His Advice to America's Cooks: Use Your Head

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Christopher Kimball, the brain behind the Cook's Illustrated franchise, has made a science out of cooking. His academic, bow-tied persona is the counterbalance to the free-wheeling Rachael Ray approach. If Harvard had a cooking school, you can be pretty sure Kimball would be the dean.

His magazines (Cook's Illustrated and Cook's Country), television show ("America's Test Kitchen" on PBS) and dozens of books delve beneath the surface of a recipe and explain the reasoning behind the technique. The formula seems to be working. With Cook's Illustrated subscriptions set to hit 1 million in January, placing it higher than Gourmet but lower than Cooking Light, home cooks seem hungry to hear what Kimball has to say.

Editorial assistant Leigh Lambert talked with Kimball, who was recently in town for a book signing of "The Best of America's Test Kitchen" (America's Test Kitchen, 2006), over noodle soup and dumplings at the Thai restaurant Rice.

When you write a recipe, what is the biggest problem you anticipate from the home cook?

Over half the time, people make substitutions. My favorite one was a guy doing grill-roasted prime rib, which was on a Weber with charcoal, kind of smoky. He sent back his comments: "The recipe was a disaster. It was 18 degrees out so I couldn't do it outside." So, he just took a $40 prime rib and broiled it. People view recipes as starting points -- rough concepts. They don't use recipes. That's what it's all about, really: figuring out what someone is going to do to your recipe and heading them off at the pass before they do it.

Where do you typically find your recipes when you're cooking for yourself? When you follow a recipe, are you doing what they say, or are you already editing?

I rarely cook out of a book. I make recipes I've come up with over the years. I did make one out of "Baking With Julia." It was a ginger cake, and it called for two cups of molasses. I'm going, that's a pretty serious amount of molasses. And I only had blackstrap molasses, which is like killer. You never want to cook with blackstrap molasses. So I knew I had to fiddle with the recipe.

How much room do your books and magazine leave for creativity and interpretation?

None. Make the damn recipe my way. [He laughs.] I had someone write in a long time ago and say, "Lidia [Bastianich] cooks with her heart." And I wrote back and said, "Well, yeah, that's the wrong organ. You should use your brain." Until you know that recipe inside out and you really get it and you can make it without looking at the recipe, don't play with it. It's sort of like saying: "I'm going to play a Bach sonata. But I'm going to change the key." No. You play it the way he wrote it.

Do you choose a recipe to teach a technique or for the flavors?

It's neither. We determine what to publish almost entirely based on a very sophisticated research system. The most successful stories for us are foods that people are familiar with and have a problem making. So, pie dough, for example, is huge because nobody in America can make pie dough anymore. But there are things you can teach people about it which makes it relatively easy.

As there's a growing knowledge about international foods, how do you balance authenticity with convenience?

If you can't find it in a local supermarket, I'm not going to call for it. End of story. Restaurant food and home cooking bear very little resemblance to each other. So you have to figure out which restaurant recipes you really would want to make at home because they're practical. If we did enchiladas, it's going to be nothing like Rick [Bayless] does. It's going to be an Americanized version that is reasonable.

You don't mind that they're not authentic enchiladas?

No. Because if that means you can't make them at home, what's the point? I mean, I'm not Alice Waters. I'm not telling people to grow arugula behind the schoolyard. I'm perfectly happy teaching people how to make a well-done hamburger or mashed potatoes. I think the gourmet cooking thing is over. That happened in the '70s.

Has the Food Network had an influence on what you do?

We're going to hit 1 million in January. And that's probably because people come in through Rachael Ray and Emeril, and they get into it and they get a little bit of interest, but a certain percentage of them say, "Well, you know, I'd really like to know how to cook."

So the Food Network is there to entertain, but for a base of knowledge, people need to look further?

I don't think Rachael Ray's about cooking, do you? She's somebody a lot of people want to visit with once or twice a week. And the fact that she happens to be in the kitchen cooking is fine, but it's not really the primary issue. Emeril was very successful bringing guys into the kitchen. He's a guy's guy. So that's their gig, and that's what works for them. If it's successful, that's what you do. I think we all can do one thing. We're not actors. So, I mean Rachael Ray can do Rachael Ray, Emeril can do Emeril. As our director keeps telling us, we don't have actor equity cards. We just do what we do every day.

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