It was one of the biggest food media shake-ups in recent memory when Christopher Kimball departed America’s Test Kitchen in November 2015, having spent many years as the most prominent public face of the television, cookbook and magazine powerhouse he helped found.
The break made waves again in October, when America’s Test Kitchen (ATK) sued Kimball, alleging that his new venture, Milk Street, “ripped off” ATK properties, including its flagship Cook’s Illustrated magazine. (His Milk Street magazine debuted in October.) It also accused Kimball of essentially stealing company resources to create Milk Street, claiming harm from the competing venture.
Now, Kimball has filed a response denying many of the allegations and a counterclaim asserting that he has been the one damaged by what he is calling ATK’s “defamatory” and “baseless” campaign against him and Milk Street.
Scott Lashway of the Boston office of Holland & Knight, the attorney representing Kimball and his co-defendants, declined to comment. ATK also declined to comment other than to provide The Washington Post with a “counterpoint” document.
Here are highlights from Kimball’s response, filed Dec. 1, and ATK’s counterpoints:
Kimball’s response says he never signed a noncompete agreement that would prevent him from starting a similar business.
When ATK filed its suit, chief creative officer Jack Bishop told The Post that “we are not arguing that Chris couldn’t go out and create something in the food and media business” but instead take issue with how he has done so and how Milk Street appears to rest “on literally the shoulders of our intellectual property.”
In his response, Kimball asserts that he “never agreed in writing or otherwise not to compete” with ATK. He says the documents governing his relationships with ATK as an employee and limited partner did not restrict him from creating a competing venture, either.
In fact, according to Kimball’s timeline, the issue came to a head only in the few months before he was terminated, when he had expressed his intent to start a new company and as negotiations with the board about his role at ATK stalled.
Likewise, he claims, the ATK employees and freelancers whom Milk Street sought to hire were not subject to noncompete agreements.
Kimball claims he tried to preserve his relationship with ATK and created his new company with ATK’s knowledge and permission.
As part of ATK’s efforts to manage a growing company and seek new digital opportunities, the company’s lawsuit alleges, it sought to hire a formal chief executive, and its suit alleged that Kimball “secretly resented giving up any control of the business.” Kimball denies that allegation but does acknowledge that he agreed with the idea of a “more professional board.” (Kimball told The Post in an October interview that “I don’t love running a company with 200 people and just going to meetings all the time.”)
Even before ATK named David Nussbaum as its new chief executive, the board and Kimball were discussing his continued role, according to Kimball’s response. In spring 2015, Kimball claims, he asked for “an employment contract with a fixed term and increases to his compensation,” which he says he was denied in June of that year. In its counterpoint, ATK alleges that “Kimball threatened to leave if ATK did not give him a lifetime contract and more money.” ATK alleges Kimball later changed his demand to a 10-year contract.
Kimball claims two board members asked him and Melissa Baldino, his wife and fellow ATK employee, to “form a media production group to handle television, radio, and live events for ATK as ATK’s subcontractor.” ATK contends that while it expected Kimball to form a new company that would collaborate with ATK, it “neither told nor authorized Kimball to form a company that replicated ATK and competed head-to-head with ATK.”
ATK’s complaint alleged that Kimball “spent the last year of his employment with America’s Test Kitchen creating a new venture which literally and conceptually ripped off America’s Test Kitchen.” Kimball asserts that “there is no supporting evidence” to that charge, particularly as the allegations largely center on the last few months of his employment at ATK.
On Nov. 16, 2015, Kimball received a letter of termination from Nussbaum with an effective date of Nov. 20. Baldino was also terminated that day. Still, he claims, the couple continued to do work for ATK into early 2016, including TV and other public appearances by Kimball made “without compensation from ATK.”
Kimball denies that he and his co-defendants stole and appropriated ATK resources.
The ATK suit alleged that Baldino misrepresented herself as doing business for ATK while searching for real estate for Milk Street, but Kimball claims the search was a result of ATK’s request that he and Baldino move out of the company offices. ATK counters that the search was not merely for office space but rather space that could accommodate a test kitchen.
