At 65, the founder of America’s Test Kitchen has started his biggest culinary experiment yet.
Christopher Kimball left the company he founded in November 2015 amid a flurry of astonished media posts. The America’s Test Kitchen brand publishes cookbooks, created the Cook’s Illustrated and Cook’s Country magazines, and produces both a television show and a radio podcast.
Then Kimball, set to appear in Overture Center’s Capitol Theater on Wednesday, made what the New York Times called “a bold pivot.”
“Instead of using Eurocentric techniques that rely on concentrating flavors through long applications of heat,” the Times’ Kim Severson wrote, “Mr. Kimball is exploring ways to build dishes that rely on texture, spice and freshness.
“Instead of making chicken stock like a frugal French cook who simmers bones and scraps for hours, why not boil a whole chicken for just an hour like a Chinese cook, using ginger, scallions and herbs to elicit a more delicate flavor?”
Kimball felt inspired by the Middle Eastern cooking he found in “Ottolenghi,” the spicy and simple Chinese dishes in Fuchsia Dunlop’s “Every Grain of Rice” and flavors from Mexico and Thailand.
The bespectacled man with the bow tie is going global.
Kimball’s new multimedia project is Milk Street Kitchen, based in Boston. It will have a magazine, set to launch with 200,000 charter issues within a few weeks, a PBS show, books and what the NYT called “a hands-on, in-person, brick and mortar cooking school.”
Madison is the sixth city on what Kimball has dubbed the Culinary Mystery Tour, a Williams-Sonoma sponsored live show with video clips and audience interaction.
Kimball talked with the Cap Times last week about how his culinary philosophies have shifted, what intrigues him about international techniques in home cooking, and why he is well-positioned to bring the change to middle America.
The Capital Times: First, a practical question. You’re on tour as yourself, promoting Milk Street Kitchen, but on American’s Test Kitchen podcasts you’re still the host. When will that cease to overlap?
Christopher Kimball: My last show is mid-October. After that I start a new show, Milk Street Radio. It’ll be broadcast and podcast, a weekly one-hour show.
Adam Gopnik from The New Yorker stays with us. Stephen Meuse, our wine guy, stays with us. Dan Pashman from The Sporkful (podcast) is going to be a regular contributor. Sara Moulton from public television is going to be my co-host with call-ins.
How will it be different than the Test Kitchen podcast?
We’re going to take a broader look at food. We just hired an additional producer to grab segments from around the world.
We interviewed a reporter in a Syrian refugee camp about a Syrian bakery in the camp. We’re about to do a piece on the first food cart to get a Michelin star in Singapore.
I interviewed Nigella (Lawson) ... she said “Anybody who has guilty pleasures doesn’t deserve to have pleasure.” I thought that was a great line.
I find those conversations about philosophies of food more interesting than just how to make a sauce.
Everyone said you can’t cook on the radio, and you can’t. Talking about recipes on the radio is very hard. Radio is about storytelling, and it’s not much of a story.
I just interviewed a guy who specializes in pollen analysis, especially with honey. A lot of honey comes from China but it’s not sold as coming from China, like that local wildflower desert honey you bought for $15.
In the middle of the interview, he said, “I sometimes work with police departments.” He helps solve cold murder cases, because pollen doesn’t ever go away. It sticks around. There was a baby Jane Doe in Boston Harbor and she had pollen from two different cedar trees which only occur in two places in the country, and one was the arboretum in Boston.
Her step-family lived a block and a half from the arboretum. Those conversations are fascinating.
There are other people who in your position would have simply retired. Instead, you're starting an entire new operation from the ground up, very quickly. What do you think that you in particular have to bring to the food scene today?
My cooking changed totally a few years ago. I really believe, like the fashion and music industries, we’re on the cusp of completely changing how we think about cooking and food.
It’s happened in restaurants and supermarkets already, but it hasn’t happened in home cooking as much. There are so many other ways to put dinner on the table than what most of us consider. A great deal of American cooking was northern European ... Fanny Farmer, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” “The Settlement Cook Book,” “Joy of Cooking.”
If you look around the world, people have very different answers to the questions what’s for dinner, and a lot of those answers are very interesting and better. You can produce bolder, fresher, simpler food by looking around the world and figuring out what other people do.
Talk about some examples of that.
It is transformative. We’re not used to cooking with handfuls of herbs. We’re not used to cooking with a range of spices beyond cinnamon and nutmeg. We’re not used to using fermented sauces ... treating vegetables like a main course or grain. We don’t use meat as a flavoring.
There are so many other ways to think about it. You could almost say northern European cooking about heat and meat. That was the bulk of it. There was a lot of wood and coal and lot of meat.
The rest of the world didn’t have a lot of fuel and didn’t have a lot of meat, because it’s expensive. They had goats, sheep, maybe pigs, but they didn’t have cattle. Meat was part of it, but they had to be smart about what they did with the rest of the food.
