[Photograph: Vicky Wasik. Sausage photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]
I decided to kick off the new season of Special Sauce by checking in with Kenji. It won’t surprise the Serious Eats tribe that he’s been a little busy lately. You probably know about Wursthall, the restaurant he opened with two other partners in his adopted hometown of San Mateo, California. But you may not know that he’s also working on his very first children’s book and the sequel to his best-selling book, The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science, all while juggling the demands of being a relatively new father.
One of the first things I asked Kenji about is whether his absolutely adorable 18-month-old daughter is as into cooking as his Instagram feed would indicate. “Oh, yeah. I mean, we cook every day together,” he said. “I made her a little helper stool so she can climb up and get at counter height, and she has a little wooden knife… She loves it. She likes to whisk things, she makes pancake batter. She pounds things in the mortar and pestle. She dances along when you chop quickly.” I have no doubt Alicia will be reverse-searing steaks any day now.
I also asked him to talk about his children’s book and why he wanted to write it. “I want to have a good legacy and I want to add joy to the world,” Kenji said. “This seemed like a way that I could do [that], in a way that was both very personal to me but also could be shared.” But, of course, because this is Kenji, part of it was also because it presented a challenge. “This is something I’ve never done before. I can tell you, writing a kids’ book is not easy. In a way, it’s even more difficult than writing The Food Lab.”
And then we talked about his other book project, the sequel to The Food Lab, which he descibed as being more focused on how he cooks at home. “It’ll be a much less American-centric book,” he said. “Techniques from all around the world, ingredients from all around the world, and essentially breaking down those techniques and ingredients and showing everyday home cooks how they can use the knowledge that everybody from around the world has collected over millennia to make their everyday cooking easier and more flavorful and more efficient.”
Finally, Kenji and I talked about challenges and rewards of opening Wursthall. “The most rewarding part of the restaurant,” Kenji said, “is knowing that you’re helping these 50 employees earn a living and all of your guests have a good time…Anybody who doesn’t feel that way, shouldn’t be in hospitality.”
We covered an awful lot of ground in this episode, and I think Serious Eaters everywhere will enjoy every second of Kenji’s return to Special Sauce.
You Could Be on Special Sauce
Want to chat with me and our unbelievably talented recipe developers? We’re accepting questions for Special Sauce call-in episodes now. Do you have a recurring argument with your spouse over the best way to maintain a cast iron skillet? Have you been working on your mac and cheese recipe for the past five years, but can’t quite get it right? Does your brother-in-law make the worst lasagna, and you want to figure out how to give him tips? We want to get to know you and solve all your food-related problems. Send us the whole story at [email protected].
Ed Levine: Welcome to Special Sauce, Serious Eats’ podcast about food and life. For the next two weeks were going to catch up with two people I’ve been proud to be working with for a long time. We begin with Mr. Food Lab himself, Serious Eats’ chief culinary consultant, Kenji Lopéz-Alt.
J. Kenji López-Alt: Dude, like I wrote the BLT Manifesto. This is my restaurant. You can’t use my own words to tell me that what I’m serving is not the thing that I meant to serve.
EL: And next week, Kenji and I will be joined by Serious Eats’ current managing culinary director Daniel Gritzer. Welcome back to Special Sauce, my man, Kenji.
JKLA: Well, thanks. It’s good to be back.
EL: The first thing I want to ask you about is your adorable daughter, Alicia.
JKLA: Yeah, she’s 18 and a half months.
EL: 18 and a half months. She’s been cooking alongside you, if we can take your Instagram feed at face value.
JKLA: Oh, yeah. I mean, we cook every day together. She loves it, it’s her favorite thing. I made her a little helper stool so she can climb up and get at counter height, and she has a little wooden knife. So, she’ll just come up. Her favorite thing to do right now is to take my scraps and throw them in the compost bin, or sometimes take the prepared vegetables and throw them in the compost bin. She loves it. She likes to whisk things, she makes pancake batter. She pounds things in the mortar and pestle. She dances along when you chop quickly. It’s a lot of fun.
EL: And she’s too young to be rebelling.
