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Someone’s in the Kitchen
In a quiet corner of Brookline, cooking mogul Christopher Kimball is spicing things up

Brookline Village: a neighborhood as quaint as the name would suggest, with its handicraft galleries and rare-book nooks, vintage closets and highbrow toy stores. A neighborhood that, food-wise, is all the more charmingly eclectic, as classic luncheonettes cuddle up to chocolatiers’ boutiques, and kulebiaka is nestled alongside kosher Chinese take-out. A neighborhood in whose domesticated, picturesque midst you’d probably never expect to find the makings of a mini media empire.

And in fact this industry-in-progress is not easy to find, housed as it is in an unmarked office building on a nondescript side street flanked by the Green Line. But all the elements are there: a publishing house called Boston Common Press — whose ventures include a bimonthly magazine and a 40-title booklist — and a television studio with a nationally broadcast show. What really renders the business out of place in this Old World–meets–yuppie enclave, however, is not its multi-million-dollar trade but its quasi-Quakerly focus and philosophy. This is the home of Cook’s Illustrated and America’s Test Kitchen, the cooking magazine and companion TV show that leave to Gourmet and the Food Network their worldly Epicureanism in favor of all things down-home, plain, and simple. Both take what unlikely mogul Christopher Kimball — a bit quaint himself in his trademark bow tie and wire-rimmed specs — calls in the same breath a "Midwestern approach" and a hard-nosed "Yankee" attitude to food and its preparation: "Its tenets are frugality, lack of adjectives ... it’s very show-me, very practical, very home-oriented."

Thus, while the very wow-me, extravagant, restaurant-oriented food media cater as they always have to the moneyed tastes of the metropolis, Kimball’s pro-plainness message seems to be spreading across the suburbs and through the heartland with the momentum of a true grassroots culinary movement. Timing, of course, is everything. Cook’s — the humble home-cooking magazine that marked Kimball’s first foray into the genre — folded after a series of buyouts compromised its vision at the close of the think-big, status-hungry ’80s, but it was just the magazine to relaunch, under a new name, in the toned-down, budget-conscious pre-boom ’90s. Now, at a time of overwhelming political and economic uncertainty, the comforting culinary certitude that Cook’s Illustrated offers has earned it more than half a million subscribers, while America’s Test Kitchen, currently in only its third season on PBS, is available in 86 percent of all US households — "The highest carriage rating of any cooking series," according to Kimball’s publicist, Deborah Broide — and boasts a viewership of two million per episode.

HOw does KIMBALL cultivate such certitude? First as publisher, then as columnist, show co-creator, and host, he has made all manner of business decisions and creative calls guaranteed to instill confidence in his audience, both as cooks and as consumers. Indeed, the magazine is frequently portrayed as a kitchen-counter Consumer Reports. Above all, its format favors substance over style. Kimball explains that "we really try to pack it in with stuff — there’s a huge audience that doesn’t just want to know about the lifestyle of food; they really want to know about cooking." So, instead of travelogues and celebrity-chef profiles, Cook’s focuses on recipes that are — and this is its primary claim to fame — virtually foolproof thanks to the cadre of test cooks and editors who devote weeks and even months to perfecting them.

Senior editor and ATK co-star Julia Collin, a petite blonde with a cute-as-pie mug and a demeanor at once vivacious and thoughtful, describes the process: first, upon receiving a recipe assignment, "you do research to see what’s out there, to see the full range of recipe [variations], and then choose five that span the range," from traditional to souped-up. Take the onion-and-anchovy tart from Provence known as pissaladière, for instance; Collin notes that "some people put potato in the dough to make it focaccia-like, some people use puff pastry, some people like a thin pizza crust. I’ll pick a classic recipe from, say, Escoffier, then I’ll pick a newer version," and so on. After preparing all five in the test kitchen — which, with its spacious and sleek-yet-homey design, is also the set for the show — "there will be a tasting. Ideally we’ll get a minimum of 10 to 12 people — editors, test cooks, whoever’s milling around; the more the merrier. And I’ve found that people home in on pretty much the same idea [of how a given dish should be]. That gives you a starting point. It’s like a funnel. You start at the top of the funnel, at the wide part, with the big issues, until you reach the tube of the funnel, when you can focus in on narrower points, testing minute things like the amount of salt."

