s reflected in her illustration style. We found each other via social media, but as soon as I saw her portfolio, I knew that I wanted to work with her. She has the ability to give characters personality and depth without any words at all, and that’s so important in a children’s book. The words and story are important, but equally important is the feelings and ideas that are conveyed outside of the words.

Collaborating so closely with someone on an artistic project was something brand new to me. I’m much more used to working alone and developing my own ideas, whether in writing or cooking or other fields. Learning to trust my partner and being open to outside ideas was essential. At the start, I felt the urge to write the story and describe exactly what I wanted the illustrations on each page to look like, but after talking with other children’s books authors, I realized that this was not the best way to work with an illustrator. Instead, I ended up writing the words, describing the personalities of the characters, then letting Gianna use her own skills to populate the world and bring the story to life. I cannot stress enough how important she was to the whole process. This is not my book, it’s ours.

LRR: I see Every Night is Pizza Night has a Pizza recipe! So, is that recipe for a New York style slice or a Detroit style square?

J.K.L.: Neither! It’s a pan pizza, which is more similar to a Detroit-style pizza, but it’s done in a round pan (either a cake pan or a cast iron skillet). I think it’s the easiest, most foolproof pizza recipe out there, and one that kids can very easily help out with at all stages of the process. I make it with my daughter regularly.

LRR: How is writing a book for children (and their parents!) different from writing, say, The Food Lab?

J.K.L.: It’s much, much harder! Most professional writers will tell you that hardest part of successful writing is finding your “voice.” The thing that makes your writing distinctly you, and that works for both you and your audience. My food writing voice is something that I’ve been writing in for decades now to the point where it’s second nature. So writing a big book like The Food Lab is a lot of work, but it’s work that flows easily and naturally for me now. Finding my children’s book voice was extremely difficult and time consuming. It involved lots and lots of research (I.E. ordering and reading hundreds of children’s books to see what I liked, what I didn’t, what made me laugh, what themes I connected with, etc.), then lots and lots of writing. For several months I would take my laptop to my restaurant after my daughter went to bed, and just sit and write for a few hours. The original story for Every Night is Pizza Night started at over 10,000 words and went through dozens of stylistic shifts, tonal shifts, changes in voice, and changes in theme until I was satisfied with it.

A lot of the art of editing lies in efficiency – making sure that every word you use expresses meaning in an efficient way. In children’s writing, this is taken to the extreme. You really have to learn to let go and understand that words in children’s books can merely be suggestive, allowing the illustrations and imagination do the work of adding complexity to characters and themes. The other difficult part in children’s book writing is that you need to write a story that works both for children and adults. Children are very sensitive to their parent’s feelings. If I laugh at something, my daughter will laugh at it too, sometimes without even understanding what it is she’s laughing at. If a parent is having fun reading, then their kid is going to be more likely to enjoy it as well. Every Night is Pizza Night has jokes and references in it that I hope work on both levels – for the children and their parents.

LRR: Would you do another children’s book if you had the opportunity? How about another kitchen chemistry book like The Food Lab?

J.K.L.: Absolutely. Writing a children’s book has been extremely rewarding, and it hasn’t even been released yet! I am currently working on a big food science book on cooking in a wok and things related to wok cooking, but after that I plan on focusing my attention on more children’s books. Gianna has some great ideas that we want to work on as well.

LRR: Thank you so much for letting me interview you! Is there anything else you’d like to share about Every Night is Pizza Night?

J.K.L.: Just that I hope you enjoy it, and I hope folks enjoy reading it with their kids and cooking up a storm afterwards.

LRR: Thank you so much! Interviewing you has been a dream come true for me!

5 Responses to "Interview With J. Kenji Lopez-Alt!"

Super cool! I have been reading his stuff for awhile. I like his approaches! *high-five!*

Like

Isn’t Kenji great? Some of his articles on Serious Eats, I am constantly referring back to those articles, over and over, because all his tips? they work! this new book of his, makes me which I had a child, or a niece or nephew who was the right age for it.

Liked by 1 person

Now I’m hungry. Where’s that pizza? 🤣 Ah, I‘ll get a Kebap instead.

Like

I love this interview!! And now I’m off to look for The Food Lab … 😃

Like

join the conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow me on Twitter!

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 2,536 other followers

Follow the Little Red Reviewer on WordPress.com

Archives

Categories

FTC Stuff

some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
%d bloggers like this: