October 21st, 2009 | by Kate Williams News | Posted In: CLEAN UP, CLEAN UP, CLEAN UP, CLEAN UP

Sharp Knife: Q&A with America's Test Kitchen's Chris Kimball

Chris Kimball

Home cooks adore him. Bloggers can't stand him. Foodies call him simultaneously brilliant and boring. On his relentless path toward culinary perfection, he has certainly stepped on a lot of toes (especially when critiquing the ever-growing food blogosphere, which he recently blamed for the demise of Gourmet magazine). Yet Chris Kimball, the studious, and perhaps obsessive, creator of America's Test Kitchen on TV as well as the magazines Cook's Illustrated and Cook's Country, really just wants to keep America cooking, and cooking well (Internet or no Internet). WW sat down with the self-proclaimed expert over Blueplate pot roast last week, while the author was in town promoting his new cookbook, to talk test kitchens, food journalism and the Grateful Dead.

WW: So tell me about your new books.
Chris Kimball: More Best Recipes is all the recipes from the last five years that weren't in New Best Recipes. It's a companion piece. It's sort of like Mastering the Art of French Cooking Volumes 1 and 2. We did a contest for Lost Recipes. We were surprised. We got 2,800 recipes submitted and I would say about 20 percent were really, really interesting, which is a really high percentage for a recipe contest. Usually you get people making chocolate chip cookies with like, M&Ms in them or something. These, these were really quite good.

Would you actually cook from that cookbook at home?
Yeah, we actually cook a lot from Cook's Country.... I like those recipes. We don't really do a lot of fancy cooking.

What other kinds of things do you cook at home?
Well, it's pretty boring. We eat out of our freezer. We raise our own beef and pork, chickens for eggs. What we eat is mostly whatever we have in our freezer. New England boiled dinner is a dinner I love. And yeah, sometimes we'll cook out of Cook's Country or once in a while just make something up. I would say that we mostly eat what we produce—it's clean, it's organic, the pork is much better than the crap in the supermarkets. So, I'm not an adventurous cook. That's why I go out to restaurants. I don't want to do Thai food at home.

What's your favorite restaurant?
I used to be really picky, if you can imagine. But now, you know, the reason I go out to restaurants is I want to try something new. So I'll go out, and I'll eat anything. So no, I don't have a favorite. But this [Blueplate] is the kind of place I like. I like neighborhood restaurants. On the other hand, I love Le Bernardin in New York, but uh, that's not a neighborhood restaurant. I guess I really hate—well, I don't like—pretentious, overdesigned, fancy designer food.

Like molecular gastronomy?
Well, yeah, like that. Frozen foam [makes a face]. I do like Le Bernardin. Even though [Eric Ripert] can be adventurous, he actually knows what he's doing. I also like Nopa in San Francisco. I really like that.

Speaking of San Francisco, what are your thoughts on Alice Waters and her scene?
Give her credit. She started a huge trend and she's really worked hard on the whole garden thing. You know, her daughter went to Yale and helped them [start the sustainable farm]. She's done a lot, you know. It's just the whole Berkeley thing. It's not my cup of tea, but some of her books are quite good. I like her vegetable book. It's a really good book. But, either you're from Berkeley, or you're not.

Do you have any favorite cookbooks that aren't part of Cook's?
Yeah, um, I like In Nona's Kitchen, that book came out about 10 or 12 years ago. I like the Union Square Cafe book. He's a really good cook. All of Jacques Pépin's stuff works. It's solid stuff. There was a little book on Mediterranean street food that came out a couple years ago that I really liked.

Ever want to subject recipes in cookbooks to your recipe-testing standards?
No. I used to. I used to review cookbooks. But, uh, nobody in the food world would talk to me. I'd piss off everybody. The problem is, I think [cookbook testing] was a flawed idea. I don't think people buy cookbooks expecting most of the recipes to work. I think they buy them for inspiration.

Speaking of pissing people off, could you tell me a little bit about the Gourmet editorial shenanigan?
You know I wasn't saying that all digital blogging and other food talk isn't useful. I was saying that it's not subject to the same degree of scrutiny and value of something that's printed. So, just because you have an opinion, doesn't mean...anything. It's easy now to have an opinion and write something about it, but so what? I want someone who knows what they're doing. I want Julia's voice, I want Jacques' voice, I want Alice's voice when it comes to vegetables. I'd rather listen to somebody who actually knows a lot about a particular thing, has an opinion and can offer a fresh perspective. I like the other thing too, but I don't think we should get rid of experts. I think that the democratization of the media actually works sometimes and works well, but sometimes I think it's good to have experts. I think you need a balance of both. I don't care what 1,000 people think, necessarily, about brownies.

But you do have an online presence right now. What do you see changing with America's Test Kitchen online in the next few years?
We have a lot of plans. I do think the Internet is going to change cooking—you have video, you know you have thousands of photographs, you have print, you have different ways of presenting a recipe that are nonlinear. I don't think that many people cook off a computer screen right now, but I do think the more portable devices may make it easier to actually cook from them. So we want to definitely be there.

What about getting involved in the new trend of wiki recipes?
I didn't think it would work because everybody's kitchen is different. You need a more regimented approach to testing, and then ultimately it's about what people do with the recipes when they go back to their kitchen. You know people substitute ingredients in recipes, or the oven's off 100 degrees. It's about what happens in their kitchen, it's not about what happens in the test kitchen. That's really the secret of recipes. What is someone going to do with a recipe? Figuring out what they're going to do with it before they do it, that's how you teach someone to cook. You figure out, like, eight stupid things they'll do, like melt butter instead of creaming it or they use, instead of top loin, they use sirloin or whatever. I still do stupid things. We all do stupid things.

