The simple, practical guide for the amateur chef.
Aug 10, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 44 • By VICTORINO MATUS
Christopher Kimball knows what you are eating.
"I can tell you to a T what people cook at home and what they don't," says the founder and editor of Cook's Illustrated. "They say they want chicken, cheese, beef, chocolate." Who doesn't? But for the 16-year-old culinary magazine, knowing exactly what readers prefer is vital: Their feedback determines what makes it into each issue (grill-roasted turkey breast, for instance) and what doesn't.
Cook's Illustrated relies on some 10,000 "friends of Cook's" to test recipes and let Kimball and his staff know what they enjoyed making, and what they didn't. (As it turns out, candy and seafood--with the exception of salmon and shrimp--are at the bottom of the list.) The most popular dishes are tested dozens of times by the magazine's chefs who refine the recipes using the most precise measurements before they appear in the next issue practically foolproof.
Here is, for example, a partial description for making "Best Charcoal Grill-Smoked Pork Chops."
5. Remove skewers from chops; tip chops onto flat side and brush surface with 1 tablespoon sauce. Transfer chops, sauce-side down, to hotter parts of grill (2 on each side) and cook, uncovered, until browned, 2 to 4 minutes. Brush top of each chop with 1 tablespoon sauce; flip and continue to cook on second side until browned and instant-read thermometer inserted into center of pork chop, but away from any bone, registers 140 to 145 degrees, 2 to 4 minutes longer. Remove chops from grill and allow to rest, tented with foil, 5 minutes. Serve, passing half cup reserved sauce separately.
In other words, Cook's Illustrated is an instructional magazine (and one that would no doubt meet the approval of Phil Hartman's Anal-Retentive Chef). Aside from the selection of recipes, several pages of each issue are devoted to cooking and cutting techniques. There's a tasting and equipment-test section in which different brands are blindly sampled by in-house staff and the consensus winner revealed.
What is the best chef's knife? Try the Forschner Fibrox 8-inch blade for only $24.95 (compared with, say, the Shun Ken Onion 8-inch chef's knife for $250). The best sweet pickle relish? Cascadian Farm organic comes in first (no yellow dye #5) but Heinz is a close second--"sparkles with a shocking glow-in-the-dark color, but won tasters over with its 'crunchy' texture and 'mustardy' flavor." There are no celebrity chef profiles or travelogues. There aren't even any four-color photographs--a still-life of fruits or vegetables usually adorns the cover.
But the thing most notably missing is advertising. Not a single ad appears in Cook's Illustrated, forcing the magazine to depend solely on the loyalty of its readers for revenue--something it seems to be doing rather well. At last count, Cook's Illustrated had a paid circulation of 910,000 (the cost is $19.95 for six issues or $5.95 each on newsstands). Cooksillustrated.com, whose content is mostly restricted, also has a separate paid online readership of 272,000.
A sister magazine called Cook's Country, which launched in 2005 and specializes in comfort-country cuisine like Kentucky Burgoo and lemon pudding cake, claims an additional 310,000 paid readers. Another publishing arm sells roughly one million cookbooks a year. And perhaps most important, Cook's Illustrated is featured front and center on America's Test Kitchen, the most-watched cooking show on public television, with 1.7 million viewers each week. (Cook's Country TV has its own weekly audience of 1.1 million.)
So despite a worsening economy that has spelled doom for many print publications, Cook's Illustrated is thriving. And as more people choose to save money by skipping restaurants and staying home to cook, the magazine is finding itself in a most enviable position.
How, then, did this anomaly in print journalism come into being?
Cook's Illustrated is the brainchild of Christopher Kimball, a 57-year-old entrepreneur originally from Westchester County, New York, who currently resides with his wife and children in Boston and has a weekend home (actually a hobby farm) in Vermont. Not long ago I visited Kimball at his office in the Boston suburb of Brookline Village (home to Cook's Illustrated, Cook's Country, and America's Test Kitchen studios) and asked him just how he arrived here.
Surprisingly, Kimball is not a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America or Johnson & Wales. He spent his undergraduate years at Columbia.
"Columbia during the horrible years," he points out. "Like all of 1969; it was awful. Grayson Kirk was the president, who was pretty worthless. It was not a good time to go to Columbia." He majored in primitive art and worked for free at the Congo exhibit inside the Natural History Museum. Kimball even considered earning a doctorate in Oceanic art, but repulsed by the "backstabbing" culture in academia, "decided that was stupid" and left to work for his stepbrother who ran a small publishing company. Later, he joined a business that specialized in seminars related to publishing and eventually taught a few of the seminars himself.
