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A Day in the Life: J. Kenji López-Alt, Chief Creative Officer

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[Photographs: Robyn Lee]

Welcome to "A Day in the Life," our new behind-the-scenes series exploring what SE staffers are working on, and, of course, eating. Up today: Chief Creative Officer J. Kenji López-Alt.

Monday, January 13th, 2013

12:07 a.m.: I'm a night owl. I'm also a morning person. Actually, I'm really just a non-sleeper. Does anyone else feel like every moment they spend sleeping is another unproductive step closer to death? Is that a healthy outlook on life? Does the fact that I believe that I'm an optimist make it so? These are the questions I ponder as I ask the equally important question: what is in my fridge right now that I can eat with just my fingers and, more importantly, eat with just my fingers in a way that my wife won't know I was eating with just my fingers?

I settle on a piece of smoked Cheddar cheese with a dash of Frank's hot sauce squirted onto it in the palm of my hand. I also squirt a dab of Soy Balsamic Vinaigrette onto my fingertip out of the bottle I keep in the fridge and chase it with a dash of Tabasco sauce lapped up off my palm. This is not an uncommon meal.

It's only after all this that I remember that I was going to put together another batch of the hot and sour soup I'm working on for Wednesday's soup month recipe. I do a remarkable amount of recipe development between midnight and 3AM. In my underwear.

This is probably more information than you need to know, and definitely more than my coworkers need to know. I mean, they eat the stuff. Just don't tell my doorman.

1:27 a.m.: Two batches of soup broth are simmering away and I have a few moments to kill. I edit some photos from my recent trip to Turkey and get sucked into a QWOP vortex for a few moments. How the heck do you get past those hurdles?

Me, teaching Ed QWOP [Photograph: Robyn Lee]

1:53 a.m.: Broth is made, time to call it a night, by which I mean, time to watch an episode of The Office (for the 6th time) and make myself a drink. My usual late night drink is a bottle of Sierra Nevada IPA or some whiskey, but after last week's Juice-A-Thon, my fridge is full of things that need to be mixed. Cranberry and rum it is. I love Kevin.

6:15 a.m.: hheeeeaaaaaaawwwwhuuuu? *SLAM* Did I say I was a morning person? I lied. I'm a "give me another 15 minutes" person.

6:30 a.m.: gerrrrreeeeeoddaaammit! *SLAM* I'm also a give me another 15 minutes after the first 15 minutes person. I'm surprised my alarm clock has survived unfazed since college.

6:45 a.m.: I finally roll out of bed and start my morning ritual: a quick belly rub and snuggle for Hambone, an under-the-neck scratch for Yuba, and a 45 minute bath to help me unwind from a hard night's sleep.

During this bath, I do my first round of emailing of the day. I get well over 400 emails on a given day and 95% of them get an immediate delete (note to PR people: I probably didn't read that email you sent me, or the follow up, or the follow up after that, and no, I definitely don't want a deskside meet and greet with minor celebrity chef X, nor do I want to try your new line of water made from purified fruit juices.)

Just so you know: If you receive an email from me between the hours of 6 and 9 AM, there's a 98% chance that I am emailing you from the bath. I do a remarkable amount of emailing from the bath.

Again, too much info.

After the bath, I roll out into the street to face the worst part of my day: the subway. I hate the subway more than I hate bananas, and that's saying a lot.

8:30 a.m.: Luckily, my least favorite part of the day is quickly followed by my favorite part of the day: alone time in the office. For the hour between 8:30 and 9:30, the office is empty.

I tidy up the kitchen a bit, take a bite of the pumpkin bun I picked up from Golden Steamer, giggle a bit at the name "Golden Steamer," contemplate that if I really wanted, I could be working in my underwear at the office, realize that that would probably be crossing a new line that's even beyond the lines I've already crossed, and start working on my final batch of hot and sour soup.

The recipe is all but finished; today I'm making the beauty batch for the photo, and damn if Chinese superior stock with a dash of soy sauce doesn't make for a fine side dish to pumpkin buns. Note to self: open up a restaurant that sells broth and bao called "Wet Steamer."

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

10:28 a.m.: The office is filled up, the soup is made and photographed, and now I get to sit down at my desk to start editing tomorrow's recipes. I generally work with our recipe writers on developing ideas a few weeks to a few months in advance. Once approved, they're required to get them to me at least a week before they're scheduled to go. During a good week, I'll edit them as soon as they come in, but I rarely have good weeks, which means many recipes don't get their final edits until the day before they're scheduled to go up. This makes Niki's life far more difficult than it should be. I offer amends by way of soup. I think she accepts.

