I got into the hospitality industry because I was struck by the power of food to bring people together and its ability to offer an immediate window to the qualities human cultures share with each other. There’s no faster and better way to get to understand a person than to break bread with them. Eventually, I found that shifting from working in restaurant kitchens to writing recipes and books on cooking allowed me to reach a much wider audience and have a greater positive effect on people’s lives. There’s no greater professional joy I get than when someone tells me that my approach to cooking has helped them feel more comfortable in the kitchen, helped them feed their friends and family, or made them discover a new passion for cooking and hospitality.
When I started writing The Wok, my goal was to create a manual that would help home cooks approach this ancient tool in a way that was practical and empowering for their everyday needs. In my own experience over the last couple decades, the has proven to be the most versatile and well-used piece of equipment in my kitchen, so I knew that a well-written book on wok-cooking would be useful for people in all stages of life, from young kids still living with roommates, to full families. I loved the idea of writing a book with several hundred recipes that can all be cooked using only a single inexpensive pan.
As an Asian-American who grew up in large cities in the U.S., I’m acutely aware of my biases when writing about traditional East and Southeast Asian cuisine, and from the outset, my goal was to differentiate my work from that of more accomplished authors and teachers of traditional Asian cuisine, such as Grace Young, Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, or Leela Punyaratabandhu. Rather than try and compete with their experience and deep cultural knowledge, I strove to represent my own experiences as an Asian-American. It’s been a huge inspiration to me that many of these writers and teachers who I so respect have supported my work and my book.
I believe that the idea of hospitality that drew me to the industry in the first place is still the most important aspect of it for me. I’ve consistently tried to use my platforms and my books to promote the idea of helping others and being involved with our communities. I do this in a number of ways. Since my book was released, I’ve directed folks to purchase tools and ingredients from struggling Asian mom and pop shops like San Francisco’s Wok Shop or KK Discount in New York, both of which have been very appreciative of the boost in business. I’ve helped No Kid Hungry raise over $130k in donations to help feed hungry children via charity sales, partnerships, and direct donations. I’ve raised money and lent time to local Seattle organizations such as Friends of Little Saigon, benefiting the Vietnamese population in the International District, and FareStart, who help place struggling folks and those with criminal records into productive paths in the food industry. I’ve also been extremely vocal about the historically toxic nature of the restaurant industry, and what steps we can take to improve the working conditions of both front and back of the house folks.
I’ve always believed that food is an inherently political field, now more so than ever with rising food prices, increasing homelessness, and an unprecedented amount of hate being leveled against Asian-Americans and their businesses. I strive to help alleviate these issues both by amplifying voices that need to be heard, raising money for great causes, and empowering people in their homes and kitchens.
Celebrate J. Kenji López-Alt and the other winners of 2023 Pacific Northwest Book Awards with the virtual event on Zoom Feb 9, 2023 at 6:00 PM Pacific Time. REGISTER NOW.
Kenji and his publisher have generously shared a recipe for you to enjoy as you watch the virtual Book Awards event! Vietnamese American Garlic Noodles are great for any event, really– and if you’re lucky, you might even have some leftovers for lunch.
NWbooklovers posts original essays from this year’s award winners as featured posts in January and February. You can enjoy essays from past winners of the PNBA Book Award in our archive.