JKLA: Have you met her parents? She’s got some opinions, and she’s not afraid to express them.
EL: I’m shocked, because her parents don’t have strong opinions about anything.
JKLA: Well, my mom always told me growing up that she someday wished that I had a kid just like me so that I could see how difficult it was growing up with someone who just wants to argue everything.
EL: Your mother told me and my wife, who is your agent, your literary agent, at your book party, we said, “Isn’t it great what’s happened to your son?” And she said, “And so surprising.”
JKLA: Yeah, that sounds like my mom.
EL: And so AIicia, does she have a fairly adventurous palette? Like, how have you gone about introducing stuff to her?
JKLA: She does. We use a method called baby-led weaning, which is, essentially, as soon as she’s old enough to sit up herself, around like six months or so, sit upright, we started feeding her solid food. And essentially, just eating exactly the same food we eat. Like, a few exceptions early on, like we wouldn’t give her a whole grape, something that can fall down her throat and choke her. Part of the whole baby-led weaning process is also, it’s like a developmental process where they learn, not just about food but also sort of hand/eye coordination, they learn about making choices for themselves and all that. So, you kind of have to give the kid free rein at the table, present them with a bunch of food, let them mash it around, let them … you just have to be prepared to clean it. We have dogs, which helps but we also have a plastic mat on the floor. Certainly early on there is food everywhere.
EL: And now you’re writing a children’s book loosely based on your experiences cooking with Alicia. Tell us about that.
JKLA: So, yeah, I’m working on a children’s book. The main character in it is definitely derived from Alicia. It’s a little girl, older than Alicia, and it’s aimed at older audience, four- to seven-year-olds. But the book is really more about discovering the value of food beyond just the way it tastes. It’s essentially about a little girl who thinks pepperoni pizza is the best food in the world but she can’t really figure out why it’s the best food in the world. And she, over the course of the book, visits a bunch of families and restaurant owners, various people that have very different ideas of what the best food in the world is. And each one of them has their own reasons. For one of them it’s because it reminds her of her home country. For another it’s because she used to cook it together with her grandmother. So, various reasons why people enjoy foods and so by the end of the book the lesson she learns is that … she discovers that all along, the reason she loved pizza so much is because it’s so easy to share and it’s a food that brings all the friends around the table and is easy to have a good time around, which is what she likes doing.
EL: If you had shown Alicia my pizza book, you could have saved a lot of time, because that’s what I talk about, is that pizza is the greatest food in the world because it’s so easily shared.
JKLA: Everybody likes pizza, everybody wants a slice.
JKLA: And usually there’s enough slices to share.
EL: How did this come about? Because, I’ve never heard you, and I have known you a while, be interested in children’s books.
JKLA: I guess a lot of it was going through … before Alicia was born and then after she was born going through all of my old books and seeing what books moved me and what effect books I read as a little child had on my life. I think it’s actually probably an interesting exercise for you or anybody to just go back and look at all of … if you’ve saved them or if you remember the titles just to go back and take a look at all of your old kids’ book and try and figure out what parts of your personality or parts of the way you lead your life or your morality or any of those things, how much of them are linked to media you consumed as a child. It was a surprisingly large amount for me, and it just seemed like this would be a really nice thing to do for my kid, 10 years from now, or when she has her own kid for her to be able to say this is the book that your grandfather wrote for me, and I’m reading it to you.
I wanna have a good legacy and I wanna add joy to the world, so this seemed like a way that I could do it, in a way that was both very personal to me but also could be shared. I just like a challenge and this is something I’ve never done before. I can tell you, writing a kids’ book is not easy. In a way, it’s even more difficult than writing The Food Lab was, and I’m working on a sequel to The Food Lab now, so it’s, I think, more difficult than that.
EL: Yeah, because every word counts, right?
JKLA: Well, yeah, that’s a lot of it. Every word counts. When I was writing the first document, the first draft of it, and you have to … I’m collaborating with a wonderful illustrator, Gianna Ruggiero, and she’s great, but you have to be able to communicate ideas with your illustrator and with your editors. So, I found that writing a draft of a kid’s story is actually more similar to writing, like a movie storyboard or a screenplay than it is to writing a book.