10:57 a.m.: I recall that I've been meaning to work on a series of pizza tests. My quest: adapt my Foolproof Pan Pizza recipe so that it can be made in under 3 hours instead of overnight. Seeing as it was the most popular recipe of the year, I'm guessing a quick and easy version would be of interest to many of you folks.

I mix up a batch of dough in the stand mixer and leave it out to proof while I delete some more emails and start reading material for the upcoming week, which is packed with meetings. I hate meetings more than a subway car filled with bananas.

12:49 p.m.: Niki sends out a cryptic email asking that someone leave candles and a lighter by the cutting board left at a secret location in the business-side of the office. This can only mean one thing.

1:06 p.m.: Happy birthday Jamie! Jamie loves all things ham, so Ed and Niki walked over to Despaña and picked up a huge spread of hand-sliced ham—both their standard high-quality Serrano, and their superb Cinco Jotas Jamón Iberico Puro de Bellota. It's porky, fatty, melty, and damn, this is worth an extra 20 minutes of running tomorrow. There are candles in a loaf of bread.

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[Photographs: Robyn Lee]

Ed considers whether or not hand slicing really produces superior ham to machine-sliced stuff. I speculate that it does allow you to cut the ham at different angles and work around bones better than you could with a slicer, and perhaps this makes a difference. As usual, I'm talking out of my culo.

1:19 p.m.: I run across the street to DiPalo creamery to pick up some of their excellent fresh Mozzarella, a bit of dried salami, and some broccoli rabe to top my pizza. It's always an adventure packed with mystery and cheese walking in there. Are they going to be using their archaic number system for organizing the line? Is Sal gonna slip me a sliver of fresh-cut Parmesan? Is my order going to be first added up by hand, then double checked on a calculator, then punched into the mechanical cash register from 1847, then finally rung through the credit card machine? Just kidding. None of this is a mystery. It happens EVERY TIME.

1:26 p.m.: I top my pizza and throw it in the oven.

1:32 p.m.: I impatiently open the oven and poke at my pizza to see how it's turning out. It's not done.

1:34 p.m.: *Poke poke*. I should just get a pizza oven installed in my bedroom instead of a snooze-able alarm clock.

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

1:29 p.m.: The pizza comes out and it's...not terrible. Sort of like Wonderbread in pizza form. I send out my usual "there's food in the kitchen that is not terrible" email to the office in the hopes that somebody will take it away. Who am I kidding? I eat two slices by myself before packing up my stuff.

1:45 p.m.: I head out the door for my commute back home. I don't always leave the office early, but today I've got to. See, I started working on a recipe for a homemade Shin cup-style spicy Korean ramyun a few weeks back at the behest of violent mobs of twitterers. When the weather started getting cold, I thought to myself, "now's a good time to put this on hiatus."

So I did what any normal person would do. I threw the pots of various batches of broth out the kitchen window.

Ok, I placed them gently out of the window onto the table I have set up on my patio. During the summer it acts as a make-shift drying rack so I can keep my kitchen counter empty. During the winter, it becomes extra fridge or freezer space.

The soup entered deep freeze, got covered up in snow, and I promptly forgot about it until the snow melted away on Sunday.

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

3:14 p.m.: I'm ready to go with the soup, but first it's dog walking time. My dogs have complete opposite personalities when it comes to walks. Yuba is all business, particularly in the winter. She steps outside, does her thing, turns around, and starts pulling to go back indoors. If she had her way, she'd spend her entire life snuggling, sleeping, and farting.

[Photographs: Robyn Lee]

Hambone, on the other hand, likes to take his time. Especially when it's cold outside. And especially especially when it's cold and wet outside. And especially especially especially when it's cold and wet and muddy outside. EVERY SINGLE PATCH OF MUD IS EXACTLY THE SAME, WHY DO YOU CARE WHICH ONE YOU SOIL, YOU SILLY DOG WHO IS SO DARN CUTE THAT I CAN'T GET ANNOYED WITH YOU EVEN WHEN YOU TAKE FOREVER AND MAKE ME WRITE IN ALL CAPS?

3:32 p.m.: I tell Jamón in the elevator: You think you're so special because you get to do your business in the buff, don't you? Well I've got something important to tell you, buddy: YOU WERE ADOPTED.

He takes the news remarkably well and sprints off down the hall for his daily race with Yuba. He lets her win so that he can bite her back legs, as usual. I don't blame him. They look like cute little hams.

4:07 p.m.: I start sipping batches of reheated broth. Not enough body in that one, scratch it. Chicken bones aren't necessary. This one needs a little more umami punch. This last one has got it all, but needs a touch more heat. Some extra gochujang maybe? No, that's not right. More intense heat and some an extra garlic hit. How about some Chinese doubanjiang? THAT's the ticket!

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Nailed it. I'm so happy with the broth that I celebrate by giving the dogs each a big-ol' short rib bone. They deign to celebrate alone.