Take, for instance, the question of properly dressing a cobb salad, a subject Collin, along with co-author and co-star Adam Ried, took up in a recent issue of Cook’s: "Cobb salad’s classic vinaigrette dressing is both the tie that binds the dish together and its biggest problem. Unifying the disparate elements of this salad is a lot to ask of any dressing," which "more often than not" ends up overpowering some ingredients while leaving others "high and unhappily dry." To solve the problem, the cooks experiment with one variable at a time, engaging in repeated processes of elimination — in this case, rethinking the dressing ingredient by ingredient, then choosing the best method for applying the new and improved dressing to the salad itself (simply add and toss? coat each ingredient separately?) — until the final step is reached with no stone unturned.

But Cook’s cooks don’t stop there. "Once you’ve written the recipe, you’ve ironed out the problems — decided on the best equipment for the job, the correct temperature of the oven, and so on — then you farm it out to a freelance tester, or to people in the office who aren’t cooks," Collins says. "They’ll come back and tell you what worked or didn’t work for them — things that might never have occurred to you — saying, ‘Well, I don’t have this pan,’ which you thought was a totally obvious piece of equipment." So much, then, for too many cooks spoiling the broth; rather, for Kimball, Collin, and colleagues, a good recipe is a joint effort, democracy at work.

ATK follows along the same lines. "We try to home in on the philosophy of the show more clearly every season," says Collin. "What we’re presenting is the best recipe [for any given dish] we’ve ever tasted, and we’ve tasted a lot. But the idea is that we try to make it so that anyone can make it. We try to show the bad food with the good — to make the same mistakes we all make and then show how to fix them. No one’s exempt from cooking failures, but we can explain them, at least, and that’s what makes us so different. It drives home the point that we really take time with each recipe, we really know it." Such a thoroughgoing, deliberate approach is the only escape route from what Kimball regards as the Scylla and Charybdis of America’s cooking trends, not to mention values: convenience at quality’s expense on the one hand, and conspicuous consumption on the other. The former, Kimball says, has dulled our collective taste buds: "As Julia Child has said, people don’t know how things are supposed to taste anymore. They’ve never tasted what real maple syrup’s like, so they keep going back to Mrs. Butterworth." The latter, meanwhile, encourages a cavalier stove-side exhibitionism that’s likely to backfire: "There is a right way and a wrong way to cook. There are things to know. So get rid of all the nonsense and figure out what’s really going on, because your natural tendencies in the kitchen to improvise are usually wrong — a lot of things that are right are counterintuitive."

Other segments of the show, such as "The Science Desk," rest on that notion. As "Science Desk consultant," John "Doc" Willoughby — a current Gourmet editor who has also taught food writing at Boston University and co-authored numerous cookbooks with East Coast Grill’s Chris Schlesinger — answers the one question that most recipes, for all their whats, whens, wheres, and hows, rarely ask: why? Why, for instance, does overcooked rice become sticky? Why are braising and other slow, moist-heat cooking methods preferable for tough cuts of meat? (Answers: starch molecules in the rice grains expand with the absorption of water and clump together; the connective tissue in meat known as collagen has sufficient time to melt.)

