The Magazine

Cooks' Tour

The simple, practical guide for the amateur chef.

Aug 10, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 44 • By VICTORINO MATUS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.