In 1980 Kimball started a magazine called Cook's: "I was seven years out of college at that time. It was the classic case of not knowing enough to realize it was a stupid idea." Cook's survived for three years before getting bought by the New Yorker and, ultimately, Condé Nast, which under S.I. Newhouse folded it, the subscribers absorbed by Gourmet.
In 1993 Kimball decided to try his hand once more at publishing a cooking magazine, but with one major difference: "I was goddamn sick and tired of trying to sell advertising up against Gourmet, Food & Wine, and Bon Appétit. I thought it was a really awful business formula." He vowed there would be no ads: "I decided that I was going to publish the magazine I wanted to publish, and if it worked, great; if it didn't, fine."
Needless to say, it worked. Based on direct-mail cards announcing that Cook's was back and better than ever (targeted to potential subscribers--the kind who read other food magazines and enjoy buying cookware), initial interest was strong. By the end of the first year paid circulation was 200,000 and growing.
Explains Kimball, "Our rule as publisher has been, Are you selling something to people that they can't get somewhere else? That's your hurdle. In our case, because of the test kitchen methodology, we are giving something to people they can't get somewhere else."
By 2001 readership had risen to 475,000, a number that would content many publishers. But Kimball decided to take Cook's Illustrated to the next level: public television. The idea behind America's Test Kitchen, now in its ninth season, is similar to that of the magazine: to demonstrate to the audience that only on ATK will you find the proper way to make fluffy buttermilk pancakes or Chicken Kiev or whatever else the reader surveys dictate.
The opening segment is known as the "bad food intro." Kimball, who plays host, announces what his chefs will be making--for instance, salsa. On a table he shows us one version that is store-bought and another based on a free online recipe. Both look less than appetizing (Kimball dubs these salsas "nightmare on tomato street"). Then he takes us into the kitchen where the demo takes place.
During an intermission, the host will drop by the Tasting Lab where editorial director Jack Bishop presents a variety of food brands and reveals what the in-house tasters voted best. One day it could be chocolate (Ghirardelli wins). Another day it could be breakfast sausages (Farmland, fully-cooked, is far superior to Jimmy Dean). Though Kimball does take part in a blind taste-test himself, he is not an official tester--and a good thing, too: "I hate spicy foods," the host confesses. "It overwhelms my palate. It just blows my palate away. Like peppercorns, I think I picked Durkee." (Kimball also despises chicken-fried steak: "The cream sauce . . . I don't get this, sorry.")
In a separate segment known as the Equipment Corner, Adam Ried, a longtime Cook's Illustrated editor, evaluates everything from nonstick skillets to cookbook holders. At least half the time, a cheaper alternative to Le Creuset or Wüsthof can be found, though this was not the case with drip-coffeemakers. According to Kimball, "The only one we liked was the Technivorm at $235. We just said, 'Don't buy drip-coffemakers except this one, or get a French press.' " There are also science interludes where the viewer learns why certain steps are taken in a recipe (such as adding half-and-half to scrambled eggs--something to do with protein--in order to reduce wateriness).
Like its print counterpart, America's Test Kitchen is a no-nonsense, straightforward production bearing more resemblance to Julia Child's The French Chef than most shows on the Food Network. In Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany, author Bill Buford described the trend at FN as putting
a premium on presentation rather than on knowledge and tend[ing] to have intimate-seeming camera close-ups of foods, as though objects of sexual satisfaction. The skin-flick feel was reinforced by a range of heightened effects, especially amplified sounds of frying, snapping, crunching, chewing, swallowing. There seemed always to be a tongue, making small, wet, bubbly tongue sounds. The "talent" (also known as a "crossover" personality, usually a woman with a big smile and no apron) was directed to be easy with her tongue and use it conspicuously--to taste food on a spoon, say, or work it around a batter-coated beater, or clean the lips with it.
You will not see Bridget Lancaster or Julia Collin Davison doing any of this. These charming cohosts of America's Test Kitchen (both professional chefs) keep their coats buttoned and aprons firmly tied, and they do not moan in ecstasy after chewing on Key lime bars.
Christopher Kimball himself is no Jamie Oliver (the Naked Chef). At a lanky 6'2" Kimball was once described by David Carr of the New York Times as having teeth "not perfectly ready for prime time" while Stephen Metcalf in Slate poked fun at him as resembling "a grown-up version of Encyclopedia Brown" with "granny glasses" and "a doofy bow tie."
Still, Metcalf's article was entitled "Sexy Food Nerds," and as the longtime food critic for the Washington Post Phyllis Richman told me, Kimball has "made the unfashionable fashionable." To which Kimball says with a smile, "Unwittingly."
We haven't consciously done anything. We just stood up and did what we do. That's us. There's no pretense about it. So, if over time, being a geeky bow tie-wearer has some cultural momentum, that's fine. But that's just a function of enduring 10 years.
