I started at Serious Eats back in 2012 as an intern, brand-new to digital media. Just one year later, I'd been promoted to editor of our now-defunct pizza blog, Slice, and today, I’m Serious Eats’ “executive managing editor”—not the most descriptive title, I admit, but in practice, it means I have a lot more say in what we publish and how the site is run than 2012 me could ever have imagined. It's been, and continues to be, an amazing ride, and I owe it all (or at least most of it) to the mentorship of Ed Levine, who’s poured over a decade of hard work and devotion into this quirky, resilient website, its multitalented staff, and the passionate food stories we tell.
Ed's already told you about his new book, Serious Eater: A Food Lover's Perilous Quest for Pizza and Redemption, which tracks the birth, youth, many near-deaths, and ultimate success of the site we all know and love. Now I'm here to announce that it's available for preorder, and that it's a roller coaster of a read. But you shouldn't just take my word for it—we've included Kenji's foreword to the book below, to help get you pumped.
If, like me, you can't wait to get your hands on a copy of Serious Eater, the editors over at Penguin have a special treat in store: Place an order before June 11, 2019, when the book officially hits shelves, and you can redeem your receipt for an exclusive recipe from Kenji. Just email your receipt, order confirmation, or other proof of purchase to [email protected], and we'll send you the recipe on June 11. In the meantime, you can also expect to receive some bonus content to tide you over until your copy arrives.
Without further ado, I'll let Kenji take it from here.
Foreword to Serious Eater
The first thing I did after I finished reading the last page of the draft of this book was log into my old email account and reread the first exchanges that Ed and I had, way back in July of 2009.
Actually, that was the second thing I did. The first thing I did was heat up a slice of pizza on the stovetop in a skillet (the best way to reheat pizza). It wasn’t just a craving, it was necessary sustenance, as I’d failed to notice the hours that had passed since I started reading.
To read our early email exchange you would have trouble identifying who was the bigger fool. The sheer rate at which it progresses from "Hey, how are you?" to "We will be working together for a long time" surprised even me as I read through it. And I’d lived it.
James Kenji Lopez-Alt <[email protected]>
Tue, Sep 8, 2009, 8:07 PM
Hi Ed—are you still up for lunch tomorrow? I could meet you wherever you’d like in the city. Let me know what works best for you.
Up to this point, I had written precisely two articles for A Hamburger Today, Serious Eats’ now-shuttered burger-related vertical. The first was a review of Heston Blumenthal’s insanely complex burger recipe (over thirty hours to complete! Thirty-two ingredients!) and the second was a tour of twelve iconic Northeast burger joints, in which I sampled twelve burgers over eight hours. I’d spent a few years writing recipes and features for Boston-area magazines and papers, but those two articles, published on a site I barely knew about, were the most fun I’d ever had researching and writing.
Newly wed, I had recently moved back to New York and was living in a one-bedroom apartment in Prospect Heights with literally no windows. I was supplementing my wife Adri’s graduate school income by making ready-to-eat bean burritos and macaroni and cheese for an Upper West Side family as well as the occasional freelance editing and writing gig. I co-"managed" a blog about sustainable eating called GoodEater.org ("Your food...and where it comes from." Cringe). We’d recently celebrated having finally hit one thousand page views a day.
On paper, there was no reason for Ed to have much faith in my abilities or potential. I had contacted him a few times over the past few months, hitting him up for some editorial advice or freelance gigs, as I had done with any moderately successful website editor I could stalk. This time Ed had other plans. We finally met face to face on September 9, 2009. (It was over cheeseburgers at a trailer park–themed burger joint a couple of blocks from the Serious Eats office in Chelsea; Robyn Lee joined us.)
I don’t remember much from that meeting, but I do remember thinking, I trust this guy as we ate some chili-and-cheese-smothered tot-chos (a food trend that has happily started to dissipate). It was because he didn’t just order half the menu, he ordered the right half of the menu. How could I not trust him? I’d had too many interviews with media entrepreneurs who thought business first: Food is only a means to an end. It just happens to be hot right now. With Ed, food, and the pleasure of eating it, was the business. Everything else followed.
Later, as we talked about the supremacy of smashed burgers, and what makes them so tasty (that sweet, sweet Maillard reaction):
"You know, Kenji, you should write a food science column for us."
"Hey," I said, "that sounds fun."
I didn’t tell him at the time, but I was in shock. You know how sometimes you don’t really know what you’re hungry for until it’s in front of you?* Up until that point I’d never considered the idea of writing about food science. Yet here’s this guy whom I’d met just twenty minutes before, dropping my dream job in my lap, as casually as a stray onion ring.
* Let’s not kid. It’s always pizza.
You see, Ed’s got this ability to truly understand what people want and what motivates them. Even though this is a rare gift—how many bosses have you had that actually understood your needs?—it might be unfair to call it an ability. You know that thing where sometimes you listen to what people say, but you don’t really hear them? There’s no trick to hearing people: you just have to really, legitimately care. Ed’s skill is that he cares about pretty much everyone. He wants to see everyone succeed to their fullest potential. It sounds insanely cheesy (like those tot-chos), but it’s true. He cares, and it oozes from every pore of his being and every page of this book.
That night I went home and jotted down some quick ideas for how a food science column could play out. ("It could be like MythBusters for food!" or "It’s like McGee, but not as smart, and with recipes!")
