Ed Levine had a pretty cool life as a food writer in the 1990s. He wrote basically whatever he wanted to for The New York Times, things like obsessive searches for the perfect hamburger. Ruth Reichl called him ‘the missionary of the delicious’. Then he risked his and his wife’s life savings to launch and run the website Serious Eats, which was basically at the brink of closing for nearly a decade, a story he wrote about in his new memoir, Serious Eater. Along the way he met a young writer named J. Kenji López-Alt, gave him a platform, and watched as Kenji become a superstar, his generation’s voice on the science of cooking, and the bestselling author of The Food Lab. And we’re here with them to talk about their relationship.
Francis Lam: Hey, Ed. Hey, Kenji.
Ed Levine: Hey.
J. Kenji López-Alt: How are you doing?
EL: I hope you have two hours to talk about this relationship, Francis.
FL: [laughs] We’ll have two hours, but we’ll super cut it down to ten minutes, so it’ll be great.
EL: Because that’s what couples’ therapy is all about.
FL: I thought you guys were beyond that now. [all laugh]
JKLA: We don’t have any serious arguments. I don’t think we’ve ever had any real serious fundamental arguments, at least, the way couples do sometimes.
EL: That’s the thing that people sometimes misunderstand about our relationship, Francis, is that even though Kenji wrote - and writes - about things that I could never write about, and maybe vice-versa, we held so many things in common, like values and what we valued in good writing and proper research and good editing, that people think, Oh, what could they have in common? The fact of the matter is, as Kenji said, we have a ton in common. We actually have more in common than we do not.
FL: You kind of have to. Ed, you wrote in the book that you’ve always had a knack for spotting talent, but a lot of the story is about your gathering talent for your original version of the site. The original vision of the site was sort of a super blog, and there wasn’t really an interest from you or the people working there in doing recipes. And then you found this talent, Kenji, who would help remake the whole focus of the site. What made you say, "Kenji, please come write for us?"
EL: Kenji had actually started writing for us. He wrote a couple of burger reviews for our now shuttered burger blog, A Hamburger Today. While he was doing that, I think he was still working for Cook’s Illustrated as an editor.
JKLA: Yeah. I was working at Cook’s Illustrated.
EL: But he was allowed to do stuff like that for Serious Eats because that wasn’t anything that Cook’s Illustrated was interested in doing. And, two things became clear to me. One is that I couldn’t ignore recipes. In the book I talk about my breakfast with Nick Denton, the founder of Gawker, where he asked me, "What are you going to do about recipes?" And I told him I didn’t think the world needed another recipe database. Then he whipped out his phone and he said, "How many recipe searches do you think there are a month on the internet?" I had no idea. And he goes, "I think the number now is 30 million." And he said, "If I were you, I’d figure out a way to do recipes Serious Eats style."
And so, I connected the dots between that conversation and Kenji’s writing, and what I knew to be his considerable skills as a recipe developer, because I used to read his stuff on Cook’s Illustrated. So it was just like, this makes sense. And frankly it was the way the web was moving, because the kind of stuff I wanted to do quickly became the realm of crowdsourcing information. The idea that there was so much value in me spending a month or two looking for the best cheeseburger in New York, or even the country for that matter, seemed like not the right way to move forward. So when I met Kenji, and I was just like - and to this day I still don’t know why. I guess I knew he went to MIT. Is that what it was, Kenji? I don't know why I suggested that he write a food science column. He had written a little bit of food science stuff for Cook’s Illustrated, right?
JKLA: I was doing science stuff at Cook’s Illustrated and I’d written a couple things for Serious Eats that had a little bit of at least nerdy stuff in them, if not actual experimentation.
FL: Kenji, so Ed comes and offers you this gig for 30 dollars a post.
JKLA: Right. [both laugh]
EL: Why are you two laughing?
FL: What made you want to do it, and what made you want to do it with him?
JKLA: The first time I had contact with Serious Eats was actually when I had written a burger article for Cook’s Illustrated – this was in 2007 maybe – and it was about grinding your own beef. Adam Kuban, who ran A Hamburger Today and who was the managing editor of Serious Eats, read that article and did a little blog post about it, where I think a bunch of people tried to do it at home. I’d been writing for Cook’s Illustrated for a couple years and I really enjoyed the testing and experimentation and all that element. This was the first time that I’d seen a piece that I’d written get a real quick and immediate reaction online. There was this post on A Hamburger Today and then there was this community there that had all these comments and conversations and ideas about it. That was something that I’d never had before in any of my writing – this sort of like community element. That really attracted me to Serious Eats.
I emailed Adam and say, “I saw you picked up my piece. If you want, I can write a few things for you.” I started of just doing silly burger posts; I wasn’t allowed to do recipes because I was under contract with Cook’s Illustrated. But I very immediately saw that Serious Eats had a certain, very similar set of values and ideas as me, like taking food seriously but not taking yourself seriously – that was sort of the thing. And understanding that even if you analyze a hot dog, at the end of the day it’s still just a hot dog, and finding the humor in that. I really loved that culture at Serious Eats. So it seemed obvious – when I moved to New York for other reasons – it seemed an obvious step to try and work with Ed.
I’ve always been someone who places a lot more value on learning and trying new things than monetary compensation. I’ve been lucky in my life in that the compensation ended up coming at some point, but it was never the guiding principle. The 30 dollars an article seemed almost like a bargain to me. It’s like, here’s this guy that gave you this idea for a food science column. I basically just told you this thing that you’ve been missing. Ed basically came up with my dream job and laid it at my feet; I’d never considered doing that before. This is what I was made to do.
FL: It’s like you went to the oracle and the oracle gave you your future, and you’re like, Oh, and I get 30 bucks? That’s pretty good!
JKLA: Yeah, exactly. It’s like I get to do what I want to do, and my phone bill is covered.
FL: You started working with Ed and you started writing this column – well, two different columns – but eventually focused on The Food Lab, which later became the basis of your book. It focuses on investigating cooking techniques through like a scientific point of view, which is wildly popular.
JKLA: Specifically, home cooking.
FL: Was there a moment, though, when that started to take off for both yourself and for Serious Eats, the website, when you started to realize that you two were really invested in one another?
JKLA: Oh yeah. I’d had had past business relationships, and Ed knows all about my relationship with Cook’s Illustrated, which turned a little ugly at one point right around the time when I started writing the book. Cook’s Illustrated realized I was doing it and wanted to buy the book, and I didn’t want to sell it to them. I have bad relationships with bosses in the past, and things where I wished I got that in writing, or I wish I’d paid more attention to this contract. And so, that was always something I was a little bit wary of.
It’s like here’s this guy, Ed. He’s not paying me too much. I know he’s paying me as much as he can, but it’s not much. And now his wife is my agent, and he’s helping me by opening all these doors and giving me all these opportunities. But, at the same time, it’s like every step I take I’m taking one further step into this relationship that’s going to be impossible to detangle myself from if it ever comes to a problem. It was one of those things where at some point you just have to put your trust in people, and Ed was a particularly easy person to trust. And, thankfully, he’s never broken that trust for me, and I hope that I’ve never broken that trust with him. It’s proven to be a good relationship.
FL: So, Ed, you laid the trap.
EL: Francis, it’s one of those things where we really – and I know this sounds trite – where we helped each other realize our respective dreams. What better relationship could there be? That’s the ingredients for a happy marriage.
FL: That’s awesome. Thank you, guys, so much for coming in.
JKLA: Thanks for having us, Francis.
EL: It was awesome. Thank you, Francis.
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