And the other real difficult part is finding the voice for a kid’s book. My Food Lab voice is one that is pretty natural to me and I kind of just found it and stuck with it. Obviously, finding a voice in any kind of writing is really hard, and I think it’s what probably writers struggle with the most: how do you make your writing sound you and how do you make it sound unique? ‘Cause I want it to be a book that adults can enjoy but children will also enjoy, so figuring out how to make jokes that work on two levels, figuring out what kind of language the children are gonna use, how the adults are gonna talk to them. It’s a lot of choices to be made. When you read a good children’s book it just seems natural, but guaranteed that the author of any good children’s books spent hours and hours, days, weeks of time just refining those few words that are in there until it captured the spirit correctly.
EL: I used to talk to a friend of mine that passed away, unfortunately, a few years ago, Jeff Moss, who wrote Rubber Duckie, and he talked about being in the writers’ room at Sesame Street and how their first criteria for a song or a skit that worked was, did they crack each other up.
JKLA: Yes. Yeah. I was just singing Rubber Duckie to Alicia in the bath last night. In fact, I sing it to her almost every night, she loves it. That’s my basic rule, is that the writing and the humor can’t be stupid, ’cause I feel like a lot of stuff for kids is just sort of dumber versions of things for adults and I find it underestimates the intellect of kids, underestimates the emotional capacity of kids, and I think if something is dumb to you, it’s probably gonna be dumb to kids, as well. You know, outside of maybe scatological humor, which is funny to kids. Which is definitely dumb but funny to kids, also funny to some adults, I guess, but yeah, that’s also sort of my criteria, is like, if I read this and it sounds dumb or it sounds like I’m talking down to someone, then it has to change.
EL: Give me your top three children’s books that you remember just devouring when you were a kid.
JKLA: There’s a couple in Japanese that I don’t think you’d be familiar with, because I don’t think even Japanese people are that familiar with, but a lot of them has to come down to do with the illustration. So, there’s this one Japanese book that is a kind of weird story about a little fish that’s looking for his mom but for some reason the fish is kind of floating in a jungle instead of in the ocean. He goes around and meets various characters who say they’re gonna eat him and then he says, no, I’m just looking for my mother, and they’re like, okay, well, we’ll help you find your mother but secretly they’re thinking, oh, we’ll just eat him and his mother. At the end of the book they find the mother in a fish tank and all of the animals go and … like, sitting in the middle of a field and all the animals go and knock the fish tank over and break it. And then the mother becomes one of these weird flying fish, too, and then she says, “Hey, don’t eat me, I was just about to go home and make some soup. Why don’t y’all come over and have soup instead?” And then they all just hang out and eat soup.
Let’s see. I guess if we want real popular ones that I think have stood the test of time and meant a lot to me, Harold and the Purple Crayon is one of those, that I think is simple but incredibly imaginative and really, I think, talks to kids in ways they understand, but is not dumb.
EL: Are you a Goodnight Moon fan?
JKLA: Oh, yeah, absolutely. So, both Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny, same author. And you know what I loved about those books was that they weren’t really related story-wise, but there are elements from one book that appear in the other. So, like, in Goodnight Moon, on the background you could see there’s a painting of the mother rabbit dressed up as a fisherman. It’s one of the pages from Runaway Bunny, like the mother rabbit dressing as a fisherman and fishing for her little kid. And that’s just a painting in the back of the wall of the room in Goodnight Moon, and I always thought that was awesome as a little kid. It’s like what people love about the Marvel cinematic universe, like this crossover stuff where you get to see references from one thing and another.