Unlike Emeril Lagasse, Kimball does not use catchphrases like "kick it up a notch" and "Bam!" In fact, his overall reaction to finished dishes tends to be muted. "If I'm effusive to the point of being unbelievably effusive," he explains, "I think that doesn't do it. I think [the audience would] rather see somebody taste the food and have a real reaction to it. Then they get to trust your reaction. . . . If every time you taste the food and say, 'This is the best thing I ever had,' everyone's going to go, 'well, that's just nonsense.' "
Chef and bestselling author Michael Ruhlman says that "as more people cook, more people want real information, not overly styled food porn or shows where the host's rack is more engaging than the food. The folks at Cook's Illustrated are giving you real information, and visually it looks like it's going to look in your kitchen."
David Mack, ATK's vice president of marketing, elaborates on this: "I don't think that we are much like any of the shows that are on the Food Network. I mean, we're more serious in terms of the information we're trying to communicate and we're less about entertainment and more about trying to provide real cooking information, about making a specific recipe."
To Mack, however, the real threat to Cook's Illustrated and ATK is not the Food Network but free content on the Internet:
As more and more people look for information online, and they sit down for dinner, and they're like, I want to grill chicken breasts, you do a Google search for grilled chicken breasts, up comes dozens of sites, and that's your competition. It's about communicating to consumers that it's not about the quantity of recipes out there. It's about the quality. And it's about the fact that if you're willing to spend, whether it's $30, $40, $50 on ingredients and invest a half-hour to an hour of your time to cook dinner, that you want a recipe that's going to turn out, and that's what we offer consumers.
(Mack once did cameos for the show both as a waiter at an Italian restaurant and as a pizza delivery boy. Much to his relief, he has not been asked back in several years.)
But can absolute devotion to the needs and desires of the reader also be a hindrance, say, to broadening one's gastronomic horizons? In an incisive article last year for Boston magazine, Jane Black joked about being extremely proficient with roast chicken thanks to Cook's Illustrated: "Not just a roast chicken, but Easy Roast Chicken, Pan-Roasted Chicken, Grill-Roasted Whole Chicken, Crispy Roast Lemon Chicken, Crisp-Skin High-Roast Butterflied Chicken, and, in 2008 alone, Stovetop Roast Chicken, Herbed Roast Chicken, Crisp Roast Chicken, and French Chicken in a Pot."
She isn't making this up. Based on the surveys, readers of Cook's Illustrated really do like their roast chicken, and want to make it just right. And Kimball is more than happy to oblige them. But as Black notes, "amateur gastronomy is no longer just about recipes. It's political. It's adventure. It's sexy. It's a lifestyle. We seek out Vermont cheeses and Japanese yuzu, and top most everything with microgreens--so long as they're in season."
So what about that yuzu? Does Kimball have even the slightest interest?
"No," he says emphatically.
I have no interest, zero interest in talking about things our readers are not going to actually do. What's the point? Unless we give people stuff they really want to use, we wouldn't be in business. What I've said to the people here is, my theory is, when it comes to renewal time, if someone will remember two or three recipes they made over the course of the year that were really great, you get the renewal. And if they haven't made anything from the magazine or it didn't turn out okay or wasn't really something they wanted, you won't. So, no. I have no interest in playing with new ingredients or new recipes unless they make sense in the typical kitchen. I don't care. What's the point? This is not a hobby magazine. This is about cooking. So let's talk about what people really do at home.
When it comes to discussing the business model of Cook's Illustrated and the overall parent corporation known as Boston Common Press (a multimillion-dollar operation that he partly owns), Kimball is very much like his products--straightforward and no-nonsense. But he can also be funny in a deadpan way. As I watched Kimball on the set of a grilling episode (which filled the entire office complex with the smell of barbecue all day) the host had to explain how to handle a grilled Italian chicken in so many ways that he jokingly feared saying not only to turn the chicken and press the chicken, but choke it, too.
He rides a Harley. He loves to hunt rabbits and deer. And he eats homemade pork sausage from the pigs on his farm. This month Kimball will serve as a guest lay minister at his Methodist church in Vermont, and gets to deliver one sermon: "I always end up talking about science or cooking."
Kimball should also be giving talks on how to save print journalism. "If you put out something people want to read, you can get people to subscribe to it," he says assuredly. "The Boston Globe has to figure out what they can provide that no one else can provide. So the obvious thing is they moved a lot of coverage to local. They cut down on their international and national. But they got to figure out more than that."
Indeed, the editors of the Globe (and everyone else) need to convince online users to suddenly pay for content that, until now, has been free. And they need to convince readers that they are the only source for the information they seek--and that it is worth the price.
If only the information these readers were seeking had to do with making a perfectly grill-roasted turkey breast.
Victorino Matus is assistant managing editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.