Other features focus on product testing to demonstrate the merits and shortcomings of a relevant ingredient, piece of equipment, or particular brand, thus giving readers insight into the logic of a given recipe: why use this and not that? Senior Cook’s editor and resident "equipment expert" Adam Ried chalks up the value of these segments to their sheer exhaustion of the experimental possibilities, which draw upon the patience and open-mindedness of a Cook’s cook. He seconds Kimball’s notion that culinary snobbery limits one’s capacity for discovery. For instance, Ried explains, cookery purists might be astonished by the results of a taste test conducted in an episode called "Two Chocolate Cakes," whereby "our tasters couldn’t distinguish imitation vanilla from pure vanilla [extract] in cookies, cake, or custard. Would you ever, in a million years, have thought that?" And while sticklers for classicism might blanch to hear it, Ried and colleagues welcome the discovery of the occasional shortcut, so long as it’s judicious and in keeping with the "80/20 rule"— "if it’s 80 percent as good and 20 percent easier, go for it." "You’ve seen the potato-crusted fish fillets in fancy restaurants, right?" says Ried. "We wanted the potato flavor without the hassle of slicing and arranging the potatoes — and it turned out that potato chips gave us everything we wanted, plus crunch!"

As for gadgetry, Ried continues to be surprised by his findings, such as the efficacy of electric knives: "Much as we’re supposed to check our preconceptions at the door when we develop recipes or test equipment, I honestly expected to hate these things, which I considered relics from my grandmother’s era. It turns out they’re great.... You know the mess you usually make out of pecan pie or pot roast with a regular knife; [these] make it incredibly easy to slice [such] foods thinly and neatly." He also singles out Ecko bakeware for exceeding his expectations: "I thought [it] was pretty low-rent, and it is inexpensive. But their pieces are thoughtfully designed and perform well. Okay, they may dent easily, but at $4, replacing them won’t break the bank."

Meanwhile, skeptics who smell a plug in such comments can rest assured: Cook’s accepts no advertising — period. (Again, America’s Test Kitchen follows suit, by virtue of the fact that it airs on commercial-free public television.) True, this policy necessitates high subscription and newsstand rates ($35.70 per year and $5.95 per issue, respectively). In turn, however, it ensures the loyalty of an audience that puts a premium on journalistic and culinary integrity.

Actually, it could be said that Cook’s major selling point is its apparent aversion to selling altogether. Of the black-and-white images the magazine favors over full-color money shots, for instance, Collin observes that "the food is barely styled. It comes down to choosing a plate ... because above all we want it to look accurate. We want it to look like what it will look like when you cook it. Which is actually very hard. It’s easy to gussy something up — to add garnish or to photograph a plastic turkey painted glossy brown. On a real turkey, the skin will begin to wrinkle within 10 minutes." (Of course, to this day, Cook’s relies not only on photographs, but on the pen-and-ink illustrations that give it its name.) Likewise, the show’s entertainment value is secondary to its educational purpose; the focus is on the nuts-and-bolts of the cooking lesson. "We don’t script anything in terms of conversation," says Collin. "It’s all about logistics. I have to think about how things need to be set up and how I’d like to proceed with the recipe" so that the crew can block and film each scene accordingly. The dialogue naturally follows.

Which isn’t to say that America’s Test Kitchen — or Cook’s, for that matter — aren’t entertaining. To begin with, when it comes to topic selection, Kimball and crew take care not to assert their own taste over that of their audience. They conduct reader polls to determine which recipes hold the most interest, and decide on episodes, as Ried says, by asking: "Is there appeal? Is there sizzle? Is the recipe quick enough to execute without losing viewer interest? Is there a generic technique [being introduced, one with a broad application]? Is the dish mainstream enough — not esoteric — to interest a wide assortment of viewers?"

For instance, says Collin, "one idea that kept getting tossed around and axed was ‘odd veggies’ — we’d feature, like, eggplant and make ratatouille — but we decided it was only interesting to us." She makes her point by imitating the average channel-surfer pondering the options: "Hmmm, Friends or ‘Five Odd Veggies?’" In the end, they compromised with a show they called "Dressing Up Veggies," which featured relatively familiar dishes such as stuffed peppers and twice-baked potatoes. Collin herself favors ideas that lend themselves to "titles that might go in TV Guide: ‘Ice Cream Social,’ ‘Easy Pasta Sauces,’ " and so on (although, she laughs, "Most of mine get axed, I have to say").