So, that kind of stuff, we’re not aping specific ideas and story points or anything like that, but definitely aping general ideas. Like, the idea of having to flip back and forth through pages and search for things. So, for instance, in this book, our plan right now is that the very opening page, when you first open the cover of the book that the inside of the page is going to be an illustration of Pepo’s, that’s the name of the main character by the way, Pepo, of her pantry. And at the start of the book it contains just ingredients for making pepperoni pizza. And then by the end of the book, as she goes around and cooks with seven different families, her pantry fills up with objects that you saw from those people’s kitchens in the book. So, at the end of the book there’s like 20 different things inside that pantry, and I just imagine it’ll be a lot of fun. For me, it would have been a lot of fun to look at each one of those things and go back through the book and try and find what page it was on and what they were using it for. So, little things like that. We also have a little nod to Calvin and Hobbes, like she has a little stuffed animal dog named Nugget that she carries around everywhere but it kind of comes to life sometimes and eats pizza with her, helps her cook, things like that. Sometimes there needs to be things like that. I don’t know, I guess it’s a lot more sort of like little things that stuck with me that I’m trying to incorporate in the interest of making it more interesting, you know. Like a good kid’s book has to be, I think, more than just a good story.
EL: Yeah, for sure.
JKLA: More than just good illustration, there has to be a level like sort of interactivity with it, you know, whether it’s finding pictures or making noises or looking for details in the illustration, that’s the kind of stuff that I think makes a good kid’s book fun, is that you can look at each page and continue … You know, I guess it’s like a good adult novel or a good album, you know, it’s like, it’s the kind of thing where you can listen to it over and over and every time you pick up something new or you can listen to it with a different idea from the start and try and, you know, try and trace an element through a song, something like that, you know, good music, good writing, good kids’ books, it’s I think a lot of it, it’s all sort of very similar goals, it’s just the means that you use to get there that’s different.
EL: So you’re working on, not just the kids’ book, but a second volume of Food Lab?
JKLA: Yeah. Well, I think we’re not going to call it Food Lab, but yeah, but essentially a follow-up to you know, similar size, similar scope, similar sort of treatment as the first one.
EL: And what’s going to be different and what is your continuity line that’s going to go throughout the book?
JKLA: Well, so the first book was largely about American cuisine and very specifically it was about sort of big project dishes and the idea behind that when I started working on the first book was that you know, if I can interest someone in meatloaf and show them all of the ins … You know meatloaf is actually relatively, it can be a relatively complicated dish and there’s a lot of stuff sort of going on in there, a lot of sort of science lessons to learn, you know, similar with like mac and cheese, there’s a lot of stuff going on in there that, once you learn it, you know, like, how to cook pasta properly, how to make a cheese sauce, why cheese sauces break, how a roux is different from like an egg thickened sauce, etc., etc. And those are all lessons I think are valuable to learn when cooking. So the idea with the first book is that I would take the sort of totem American dishes and dissect them in every possible way with the idea of really teaching people lessons in food science, as opposed to just giving them recipes that are actually going to be super useful in their everyday cooking.
You know, ’cause if you look through The Food Lab, you’ll find that it’s not, it’s not a book for someone who wants to cook for their family on a weeknight. You know, there’s some of that in there but it’s not really. So the new book is much more of a focus on how I actually cook at home, so it’ll be a much less American-centric book, so techniques from all around the world, ingredients from all around the world and essentially breaking down those techniques and ingredients and showing everyday home cooks how they can use the knowledge that everybody from around the world has collected over millennia to make their everyday cooking easier and more flavorful and more efficient. So, you can really think of it more as a sort of collection of strategies for how to make your … For easy things you can do to make your everyday cooking better.
EL: But I assume it’s going to require the same amount of obsessive research and testing that the more complicated recipes take?
JKLA: Well, yes. I mean, as your wife, my agent, could tell you, I am not very good at keeping writing deadlines and it’s usually because I’m testing more recipes! So, yeah. Yeah. I mean, I’ve been working on this testing recipes and photographing stuff and writing for … I mean, essentially since the first one came out, so whatever that is, three years? Something like that. And my goal is to have it wrapped up and sent to the publisher by the end of the year. We’ll see if I actually get there.
EL: That’s good. Your goal is to have it-
JKLA: The children’s book is actually due at the end of this week, which is frightening, but.
EL: And you have the recipes that you’re going to write for my Serious Eats memoir too! You got a lot on your plate, dude!
JKLA: Oh yeah. And a restaurant, I got a restaurant now-
EL: And you have a restaurant, which you know, which we should talk about just for a second! You’ve just experienced the hell that is opening a restaurant.
