An Interview with “America’s Test Kitchen” founder Christopher Kimball on how cooking is like woodworking, the business model behind “Cooks Illustrated,” and the awesome powers of baking soda and gelatin.
Jessica Gross | Longreads | June 2015 | 18 minutes (4,479 words)
In 1980, 29-year-old Christopher Kimball enrolled in a cooking class and was so frustrated by his instructors’ inability to answer his questions that he started his own cooking magazine. Cook’s Magazine, since reborn as Cook’s Illustrated, presents a small number of recipes refined through extraordinarily rigorous testing by the cooks in Kimball’s 2,500-square-foot kitchen lab. The bimonthly magazine—which features only black-and-white illustrations—eschews a focus on “lifestyle” in favor of treating cooking as a discipline and a craft. Over the years, Cook’s Illustrated has garnered a large and loyal readership—and spawned an empire, including a second magazine, Cook’s Country; many cookbooks; and two television shows. “America’s Test Kitchen,” the most popular cooking show on public television, is currently in its 15th season. We spoke by phone about what it takes to write a crystal-clear recipe, the Cook’s Illustrated business model, and Kimball’s not-quite success getting his own kids in the kitchen.
* * *
I want to get into the nitty-gritty of writing recipes that are really easy for people to follow. In thinking about our conversation, I remembered that in middle school, I had to do a project called “Write It Do It.” You were given a structure and had to write out, step by step, how to put it together. Your partner got these instructions and then had to try to construct a replica, which you’d then compare with the original.
That’s great—I should do that with my test cooks.
Well, we did horribly—my partner and I came in second to last or something—which drove home how difficult it is to describe in words how to physically construct something specific. So, when you’re writing a recipe, how do you make crystal clear what the cook is supposed to be doing?
Yeah, that’s the essence of it—and it’s made even more difficult because every home cook’s kitchen is different. The cookware is different, the stovetop is different, the oven is different and they almost never use the right ingredients, or they substitute ingredients and leave ingredients out. So the variables beyond your control are substantial. In your case, if you have a set of Legos on a desk, you know exactly what the components are. In our case, they don’t have all the Legos. They substituted some other puzzle game for half the Legos and they aren’t going to actually build a whole building; they’ll leave out parts of it. And they won’t read your directions entirely. They’ll read parts of it but not fully. So it’s more like, “Write It, Kinda Do It.”Continue reading “The Craft of Cooking”