John Chandler has a secret, and he guards it carefully, lest yet another friend or co-worker ask him to make it for a dinner party.
Chandler is, by day, a 43-year-old salesman and father of two, a self-proclaimed "Southern boy" who lives outside Dallas and grew up on college football and barbecue. Online, Chandler's fans know him differently: He is the creator of the World's Best Lasagna, an artery-clogging tower of sweet Italian sausage, ground beef and ricotta cheese that has reigned as the most popular recipe on AllRecipes.com for more than a decade. It has earned 10,423 ratings and been "pinned" to Pinterest more than 25,000 times. AllRecipes estimates that 12 million people viewed it in the past five years alone.
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Given the wild popularity of AllRecipes.com -- it averages 20 million visits each month, according to analytics firm SimilarWeb -- it's entirely possible that Chandler's lasagna is the most popular recipe on the English-speaking Internet.
"How are you calculating that?" asked a startled Chandler, who has posted only one other dish on AllRecipes since the day he submitted the lasagna in 2001. He still can't believe the recipe's popularity. Neither can his friends.
"Most of them didn't know I had this recipe," Chandler said. "It's not something I go around beating my chest about. But it makes an interesting icebreaker, you know?"
Lasagna does seem out of character for Chandler, who grew up in Atlanta, moved to the Dallas suburbs a decade ago and describes his heritage as "entirely Anglo-Saxon." He learned to cook from his mother -- the lasagna is his version of her recipe -- and began cooking in earnest as an underage college student, when he realized dinner parties made good proxies for nights spent out on the town.
In 2001, his then-girlfriend, an avid AllRecipes user, urged him to put the lasagna recipe online, where others could make and review it. The dish quickly earned a string of five-star reviews and climbed to the top of AllRecipes' rankings. Her own submissions, meanwhile, never quite caught on.
"We ended it soon after that," Chandler jokes.
In the 12 years since, both Chandler's lasagna and AllRecipes itself have seen their popularity balloon several times over. AllRecipes, still a ragtag startup in the early '00s, struggled to convince its critics that the Internet was cooking's next frontier. Esmee Williams, now vice president for brand marketing, left her job at a software company that made recipe CD-ROMs in 1999 to become employee No. 18. Friends questioned the career move.
"No one understood why people would want to read recipes by their peers and not by professional chefs," Williams said.
But history has sided with Williams. The Seattle company estimates it has more than 7 million registered users and 30 million unique visitors annually, which makes it the largest English-language food site in the world, ahead of Food.com, Cooks.com and Taste of Home, all of which operate on a similar home-cook-submitted model.
"I personally wouldn't go to the Internet for a recipe ... but I know that's not fashionable," said Jan Longone, the 80-year-old curator of the American culinary history collection at the University of Michigan and a longtime friend of Julia Child and James Beard. "I'll put it this way: 20 years from now, I'm probably going to be obsolete."
She is definitely in the minority. According to a survey AllRecipes commissioned last year, cooks now turn more to the Internet for recipes than to cookbooks or family members. Last year, according to Nielsen, sales of cookbooks fell for the first time since 2007.
That could signal a slight break from the previous 217 years of American culinary history, and it undoubtedly influences the way Americans eat.
AllRecipes users tend toward the harried and middle-aged, people who enjoy cooking for their families but are hustling to get a quick Tuesday dinner on the table. That means they have priorities, said Williams: They prefer five to seven ingredients that they can find in their pantries or at a midrange grocery store. They want nice, clean pictures of each dish. They don't want to spend more than an hour cooking.
As a result, AllRecipes' best-loved dishes -- the ones that bubble to the top of millions of Google searches, spiral around Pinterest and end up, eventually, on countless kitchen tables -- tend to be classic and easy, verging on unsophisticated. Just behind Chandler's lasagna are a basic pancake, banana bread and sugar cookie, each made with seven ingredients. The site's top-rated pot roast, which in August was briefly one of the most-discussed pieces of content on Facebook, calls for two cans of cream of mushroom soup, a package of dried onion soup mix and a 5½-pound roast. That's it.
Chandler's lasagna is the exception. It takes 2½ hours to cook, excluding prep time, and its 20 ingredients cost $40 at a Washington area grocery store. After an hour and a half on the stove, the sauce tastes good the way a jar of Bertoli sauce tastes good: bright and acidic, but not particularly nuanced. And the ricotta filling, which Chandler makes with cheese, one egg and a bit of parsley, seems flat next to, say, the bechamel sauce that's traditional in parts of Italy, or the nutmeg- and mint-tinged varieties that exist elsewhere on AllRecipes.
Other cooks have suggested hundreds of tweaks: less salt and fennel, a cup of red wine, an extra pinch of Italian seasoning -- even a wholesale healthful makeover that substitutes lean turkey and low-fat mozzarella for the ground beef and sliced cheese.
Chandler doesn't mind the changes; in fact, he has used some of them himself. One of his sons has a gluten allergy, and his wife is what Chandler terms a "health nut," which has forced him to invent different versions of the dish. Chandler also hates following recipes; he'd never even measured the ingredients in the World's Best Lasagna until he decided to put it online.
"I like blending the flavors and coloring outside the lines," he said. "The sauce is best when you salt it to taste and then, once you get it going, just flavor it as you go."
His other advice for cooks who want to make his lasagna: Let it sit in the fridge overnight; it's better the next day. And be careful whom you cook it for, because you could end up making it regularly. Chandler takes the dish to events 12 to 15 times a year, often at the request of someone who discovers it's the "world's best." Although he generally doesn't let on about his Internet fame, it comes up from time to time -- such as when he wrote on Facebook about his interview with The Post.
"Well look at you all published in the recipe world ... Who knew!?" one friend wrote.
Chandler has since changed his profile picture to an illustration of a mustachioed Italian chef -- facetiously, it turns out, because true to his Georgia roots, Chandler's favorite things to cook are steak, barbecue and "anything else that can go on a grill."
"I'm definitely not a foodie," said Chandler, a man who has probably taught Americans as much about lasagna as Mario Batali has. "I don't have aspirations to be on 'MasterChef' or anything. But I love to cook."