JKLA: Yeah. I don’t know why I put myself through it! I don’t want that to come out the wrong way, like I am super passionate about the restaurant and I think … Especially with all the people working there and I think you know, I think what we’re doing is really great and it’s … you know, the most rewarding part of the restaurant is knowing that you’re helping these 50 employees earn a living and all of your guests have a good time, that’s I think … Anybody who doesn’t feel that way, shouldn’t be in hospitality.
But, yeah, you know, the restaurant wasn’t something I was really planning or thinking about, you know, we had a baby and then I was a stay-at-home parent, you know, still am most of the time and even though that takes a lot of time, you know, I did seem to have like a bit of free time on my hands, just ’cause babies nap and all that kind of stuff, so it was like, you know, and I consulted for restaurants in the past. Most recently before that was you know at Harlem Shake in New York, where I did a bunch of consulting, you know, basically designed their kitchen and did their whole menu and trained the staff. And that didn’t take that long to do-
JKLA: And it didn’t require that much input after it was opened. And so this one was like … It’s a sausage hall that serves beer, you know, well really it’s a beer hall that serves sausage, it’s like, “Okay, that won’t be too difficult, like I’ll find some good suppliers, we’ll put together a nice, simple menu, people are mainly going to be going there to drink, the food will be like a thing on the side, whatever, it should be pretty easy.
And then, once my name got attached to it, that’s when … I mean, I guess in the three years time, between I worked with Harlem Shake and I started work with Wursthall, my book had come out and so you know, I guess people just knew my name a little more and so once it came out that my name was attached with this restaurant, Wursthall, then the media started covering it and it kind of just grew out of my control and I quickly realized you know what? We’re not opening a beer hall that just serves sausages on the side, like, we’re opening a restaurant and like my reputation is going to ride on this, so it better be good!
EL: Yeah, and we should say it’s called, “Wursthall,” or-
JKLA: Yeah. Wursthall.
EL: In San Mateo, and it’s probably a five minute drive from your house?
JKLA: Yeah. Yeah. It’s like a mile from my house, 15 minute bike ride, five minute drive, yeah.
EL: What surprised you the most about the process?
JKLA: There weren’t that many surprises because you know, I’ve worked in restaurants, I’ve helped other chefs open restaurants, like I know how these things kind of go and I know how a kitchen is organized and run, so, there weren’t any surprises in that regard but you know, that’s taking into account the fact that when you’re opening a restaurant, you should be prepared for surprises because, especially in an older building, you never know what kind of infrastructure problems are going to be in place, you never know what kind of personnel problems are going to be in place in a new market, you don’t know how your menu’s going to resonate with guests at the beginning, you know, but those all the kinds of surprises that, as long as you account for them in your timeline and your budget and in your planning, shouldn’t cause any major headaches. You know, I mean, I’m putting that maybe too lightly, you know, restaurants, every day is a major headache. There’s always something going wrong but you kind of know that going into the game so in that sense it wasn’t as surprising.
What really surprised me was, and probably it shouldn’t have, but really surprised me, was the amount of hype we got pre-opening and you know, obviously, this is a good problem to have but it’s also sort of a nerve-wracking one that people have all these expectations of you before, you know, months before you’re even open. And the answer is, of course, you don’t live up to their expectations, every single person’s expectations. And so I think that was one of the lessons I’ve learned pretty quickly, is that you know, we do a ton of like customer feedback, we talk to people, when we were first opening, we did you know, survey forms at every table, get a gauge on what people think, but at some point, you have to realize that your restaurant is your restaurant and it’s not a restaurant that’s run on a committee of your guests.
And so, you know, you have to at some point say, “I know what my idea of good food is, I am working with my staff to try and put out the best possible version of good food I have in my head.” There are going to be people who have a very different idea of what’s good and what’s not of … And at some point you just have to say, “This is my food, I’m going to stand by it, if you don’t like it, you’re perfectly entitled to your opinion and frankly, I want to hear your opinion on what you don’t like about it,” but you know, it’s really the chef and the employees who say what’s being served at a restaurant and not the customers and that’s a lesson I think is pretty important to learn. You know, if you have confidence in yourself, you kind of have to stick with your guns even if a lot of people are saying they don’t like a specific thing.
