The majority of readers based in the UK will have no notion of who Christopher Kimball might be, and to mention that he is the host of America’s Test Kitchen will hardly be enlightening. It’s a programme new to UK satellite and cable TV although it’s into its 13th season on the US PBS network, which offers quality broadcasting in a sea of mediocrity.
Chris visited London to promote his show. Dressed in a formal black suit and looking taller than he does on TV, this New England lad wasn’t out of place in the classic wood-panelled Old England library where we met – a sartorial change from his habitual red pinnie when in front of the camera (although he has been known to dress as a pumpkin). America’s Test Kitchen seriously educates in a light-hearted fashion. Recipes, products and kitchen equipment all have their regular slots in the show.
Christopher Kimball has never been a professional chef but started his career in the publishing industry. ‘I’ve always been interested in cooking – I started baking when I was 7 or 8, and I remember the joy of cooking. My mother was not much of a cook, and my father, I think, didn’t have tastebuds. I spent summers and weekends in Vermont, and in the town there was a baker, Marie: she sold bread and cookies and pies. I spent a lot of time at her house. When I went into town I would stop by and she always had a slice of bread and a cup of tea for me – she fed everybody.
‘She had the ‘Vermont’ technique of teaching – never tell people what to do, just show them what to do. My sister cooked with her more than I did, but I helped out, and if I was doing something wrong, I’d suddenly notice her next to me doing it the right way, without saying anything. The charm of that, if you’re a kid, is that you’re treated like an adult – and you find that you can cook, this huge ‘adult’ thing. That’s part of the pleasure of cooking, you’re developing a skill, and even if you are 10 years old you can bake a cake.’
Chris describes the impact of America’s Test Kitchen on the general American public: ‘I’ve had so many people come up to me almost in tears and say, “I can’t tell you what this did for me. I used to go to the kitchen and nothing ever turned out right, I thought it was me; then I started using your recipes, most of them work for me, and now I’m a cook!” That’s a transformative thing for people psychologically, not just that the food’s good, but now they can cook! In this day and age, you can’t even fix your car with your hands, and there are so few things you can create for yourself; cooking is the last vestige of that. If people can go into the kitchen and cook for family and friends – it sounds corny, but it’s true – it’s a huge thing for people. And it doesn’t have to be fancy, in fact the simpler the better.’
I asked about the state of food television in the US. ‘The Food Network is about entertainment, not about teaching people to cook. But they made a lot of money, and now everyone else has caught on. I think the problem is, as in Hollywood, the ‘star’ system. Those shows depend entirely on the ‘celebrity chef’ model, which is doable if you have a system for finding the next Rachael Ray! That’s what the Food Network is about – they are always looking for the next potential star.
‘But that’s not what we do. So for the first season I asked the director if I should get acting lessons, and after he had picked himself up off the floor laughing, he said, “Listen, pal, you’re not an actor. You guys are just going to stand up and do what you do. That’s all you know how to do, and either people will show up or they won’t. You are who you are, you don’t have the skillset to be somebody else, so just go do the show, and we’ll keep our fingers crossed that someone wants to see it!”’ Well, evidently viewers liked what they saw and have remained faithful to America’s Test Kitchen down the years. It has very real appeal for people who actually want to learn to cook or to improve their skills. ‘So there’s an authenticity to it, because it is a real place with real people, and we’ve been working together forever. We are just doing what we like to do, and that’s the charm of the show – it’s not trying to be a contest or a cook-off.’
It’s not just a cookery lesson, though. America’s Test Kitchen has blind tastings. A panel evaluates, say, half a dozen orange liqueurs. They will mark the products and then shroud those bottles in brown paper bags and invite Chris to offer his opinion as to his favourite. He is rather proud of the fact that he does not always agree with those panel ‘experts’. ‘Those taste tests are for-real. Once in a while we disagree, though about 80% of the time we do agree. I did a cocoa tasting last week, and I picked Droste, and everyone else picked Hershey’s cocoa, and I just said, “We should fire them, they don’t know what they’re doing!”’ he laughs.
Chris has his focus on American food, so how about other cuisines and their impact in the US? ‘I think having the basic techniques of French cooking at your disposal is hugely important, but now there are so many things you can do that are more interesting, that can be done in a short time on a Tuesday night to create something really tasty, using ideas from other countries. I interviewed a Turkish chef in Boston, and she introduced me to some of the spice blends they use in Turkey – zatar and other things – and I put it on everything now: eggs, pizza, chicken, and it tastes great.’