What about online recipe contests like Amanda Hesser's Food52 project?
Well, I think you can do an encyclopedia that way. I don't think you can do recipes. For example, we did a pie crust recipe a couple years ago and we used vodka. It was transformative. It was brilliant. It completely changed pie crusts for me. Well—no one's gonna come up with that using the Internet. What you're gonna get is someone saying, “I swapped all-purpose for cake flour,” or, “I changed the amount of liquid,” “I baked it in a different pan,” or “I used a different kind of chocolate.” What you're not going to get is the, “Gee, I wonder if Wondra flour and cornstarch together will make crispy french fries?” That only comes through a lot of research and 50, 60 or 70 tests, and finally something pops up.

Tell me about these french fries.
Our kitchen's got four or five french fry recipes that we use. None of them I'm really happy with. There's one restaurant in Burlington, Vt., that makes the best french fries. And I keep going back year after year and I finally got ahold of the chef, and he said the secret was half Wondra flour and half cornstarch. Well, how do you get to that point? We had spent hundreds of hours making french fries. We did french fries using the Robuchon method starting in cold oil, which actually works pretty well. We never came up with that. We've been trying for 20 years now. And now I have another clue.

I think that one of the best things about the Internet is that it seems like there are more people cooking now because of it, and it's kind of funny to think about this observation in comparison with statements from people like Michael Pollan who say that no one is cooking anymore.
If you look over the last 100-plus years at the decrease in cooking from six hours to one hour, what's changed is that we have the dishwasher and you can go to the supermarket and you don't have to actually buy 100 pounds of green beans. You don't have to use a coal or a wood stove. You have an electric mixer. So if you had to whip eggs with a whisk versus a mixer, how much of that six hours to one hour is simply technology? And wow, we're really only cooking one meal a day. So, OK, that's less cooking, but the world's changed. In the 1980s there was that big move into the workplace. That's when the big shifts happened. So that's kind of stabilized now. If anything, there might be a slight reverse trend. I think cooking at home has stabilized in the last three to five years. I think it's going to keep going up now. It's really not going down.

How much of that do you think is based on Food Network and other pop food culture things?
I don't like Rachael Ray's cooking, but God bless her. It's what I say about Emeril. Emeril brought men into the kitchen. I want as many media properties out there as possible to promote cooking. The Food [Network] is not my kind of cooking, but Paula Deen brings people in. She's got that great persona, and you know, I'm not gonna probably [cook] her food, but it's great advertising for cooking. [It used to be] at book signings, mostly everyone there was between 45 and 65. Now I see kids—8-year-olds, 5-year-olds—who watch our cooking show. I see a lot of younger people. But this [Internet] food revolution, you know, once it's started, you can't stop it, and nobody knows what's going to happen in the end. So you can often end up destroying a lot of great things along the way. You may end up in a better place, eventually. Like with the French Revolution, we got French restaurants. So that was good, but then we got Napoleon.

What does the young generation of foodies in Portland need to know about you?
I really believe in this test kitchen process. I guess the question I ask people is, “How much is one good recipe worth to you?” For me, it's worth a lot. A great pie crust recipe? It's worth the price of a subscription for me, because I make it all the time. But whatever you like, if you ended up with a recipe that would really transform the way you make it, and not just the spices or the texture, but something that really was transformative in that recipe—for me, that's the goal. We don't always get there. When we do, it's great. Those kinds of recipes get you in the kitchen and the outcome is predictable and wonderful, and when you make them, you really feel great. So for me, that's the joy of cooking. And it's not me. It's the recipe. It's the recipes that get you from an average outcome to a spectacular outcome.

I have a hard time not wanting to take credit for a dish that I've made when it's straight from a recipe instead of something I've made up.
That's a pet peeve of mine that everyone wants to be creative in the kitchen. I don't have any pride of authorship. If the recipe works—if it's Lydia's recipe or Alice's recipe or one of my test kitchen chefs' recipes—I don't feel a great need to take credit. It's sort of like, I have a little band, we play like once a year and we like to do covers, so I don't feel bad that I'm playing “Eyes of the World” or some other Grateful Dead song. I don't feel terrible that we're not writing our own music. But I mean, yes, sometimes you like to be creative. If the food's good, I'm fine.

So wait, you're in a cover band?
Yeah, I'm a Deadhead, a major Deadhead. I have a little band, we play at a pig roast we have every year in Vermont. And we play, we just get everybody together and we play Grateful Dead music. But again, I'm perfectly happy that Jerry Garcia wrote the music to “Eyes of the World.” It's not terrible that it was his idea.

So to cook great recipes, what are three things every kitchen should have? Anthony Bourdain says you just need a knife.
I would say you need a knife sharpener. That's more important. You need a Chef's Choice model 139 sharpener. Without that, you're dead. A sharpening steel doesn't really work. No one knows how to use a sharpening stone. So I would say that a knife sharpener is No. 1. The second thing is a really good 12-inch skillet, fully clad, probably an All-Clad. The third thing is an instant-read thermometer. I do all my cooking with a thermometer—and a timer, 'cause no one ever remembers.

I don't ever use a timer unless I'm cooking eggs.
I'll forget. I always use a timer. I'm terrible.
 
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