EL: Yeah, you know, it’s funny. One of the lessons that Danny Meyer tries to teach in his book is-
JKLA: A book actually which I bought a copy of that book for every single management staff at our restaurant.
EL: Yeah you’d think he would say, “Oh, the customer is always right,” but he actually says almost exactly what you say, which is that the idea is if you make all of the people who work in the restaurant happy by doing what they do and asking them to do everything that you’re willing to do, that’s the most important ingredient in making a successful restaurant.
JKLA: Definitely. That idea is something you can feel any time you walk into a Danny Meyer restaurant, whether it’s you know, high end like Mercy Park or a chain like Shake Shack, the idea that the employees all seem to enjoy working there and they all seem to be empowered to do the best job they can, you know, it gets them to take pride in their work and it helps ensure consistency and quality of the product they’re serving. But I think, most importantly, it gives you that feeling of hospitality, which is why I go out to a restaurant, you know, I’m a pretty good cook, I can cook good food at home, obviously there are plenty of restaurants where they cook different and better things than I can cook at home, but the main reason I go out to eat is because I want to be treated well and I want to feel like I’m welcome somewhere and you know, to me bad service can ruin the best food in the world. But I can put up with mediocre food if the service is great and I feel like I’m comfortable and at home. So, yeah, for me, definitely, and I think this is the sense that you get from all of Danny Meyer’s restaurants, really that hospitality is the most important thing in a restaurant.
EL: If you think about our time together at Serious Eats, that’s really what I tried to do at Serious Eats, was to provide a place where people really enjoyed working together and then I just as you well know, I just turned you all loose and there’s a lot to be said for that! Yeah.
JKLA: Which is why you were my favorite boss ever! But yeah, it’s exactly like what you do at Serious Eats, I think, you know, your job, as I’ve always understood it, was to find smart people and then give them the means to execute their ideas. Smart, passionate people.
JKLA: And that’s very much what we try and do at the restaurant. You know, obviously, like consistency and certain protocols are important in a restaurant, ’cause it has to run efficiently, it has to run at cost, all those things, but you know, the best employees we have at the restaurant are the people who are super passionate about cooking, you know, regardless of their experience in professional kitchens. Actually you know, we have a line cook who had zero professional cooking experience, we have a guy who’s now our sous chef actually, who had zero professional cooking experience before he came and started working for us. But these are both guys who are extremely passionate about cooking, did a ton of cooking on their own, like had you know, were following the concept, have read Food Lab, sort of have a similar philosophy to cooking as I do. You know, I would say you can teach people skills, but you can’t teach people to give a shit. And so, when we’re finding employees, especially in the kitchen, you know, the most important thing for us is just find people who really care.
JKLA: And you can teach them everything else.
EL: There are going to be two more Wursthalls, right?
JKLA: We are well along in negotiations for a couple of new locations that we’re planning on opening next year. Almost for sure, one of them, down in San Jose, but yeah, potentially two new locations by the end of next year. Which is sort of the plan from the start was that you know, the restaurant concept was one that we wanted-
JKLA: Was that this … the restaurant concept was one that we wanted to make sure was something that could be replicated and brought to other cities.
EL: Got it.
JKLA: We’re planning a very sort of slow, like you’re not gonna find 500 Wursthalls across the US in the next five years. We want all of our training to take place in the main restaurant, we want to make sure that every chef running the other restaurants has spent time working in the original and is qualified, all those things.
EL: Got it. We know that there are lots of sausages on the menu, but there are also lots of pretzels on the menu, which I’m a little annoyed that you have not sent me any of the pretzels.