Then there’s the obvious rapport among the show’s co-stars — Kimball, Collin, Ried, Willoughby, test cook Bridget Lancaster, and tasting-lab director Jack Bishop. During a recent taping for the upcoming (January 2004) season, the banter between Kimball and Collin extended from practical matters, such as the best way to caramelize sugar for a Dutch-apple-pancake recipe, to a loopy debate over whether Bolognese sauce should be referred to as "he" or "she."

Noting the affinity between cast members, ATK devotee Ellen Bannister — a PhD candidate at Boston University who tunes in weekly with her husband, Bob Lemon, a Harvard graduate student — theorizes that the appeal of the show isn’t culinary but psychological: "It seems to us that there’s a kind of underlying sexual dynamic because [Kimball] has these attractive young female chefs he’s always flirting with." Bannister asserts, only half-jokingly, that cooking shows in general involve life lessons. Jacques Pépin, in his show with Julia Child, "shows you how to deal with difficult older relatives," and, in the one co-starring his daughter, "shows you what not to do to your children post-divorce." For its part, says Bannister, ATK exemplifies "the elusiveness of masculine charm. [Kimball’s] this funny-looking, geeky guy who nonetheless comes across as very much an Alpha male."

Okay, maybe that’s a stretch. But certainly it’s true that in comparison with the prime-time parade of studs like Jamie Oliver and Todd English, the cast exudes geek appeal: the chefs’ self-effacing enthusiasm allows them to step in as examples, good and bad, for the sake of instruction. Explosions figure prominently in the mishaps they describe. Kimball recalls the shrapnel that flew when "we tried to bake an angel-food cake in the microwave. I don’t know why anybody thought that would be a good idea." Ried remembers "looking for ways to speed up the process of making a dark roux, which usually requires 30 to 40 minutes of constant stirring. One bright idea I tried was to heat the oil up in the microwave first in a Pyrex measuring cup. When I pulled the cup out of the microwave and set it down on the counter, I didn’t notice that the counter was damp, so the cup exploded, sending shards of glass and scalding-hot oil flying in every direction. It was almost like a special-effects scene designed by Industrial Light and Magic — impressive and very dramatic. Thank God no one was hurt. I’ve never been allowed to forget that one." Collin, for her part, admits to being borderline obsessed with developing the perfect recipe, no matter how seemingly simple. "Bread is four ingredients: yeast, flour, salt, and water," she says. "But the way in which you put them together, the way in which you push them around, where you let them sit when you’re not pushing them around ... in most [stovetop] recipes, it’s a no-brainer. Stirring the onions is just stirring the onions. But with baking, your touch makes all the difference. So I worked on this story [about Italian loaves] for months, and every day these four ingredients would trip me up. I’d vacillate between being really frustrated and really excited. I’d have a breakthrough and be talking to my parents on the phone, telling them all about it, or I’d be going to bed early with a glass of wine, [upset] because I just couldn’t figure it out."

Of course, with that much analytical rigor at the heart of the enterprise, it shouldn't be surprising that Cook’s is headquartered in the college town to end all American college towns. As Collin says, "Our method — the intensive sort of intellectual testing, testing, testing — is something that fits right into Boston." And its location in a quiet, mostly residential neighborhood like Brookline Village is all to the good, Kimball notes, since "we can’t have a ton of action going on, noise, traffic." Besides, he adds, neighborhoods are the collective locus of American cookery, which James Beard in fact defined (to paraphrase Kimball’s paraphrase) as "whatever your neighbor’s making for dinner" — be it mac ’n’ cheese, steak tips, or, yes, even good old kulebiaka.

The next episode of America’s Test Kitchen airs on WGBH-TV on September 6, at noon. Ruth Tobias can be reached at ruthiet@bu.edu

Issue Date: August 29 - September 4, 2003
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