By the next morning I had this waiting in my inbox:
Ed Levine <[email protected]>
Thu, Sep 10, 2009, 9:49 AM
These all sound great, Kenji. We can pay you $30 right from the start. I also have another question for you. I’ve often thought we had a need for a recipe czar, someone who could look over the recipes we post on the site and edit out the stuff that is just wrong. It wouldn’t take a lot of your time and you could do it remotely.
("It wouldn’t take a lot of your time." If only I’d known—ha!)
"Hey," I said, "that sounds fun."
Meanwhile, in my head: Kenji! What are you doing?! You don’t know this guy. You’ve been to his "office" so you know that the peanuts he’s offering you now aren’t going to be increasing much in the future. You’re not worth much, but you’re worth more than this. Do people his age even know what the internet is?
But it didn’t matter. Of course it didn’t. I’d spent years working ninety-hour weeks in kitchens earning less than minimum wage, to execute someone else’s vision. I loved my days testing recipes for Cook’s Illustrated, but hated the editorial sausage grinder that turned every voice into the same old dry (but precise!) Cook’s Illustrated sausage. And here was Ed, telling me I could do exactly what I wanted to do. That my hobby could become my work. That he trusted me to live up to what he saw in me. That is all that mattered.
On October 27, just three weeks after my very first Food Lab column about hard-boiled eggs went live, Ed and I were talking again over more cheeseburgers, this time from Bill’s Bar & Burger (they make standout smashed burgers at all their NYC locations). This time Ed said, "Hey, Kenji, you should write a book about food science."
"Hey," I said, "that sounds fun."
And on it went.
"You should write a burger column for us."
"You should interview all the best pizza makers in the city."
"You should be our managing editor."**
** This last one was a mistake that I soon transitioned out of. Ed’s not always right.
How could I say no? It all sounded so fun!
And it was. But man, did it take a lot of faith at the start. Ed, always enthusiastic and cheery when it came to good food, was equally dreary and difficult when it came to business, as the site scraped by month after month. Ed didn’t dwell with us on the finances of the site, but he didn’t need to. We—Carey Jones, Erin Zimmer, Robyn Lee, Adam Kuban, and the rest of the editorial team—heard every phone call and saw his deflated form every time he had to start digging around for enough cash to make payroll.
To read his memoirs is like watching a perfectly executed backstory. Oh, that’s what was going on then, I found myself frequently thinking. I’d heard the characters and seen the MacGuffins—Ed’s brothers. His early collaborators. That Gusto promo video. (If this all means nothing to you, read on!) But seeing them come to life and understanding the significance they have played in Ed’s story is thrilling.
That first holiday season after I started freelancing for Ed, he stopped by my
windowless cave apartment one evening and dropped off a handwritten check for two hundred dollars. It’s not much, he said, but it’s what he could scrape together as a thank-you. If you do the math, he’s right. It’s not much. A check that size wouldn’t even cover the hourly minimum wage rate for half of a typical Food Lab article if I’d been paid by the hour. Yet my boss had trudged down from the Upper West Side, on the subway, through the slushy streets, to deliver a personal thanks. Think about that!
That’s when I realized that there was no turning back. I was already on the ride. Not one of those sleek steel roller coasters with smooth bearings, but a seat-of-your-pants, rickety, boardwalk affair. You churn around the track, arms flailing, and as you try to grab a safety bar that isn’t there, you realize it’s okay. You’ve got complete trust in the operator, and you might as well see where he takes you.
Am I a sucker for having my trust bought for thirty dollars an article and a two-hundred-dollar check? For continuing to believe in a boss and a business that, on paper, seemed doomed from the start? Probably. I don’t regret it. (And for the record, Ed went through superhuman efforts to do right by me every chance he could get.)
From Ed’s point of view, you’ll find that this earnestness and trust in others will often get him into trouble. From the stories he tells in this book it may even come across as his greatest weakness. I love you, Ed, but you’re wrong on this one. Your willingness to trust other people is the best thing you’ve got going for you. It’s what sets you apart. It’s what attracted the best people to you. Like ordering from the menu, it’s not just getting the people, it’s about getting the right people. It’s what gave Serious Eats the soul it needed to not just weather the crushingly turbulent waters of mid-2000-era publications and blogs, but to come out the other end intact, true to its mission, and more successful than ever.
It’s why I worked for you and why I will never work for another boss after you. You’ve ruined me for all other bosses, Ed.
Come to think of it, that pizza I heated up before checking these emails—I could have eaten that pizza cold, but that would have been a very un-Ed thing to do.
One of Ed’s basic philosophies for Serious Eats is that it’s about stories. Whether it’s an interview, a recipe, a feature on farmers’ markets, or a guide to fast food, the best pieces are the ones that are, at their core, a story, complete with a beginning, a middle, an end; themes to be followed; conflicts and resolutions. In this, he has been wildly successful with his memoirs, which read more like a carefully crafted novel than a real person’s life. The nice thing is that, for once, the good guy wins. There are both sacrifices and enemies made along the way, but Ed succeeds despite never once straying from his values, never once taking the easy way, and never ceasing to put us—the ones who recklessly jumped into the ride—and our needs first.
This is a story of generosity. It’s generosity that makes Ed the gravitational center of a massive galaxy of writers and chefs and musicians and creators. His strength is not in changing people or molding them into his image, it’s in being able to pull them in and slingshot them around at just the right trajectory to help them reach, in his words, onward and upward.