JKLA: Well, that’s one of the things about pretzels, similar to bagels they have a halflife … whatever it was, I think you called it the Heisenberg and Bagelberg uncertainty, Heisenbagel uncertainty principle, something like that, where you can’t accurately compare two bagels to each other because by the act of bringing one to the location of another the first one has already entered a state where it can’t be fairly tasted anymore. Similar to … pretzels and bagels are actually … kinda like blood brothers as far as baked good go. They’re both a boiled then baked dough and both have a sort of dense interior with a really crispy, thin crust. But yeah, pretzels don’t travel well so I wouldn’t be able to send them to you, but any time you come out to San Mateo, you are welcome to come have our pretzels. We actually now … For a long time we were working with a bakery called Backhaus, at which I’m actually also a partner, and we’re opening a brick-and-mortar bakery also in San Mateo.
EL: Yeah, I don’t think you have enough to do, Kenji. I think you need more projects.
JKLA: Well this one I’m more of a silent partner. I just offer advice. It’s really Anna and Robert Moser, they’re the husband and wife, Anna’s the baker, Robert does all the business side. They really run everything, I’m just sort of a … I gave them some money to help and I give them advice whenever they ask for it, but I’m not … it’s by no means my project at all. It’s 100% theirs. We were working with them for a while, but they really want to focus on retail rather than wholesale, so we’ve been sort of transitioning out of their, some of their products, so we found a great new pretzel supplier as well based up in San Francisco called Pretzelina. But either one of these, Pretzelina and Backhaus, they both make amazing pretzels, so if you ever want to come to San Mateo, I am sure I can get you your fill of great pretzels.
EL: All right, that’s good. That’s good and so what are the most popular items on the menu?
JKLA: The classic bratwurst is our most popular item, but I think it’s just because it’s the default. People who don’t want to try and figure out what some of the other types of sausages are or who just want to try our baseline, they come for the bratwurst. That’s sort of … the basic sausage plate is our most popular thing. My favorite things on the menu, which I think is a better answer, and also some of our more popular stuff, the deviled eggs we do I think are pretty fantastic.
EL: Oh, I love a good deviled egg, Kenji.
JKLA: Largely influenced by the deviled eggs that April Bloomfield used to do at The Spotted Pig.
JKLA: Super vinegary, super mustardy and then we serve ours with a lot of olive oil, aleppo chiles, and dill and pickled mustard seeds. Another dish we recently started just about a few weeks ago, we do a … we call it cacio e pepe spaetzle, so the idea is that pan-fried spaetzle is great because it’s crispy and it kind of puffs up and it gets golden brown and crispy, but if you try and mix sort of a creamy sauce with it, like you would for a traditional cacio e pepe, that crispiness kind of goes away and it ultimately deflates and it doesn’t look very great, so what we do is we make spaetzle where we flavor the batter with black pepper, and then we cook it and we pan-fry it in brown butter until it’s nice and crispy. Cacio e pepe, by the way, in case anybody is unaware, is a classic Roman dish of pasta with pecorino Romano and black pepper and essentially that’s it. The cheese sauce kind of emulsifies with pasta water. It’s sort of quick and easy Roman mac and cheese, so we wanted to get those flavors into a spaetzle dish, so what we do is we make an aerated pecorino Romano sauce, so essentially we steep pecorino Romano with milk and then bind it with … then we cook it sous vide with egg yolks and butter, blend it all together and then pipe it out with a whipped cream dispenser so it comes out almost the texture of hollandaise, but kind of lighter and airier so it’s essentially this crispy spaetzle with this aerated pecorino and black pepper sauce and then a bunch of shards of pecorino crisps on top to kind of reinforce that flavor but also give it some more texture. You kind of spoon it together as you eat it so all the spaetzle stays nice and crispy but you get that really nice cheese and black pepper flavor in each bite. That I would say is probably my new favorite dish on the menu.
EL: That sounds insanely delicious, but it’s definitely do not try this at home.
JKLA: No. Restaurant cooking and home cooking is different. It’s different. We just introduced a BLT on the menu also and I wrote a BLT manifesto and made a video for Serious Eats a couple years ago, and this was the craziest experience to me that … so the BLT we serve at Wursthall doesn’t precisely follow that BLT manifesto but the reason is because what we do is we cook slab bacon 48 hours sous vide with rosemary garlic and black pepper until it’s like braised pork belly, it’s super melting and tender, and then we slice it and we sear it and that’s the bacon in our BLT sandwich. So as you eat the sandwich, rather than strips of bacon that are crunchy or kind of pull out the way traditional bacon does, the bacon kind of all just melts and dissolves into the tomato and lettuce, which I think is really great. It’s still primarily a tomato sandwich, it’s just seasoned with bacon, which is sort of my BLT philosophy.