Even chicken soup. You can go to any culture and get chicken soup, and it’s better than American chicken soup. American chicken soup is fine, but you know, there’s lots of ways to do a chicken soup.
Are you in a unique position to bring the home cooks who maybe aren’t reading “Lucky Peach” toward trying more global cuisine?
Nobody’s interested in cooking — I hate the term ethnic food, but I don’t want to cook authentic Oaxacan mole, forget it, it’s just not going to happen. If you have a five-ingredient adobo sauce I could throw in a food processor, OK, I’m game for that.
It has to be simple and it has to be practical and it has to make sense for people.
That’s the hurdle when you say, I want to change the way you cook. People want to know is it going to be harder, is it going to be too weird, is it going to be too ethnic? We’re actually going to make this easier for you, and it’s going to taste better.
I’m sort of like the friendly tour guide in a strange place, because I have a bow tie and people can relate to that. If we go talk to people around the world, we’re not doing something strange. We’re extracting something that’s familiar.
How to cook a chicken is a familiar concept. Grating carrots for salad is not that weird. Making coleslaw with Thai flavors instead of mayonnaise is a stretch. They’re bridge recipes. You’re going to rethink it a little.
On the podcast, you sounded energized by “Mamushka,” “Ottolenghi” and Fuchsia Dunlop’s Szechuan cooking. Are there cuisines you'd like to see make their way into the heartland? How does Milk Street Kitchen plan to make that happen?
If you do a meat stew it’s this umami bomb. Everything has the same texture, the potatoes, the carrots, the meat, the sauce. There isn’t a lot of sweet/sour/salty/bitter going on.
We just did a stew with carrots, chickpeas and lamb. There’s a lot of spices in it, there’s cilantro. You taste it and there’s a lot of contrast: high notes, low notes, like music.
That’s the cooking I like, when you put something in your mouth and you gotta think about it for a second. It’s a little more complicated.
The cooking I’ve done is very monochromatic. Think of French cooking; how many herbs do they use, five? And then they say a sprig of thyme and you want to kill yourself. Like really, I’ve got three pounds of meat I’m going to put two sprigs of thyme in this thing?
Is this made possible in part because we do have access to these things more than we ever did before?
That’s what’s changed. People are much more sophisticated. Fish sauce is not anybody would use 25 years ago, and now you can get it anywhere.
I don’t think you need a comal (a cast iron griddle) or Aleppo pepper ... but there’s plenty of stuff available now. Soy sauce was really cool in the ’50s and ’60s. We’ve come a long way since then.
Yet I keep hearing about how, as our fascination with restaurants rises, our actual cooking skills are going down. People watch food TV and go to restaurants but they don’t know how to recreate those things at home. Does this feel like an uphill battle?
Don’t forget, I started Cook’s Magazine in 1980, which was one of the worst times. Women were moving quickly into the workforce. There was much less home cooking. It was a terrible time and yet it was successful.
The great thing about America is it’s big. I don’t need to find 10 million people, if I find 200,000 people I’m fine. There’s always going to be an audience. Food culture has grown exponentially, and some percentage of those people who watch the Food Network will eventually be interested in actually cooking.
For a lot of people, cooking is something they’ve never done before. Their parents didn’t do it so now it’s kind of cool. It’s a lost art. They’re coming to it because they want to do it, it’s interesting to them.
I’ve been reading a lot recently about cultural appropriation in food, white men taking on cuisines of immigrants and people of color. Milk Street Kitchen will be dealing with a lot of global cuisines, and I wonder if you have some thoughts about that.
I do, in fact my first editorial in the magazine is about that.
The oldest human tradition is sharing food. The idea that somebody owns their food is a colonial idea. I have zero interest in representing, in an authentic way, somebody else’s food. I don’t live there. I’m not part of that culture.
I am interested in sitting down at the table and talking to someone about cooking and coming away with ideas of how to cook at home. But I’m not appropriating their culture when I do that.
It goes against the grain of food and cooking. You share it. That’s the greatest thing about food.
So you’re not interested in quote-unquote “authenticity?”
I’m not interested in authenticity at all. It’s stupid. How am I going to authentically duplicate something three thousand miles away? I’m not. It’s the culture in which the food’s created. If you do a tagine here versus in Marrakesh, it’s just going to be different.
You can’t possibly take a recipe out of culture and think that you’re going to have the same experience somewhere else. But if I talk to this guy and he makes that point about individual flavors, now I’ve learned something.
When you’re dining out on the road, are there things you seek out?
I’ve completely changed. 20 years ago I had this fight with John Willoughby, he used to be an executive editor at Gourmet. I said, well, I’m going to get the roast chicken, point of comparison. He said you’re an idiot, if you go the restaurant order something you’re never going to make at home.
I went to New York and I went to Miss Lily’s, a Jamaican jerk restaurant. There’s jerk chicken and jerk pork and I ordered the goat stew. Might as well have something different.
Life’s too short. Now I’m going to order something more interesting.