The Magazine

Cooks' Tour

The simple, practical guide for the amateur chef.

Aug 10, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 44 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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"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