EL: Yeah, and my BLT philosophy as well.
JKLA: I couldn’t believe the amount of … the amount of backlash I got from Twitter of people who saw when I posted that picture of the BLT we serve at Wursthall who are like, “This doesn’t follow your BLT manifesto precisely, I’m not gonna eat it,” or, “That’s not a BLT.” It’s like, dude, I wrote the BLT manifesto, this is my restaurant. You can’t use my own words to tell me that what I’m serving is not the thing that I meant to serve.
EL: So just look at what you have wrought. Look at what we wrote together.
JKLA: It is. It’s like what kind of … When my first book came out and even with the column, you could see there is a certain type of sort of internet personality. It generally tends to be sort of younger males who like to read what I wrote and then use it to put other people down or to pretend that they’re some kind of authority and that everyone else is wrong, and it’s just … it bugs me so much. I hear stories from people saying, “Yeah, someone read your article and then they trashed what I was cooking.” That’s not at all what The Food LabM/em> was about or what Serious Eats was about.
JKLA: But I see that myself when I do something like a BLT that’s not exactly like what I wrote on Serious Eats, mainly because it would be impractical to do for home cook and we’re a restaurant, not a home kitchen. It’s like … there are definitely … Yeah, I do get that sense of I’ve created quite a few monsters here.
EL: See the trouble is you wrote the constitution and now there are people that are strict constructionists.
JKLA: Right, and didn’t realize that I wrote that entire constitution like pretty much tongue in cheek the whole time. Make your BLT however you want to make it. I don’t really care how you make your BLT. This is how I make my BLT. If that’s what you like, like it. We do on Serious Eats and in The Food Lab in the book make a lot of over-the-top statements. I think that most of the audience understands that when we say, “This is the best X” or “This is the only way to do X,” that it’s tongue in cheek and that it’s all sort of part of the humor of the site, but some people don’t, unfortunately.
EL: No, exactly. It’s like, remember the people who used to say, “How come you call yourself Serious Eats and you write about hot dogs and BLTs, it’s like …
JKLA: Yeah, how serious is that?
EL: You ever heard of irony? So why German food? I have to say, you cooked in Italian restaurants, you’ve cooked in all kinds of restaurants, in sushi restaurants, you started in a Mongolian barbecue restaurant.
JKLA: To be fair, we’re not really a German restaurant. We have some nods to German cuisine and definitely we have nods to German beer halls and beer gardens in terms of the décor and feel of the restaurant, but we’re very much a California restaurant, so we have sausages and stuff on the menu, but we also ferment local produce year-round and use that kind of stuff on our pickle plates, things that you would never find in Germany.
We have a very high … my wife, and Alicia and I, we took a trip sort of around Bavaria and Austria for a few weeks when Alicia was three months old. This was like a good nine months before Wursthall opened and what you find is that a lot of the food in Germany, other … there’s a lot of good modern food, but a lot of the classic food in Germany is very brown and white. Brown and white food is not really something that flies in California, especially because we were trying to be a very sort of modern and local beer hall so our menu really places a lot more emphasis on local produce and lighter things while still giving some nods to more traditional beer hall cuisine. We have sausages but they come from all over the world. We have spaetzle, but it’s served in an Italian-style dish with some sort of modern twists, so it’s only … it’s not really fair to call it a German restaurant. It is only very loosely … it’s a California restaurant with some German influence, I would say.
EL: Next week, Kenji and I will be joined by Serious Eats current managing culinary director, Daniel Gritzer.
JKLA: It’s always fun to talk to you, Ed.
EL: You say to that to all the guys.
This post may contain links to Amazon or other partners; your purchases via these links can benefit Serious Eats. Read more about our affiliate linking policy.