Citing an email from Kimball to an IT consultant, the ATK suit accused Kimball of stealing “hundreds” of recipes. But he claims that “none of the recipes scanned . . . belong to or came from ATK. Moreover . . . ATK’s recipes are available to the public for a subscription fee.”
As for the ATK allegations that Kimball and Deborah Broide, a former public relations consultant for ATK who is a co-defendant in the suit, took lists of media contacts, Kimball counters that “these lists belong to Ms. Broide, not ATK.” He also denies taking the email addresses of ATK readers.
ATK’s suit cited an email from Christine Gordon — his executive assistant at the time and another co-defendant in the suit — to ATK’s IT help desk asking whether company scanners would keep copies of documents she scanned. Kimball’s response claims that those documents were regarding “his employment with ATK and his partnership interest in ATK, all of which documents he is entitled to have.”
ATK’s suit alleged that Kimball pulled a “bait and switch” by agreeing to produce ATK’s radio show only as a means to advance his new show with ATK distributor PRX. Kimball denies that, asserting that he and Baldino offered to produce the ATK show after Bishop, when he called to fire Baldino, allegedly told her that ATK was dropping it. An agreement regarding the radio show allowed for its termination with six months’ notice, which Kimball claims he provided in April 2016 while offering to collaborate with ATK on his new program. Kimball claims that ATK decided in June to continue ATK Radio on its own after the New York Times published an article about Milk Street. The show went off the air in October.
Kimball contests ATK’s allegation that he usurped ATK’s relationship with public television station WGBH, “knowing that WGBH could not effectively present both competing shows.” WGBH “presents many competing shows, including cooking shows,” he says.
Kimball also asserts that he did not improperly attempt to recruit current ATK employees for his new venture but “openly negotiated with ATK over how many and which ATK employees Kimball’s anticipated new business could hire.” ATK disputes that assertion.
Kimball claims Milk Street is indeed distinguishable from ATK’s properties and is only one player in a competitive food media field.
ATK’s lawsuit alleged that Milk Street was not as different from Cook’s Illustrated as Kimball claimed, accusing Kimball of marketing Milk Street as “a cosmopolitan reboot of America’s Test Kitchen.” Kimball disputes that: “Although both America’s Test Kitchen and Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street are focused on cooking and producing media, Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street is focused on identifying and promoting cooking techniques developed elsewhere in the world that may be used for better home cooking whereas ATK focuses on American home cooking.”
Kimball asserts that any financial decline ATK has suffered has been a result of current management, not him.
According to Kimball, ATK’s profits went from $22 million in 2014 under Kimball’s leadership to $18 million in 2015 under Nussbaum, with further declines in 2016. “The decline in ATK’s profits has been caused by the current management of the Partnership, not any actions of Kimball, Baldino, or [Kimball’s new company] CPK Media. . . . The decline in ATK’s profits has been caused in part by ATK’s decision to abruptly terminate Kimball and Baldino rather than collaborate with them to gradually phase Kimball out as the main public face and voice of ATK,” Kimball’s response states.
Kimball accuses ATK of defamation as well as damage to his current business interests and finances.
Kimball devotes a decent portion of his counterclaim to a website created by ATK, whywearesuingchristopherkimball.com, and ATK’s “defamatory media campaign against Kimball and CPK Media.” Kimball claims that the site contains a variety of false statements, including the allegation that he “stole confidential information.”
“ATK has exploited this litigation, using it as an excuse for its nationwide media campaign to defame Kimball by improperly imputing criminal conduct to him and otherwise impugning his character and integrity,” he alleges. “Kimball and CPK Media have suffered damages as a result of these statements, including but not limited [to] loss of investment funds, lost profits, loss of goodwill, harm to their reputation, loss of business relationships, and loss of customers.” The interference in Kimball’s business relationships has cost him and his company “at a minimum, millions of dollars” in losses, his filling alleges.
Kimball also alleges that ATK is attempting to “terminate” his 5 percent “profits interest” in ATK (should a major transaction occur, such as the sale or transfer of partnership interests), which it says he is entitled to under several agreements. (Kimball also holds an 8.59 percent partnership interest in ATK.) That profits interest as of Kimball’s firing “was worth millions of dollars,” he claims.