Big Deal Chef in a Small Kitchen: 10 Questions With Kenji Lopez-Alt

The small apartment rental kitchen of Kenji Lopez-AltFood nerds, you have a new leader, and his name is Kenji Lopez-Alt.

His Food Lab series for delves into the science behind popular foods to produce definitive (and sometimes surprising -- steak cooked in a beer cooler?) home-cooking methods for each. And he does it all from a compact New York City apartment kitchen.

Fans who had imagined Lopez-Alt cranking out his culinary creations in a gleaming, stainless-steel dream kitchen got a dose of reality last week, when SeriousEats published a slide show detailing Alt's shockingly humble galley.

The photo tour revealed several surprises, the biggest of which may be the fact that his kitchen looks a lot like yours: cramped, Formica countertops; stingy cabinet space; the ubiquitous microwave/exhaust hood combo that never quite seems to whisk away the stink of sauteed onions.

So how does the chef-slash-writer -- who has spent time in the high-tech halls of M.I.T. and the well-funded workspace of Cook's Illustrated -- manage to put his recipes through their paces (sometimes trying as many as 40 variations!) in such a small and unassuming space?

He does it all with the help of some carefully chosen tools, zealous organization, and the good mojo of a dearly departed cat. Read on to see how Lopez-Alt makes the magic happen in his rental kitchen Food Lab:

Rented Spaces: How long have you been living in your apartment?

Kenji Lopez-Alt: We just moved here at the beginning of the summer, following an awful 9 months of living in a virtually windowless cave in Brooklyn. The natural lighting and the non-claustrophobic kitchen are what sold me.

How does your current kitchen stack up against other rental kitchens you've lived with? Any good horror stories of kitchens past?

It's definitely the best I've had so far, because it's got a good combination of decent cabinet space and counter space. It could always be bigger, but I can't complain. I like that it has a cutout wall that looks into the living room. It makes entertaining a lot more fun because I can chat with people while cooking, instead of being sequestered to a separate room.

The last kitchen we had seemed nice in that there were no walls -- it was essentially part of the living room. We discovered that what that really means is that the living room just gets a film of grease over it and the whole apartment ends up smelling like hamburgers. No fun.

Have you ever asked your landlord to improve or upgrade any part of your kitchen, or is is pretty much the way it was when you moved in (aside from your impressive collection of kitchen stuff)?

Nope, I've never asked a landlord to improve my kitchen.

In the SeriousEats slide show, you caption a photo of one 2-by-2-foot square of countertop as "the workspace." Is that all of your counter space? How do you do it?

I have another large area of counter space behind me, by the sink, where I can keep ingredients, bowls, etc. The "workspace" is just where my large cutting board is, and where I do all my knifework prior to cooking.

The Food Lab often sees you cranking out bulk quantities (say, six loaves of gyro meat or 28 batches of chicken wings) -- how do you stay on top of organization and cleanup in such a small space?

That comes with the territory when you've been trained at restaurants. Even in the best restaurants in the world, kitchen real estate is at a premium. You very quickly learn to keep organized within a small space. If you don't, you get on the other cooks' sh*tlist, and that's a place you don't want to be.

The keys for me are really just to clean up absolutely everything as I go along. I won't start a task until everything from the previous task has been put away. So if I'm chopping onions and then need to clean and pick parsley, I'll make sure that the chopped onions are in a mise-en-place bowl or put away in the fridge, that my knife is clean, that my cutting board has been scrubbed down, and that all the trash has been put away before I even take the parsley out of the fridge. Organization and cleanliness are the only way to stay on top of things and stay efficient in such a small kitchen.

I love that the humble toaster oven resides among your collection of specialized small appliances. Is it just for browning bagels, or do you sometimes actually cook in it?

I often actually cook in it, especially in the summer when I avoid turning on the oven as much as possible. I have a couple of small ceramic gratin dishes that fit easily inside it and are perfect for reheating single portions of food for lunch or a quick dinner with my wife.

If your landlord called you up and offered to make $1,000 of kitchen upgrades of your choosing, what would you have him do?

I'd get a more powerful burner and more powerful hood. Perhaps I'd have an indoor grill installed, or a wok range would be great to have. Of course, then I'd lose some credibility as someone who tries to solve the problems that real-world, everyday cooks have.

You're clearly a knife guy (I counted 14 in the slideshow, not including the travel
set, the "superstitious" ones, or your wife's crappy IKEA paring knife), so I won't ask you to pick your favorite -- but if you had to recommend three essential knives for a space-constrained home cook, what would they be?

Ninety percent of my daily tasks are accomplished with one knife: a 6-inch santoku. It's sharp, sturdy, and easy to maneuver. If you prefer a Western-style knife, you can use a chef's knife instead, but one of those two is definitely the most important.

After that, I personally use my flexible boning knife the next most frequently. I like to buy meat in as large-format as possible so I can control the final outcome, and get better value for my money. So I buy whole chicken and whole cuts of beef which need to be broken down before cooking or grinding for burgers. So the boning knife is essential for me.

For the third knife, it's really a toss-up between a good paring knife and a bread knife. I'd probably say the paring knife, unless you cut a whole lot of bread.

Your beer cooler sous vide method scored a victory for home cooks everywhere, helping us to cook like the pros, but without cluttering our kitchens -- or clearing our bank accounts -- with a space-hogging immersion circulator. What other MacGyver-ish tricks do you have up your sleeve?

Trade secrets.... You'll have to read my column or buy my book (coming out in 2012 from W.W. Norton)! OK, here's a quick one: Grind your own meat for burgers, chili, meatloaf, whatever in a food processor instead of buying a separate meat grinder. Just take cubes of meat, place them on a tray, and partially freeze them (about 15 minutes in the freezer should do) in order to firm them up so they'll chop more efficiently. Put them in the processor in half pound increments and grind by pulsing until they reach the desired consistency. Your mouth will thank you when you taste the improvement in your burgers!

Hard to tell from the freezer photo: Is your dead cat seriously in there?

Yep, he's really in there. Hopefully we'll get the chance to move him on to a better home pretty soon, but for now, he's content where he is.

Check out some more ideas on making the most of a small kitchen.

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