Perhaps the secret to the success of America’s Test Kitchen is that it’s practical and has a realistic appreciation of what its viewers want: good food in a timely fashion. ‘When I’ve had an opportunity to work with people who cook a lot, they cook simply. There was once a couple who invited us over for Sunday brunch, and they had made 20 dishes – I suppose they had wanted to impress me. The first time I ate with Julia Child, it was Oyster Stew: she heated it up in the oven, bought a baguette, a bottle of wine, and some fruit for dessert. She made that one thing, oyster stew, and it was fabulous. I’ll never forget that lesson – make one thing, maybe two. So I say if you want to be a good cook, pick twenty-five recipes that represent a range of cooking styles, and cook them so many times you don’t need the recipe. You only need twenty-five – a braise, a stew, a sauté, a basic quick bread, a yeast bread, an egg dish, a skillet-to-oven meal, a basic vegetable preparation, a mash of some kind, a roast… you can list them off. You can probably cook for the rest of your life with just those twenty-five recipes. Ultimately you need a repertoire that makes sense for you, for where you live and for the seasons. So if you’re cooking in Vermont where you have a lot of meat and potatoes – those are the only two things that grow in Vermont – those ingredients make sense for that place. If you lived in Sicily it would be a very different repertoire.’
How do Chris and his team choose the recipes for the shows? ‘One of the rules for our recipes is that all the ingredients have to be found in supermarkets. It takes weeks to develop our recipes, which all come from Cooks Illustrated magazine. We’ll make it 40, 50, up to 100 times, and then we send them out to some viewers and readers who have agreed to cook them for free. We get 100 to 300 responses, and unless 80% say they will cook it again we don’t publish it. So the hurdle for us is not ‘This is the best chicken pot pie ever’ or ‘This is the best chocolate tart ever’, but it’s that the amount of effort you put into it is worth it. We are not trying to create ‘the best’, because there is always a trade-off. Sure, you can create the best recipe, but it might take 10 hours of work; if you can get something 80% as good in an hour, I’ll take the 80% one! It’s about the practical notion of putting food on the table.’
Is there an ‘American’ cuisine? ‘I think there are 400-500 recipes that really define American cooking, a lot of which were English, as well as Italian and others. We started on the show with those 500 recipes: the basic chicken, basic mashed potatoes, basic fruit pie, basic soda bread, corned beef, beef stew, the simplified version of things from other places, and they still exist, but American cuisine is changing. I think there have been more changes in home cooking in the last three years than in the previous thirty. In the magazine we ask people what they want us to present: it always was that if it’s got potatoes in it, they’d want it; beef, they’d want it; chocolate, they’d want it. If you had put an ethnic dish in, like a chicken dish from South America, nobody was interested. But we’ve just done Saag Paneer (spinach and home-made cheese) and our readers now want that kind of thing, and that’s never happened before. Almost all our major initiatives this year are ethnic foods. Of course, ‘Italian’ was the first real ethnic food after the Second World War, and then there was the Chinese stir-fry, then it was Mediterranean. Now Mediterranean is too general – there’s Moroccan, Turkish… and the Far East other than China, like Vietnamese; Thai is very big now. The proliferation of ethnic restaurants has a lot to do with this broadening of horizons.
‘At the same time we look at regional cooking in America. The South has changed a lot less than the North of the USA. In the North they had a railroad system and access to Europe, so a lot of diverse ingredients were easily available in, say, Boston; but that wasn’t true of the South; they didn’t have the transportation, they didn’t get the flour from the Mid-West that was shipped to the East, that’s why they stuck with cornmeal for longer. The South was much more a country unto itself from the culinary point of view so they didn’t change as much. They were more ‘regional’ because they naturally had a greater choice of local foods than we did in the North, and they’ve kept those traditions. And as you get closer to New Orleans there were the French and the Caribbean influences, the slaves from the West Indies brought barbecuing, so it’s a more interesting place in terms of food than the North.’
Julia Child is, unsurprisingly, a culinary inspiration for Christopher Kimball. ‘It was not what she chose to cook but the fact that she had great curiosity, always investigating things – it wasn’t her repertoire, it was her approach – she tested recipes over and over again, she was a very inquiring person. Then there’s James Beard, with his American Cookery – it’s not so much his recipes as his stories. In the 1980s there were people like Alice Waters, Rick Bayless, and everything changed; but Julia was an intellectual, she always asked “Why?”’ So Chris asks ‘Why?’ on behalf of his viewers in every episode of America’s Test Kitchen, and he seems to have found many of the answers.
Interview by Chrissie Walker © 2018