6:15 p.m.: My wife finally gets home and starts to poke around in the fridge for dinner.

"Wait! Don't eat!," I yell at her. Tonight is day 6 of my New York nacho crawl. I'm looking for the best nachos in the city for a post I'm working on for Max. Eating more than a plate of nachos in a night is difficult. Doing it alone is nigh on impossible. On tonight's roster: Brooklyn.

7:06 p.m.: Like I said, I hate the subway and try to avoid it as much as possible. Luckily my mom lives nearby, has a car, and is willing to share it in exchange for soup and cookies and other such comestible tidbits. We drive out to River Styx, note its proximity to Paulie Gee's, consider ditching for great pizza, then decide it's better to do the responsible thing and order those nachos.

Never in my wildest childhood imagination did I ever think I'd have a job that would require me to eat nachos when I don't want to.

Notes on River Styx: Pretty setting. Friendly waitress. Lots of beards. Strange nachos.

8:43 p.m.: We head over to Fette Sau in Williamsburg to join in on Jamie's birthday celebration. The plan is to stop by, say hello, give Jamie a hug (even though she hates hugs), perhaps have a slice of birthday cake and half a beer, then shoot on over to the Commodore for the last nachos (and hopefully last bites) of the night.

We get there just in time to miss the food, which is perfectly alright by me. Not only do I not particularly like their brand of barbecue, but I'm nursing the beginnings of a major nacho hangover that I only know is going to get worst as the night progresses. We squeeze into a bench between former Managing Editor Erin Zimmer and Niki.

I'm a perpetual condiment-taster. I can't help but taste a little squirt of each of the barbecue sauces they have at the table. They ranged from "why is there no salt or acid in this" to "ew" with a bit of "gross" in between.

9:27 p.m.: A birthday cake appears. It looks tall and impressive and professional looking. I find out it's a mint chocolate chip cookie dough cake made by Christina Tosi. It is unbearably delicious, but I power through a small slice.

9:43 p.m.: Full slice was a bad idea. A mountain of doughnuts stuck together with toothpicks and resembling a 1/18th-scale model of the Aggro Crag appears. According to Jamie, it's not the doughnut cake she deserves, but it's the doughnut cake she needs.

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She plucks one of the chocolate doughnut holes from the top and dunks it in her bourbon, all lady-like.

10:43 p.m.: Last call at Fette Sau. There go our Commodore plans. Unless...

11:13 p.m.: Jamie, Niki, my wife, and I (along with a couple friends) grab a corner booth in the Commodore. I ask my wife if she wants to split a beer since I'm driving back and shouldn't have a full one and she agrees, but that never works because I like IPAs and to her they taste like a glass full of bananas and subways and meetings, so I order an IPA for me and a wheat beer for her.

11:36 p.m.: The nachos appear. Niki and I get into a debate about the relative merits of cheese sauce vs. real cheese on nachos. I'm firmly of the mind that either one can work, provided the cheese sauce is made well and it fits the context of the rest nachos. Niki says, and I'm paraphrasing here, "cheese sauce, bleeuuugghhhhh" while mimicking an action that Jamie looks like she might be ready to perform any time now. (Just kidding, Jamie can hold her own.)

I call Niki a food snob. My wife spits cheese sauce across the table as she hears me say this.

11:53 p.m.: I'm not quite sure how we got here, but Niki and her boyfriend now have both hands firmly planted palms-down in the nacho remnants, squishing together cheese sauce* like kids finger-painting and oh god now they're trying to rub it on each other's faces and oh god now Niki is trying to get Jamie to lick her hand and oh god now Jamie is sticking out her tongue and oh god I hate being the only sober one at a party and thank god it's retracting and everything seems to be calming down. Then I remember how we got here: doughnut holes in bourbon. It's that kind of night.

Being the only sober one at a bar is like being the only nudist at a pants convention. Or maybe like being only the pants salesman at the nudist colony. One of those two.

*Which, I might add, is still gooey and creamy despite having sat around for 15 minutes. I'd like to see real cheese do that!

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12:06 a.m.: Turns out I didn't need to order that IPA because I drank all of one sip of it. I offer up the rest to Niki while simultaneously wondering how much she needs it, given her hands were coated in nacho cheese and guacamole just moments ago, then head out the door.

12:30 a.m.: After a walk, the dogs stand by the kitchen door. They had a big breakfast and a bone-full of meat scraps before we left for nachos, but they're still hungry for more. I pull out a tray of their food—these days it's a blend of turkey cooked with vegetables, eggs, and chickpeas—heat some up for them, and take a small bowl of it for myself. Don't judge me. At least I seasoned it properly before I ate it. No need for a nightcap tonight, that ramyun's not going to make itself in the morning.

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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