Some people who have followed the America’s Test Kitchen public television series over the past 16 seasons or so may have a high-school flashback while watching the current season: The regular teacher didn’t show up, and the well-meaning class tries to run things on its own. There are some clumsiness and visible uncertainty, what appears to be a lot of nervous energy, unsuccessful attempts to duplicate what is missing and a noticeable void where the person who previously led them no longer appears.
As fans of this series, its companion Cook’s Country series and the magazine seed from which they grew, Cook’s Illustrated, already know, the founder/host/central figure/ galvanizing ingredient of those entities, Christopher Kimball (top), is no longer part of those products. His departure hasn’t been a subtle one. The powers who now own much of what Kimball started fell out with him, he left, and lawsuits now cloud many of the details and mandate the many things that can’t be said.
Apple co-founder Steve Jobs once was famously forced out of that company and eventually returned to make Apple a powerful force. Whether Kimball similarly will be vindicated as the saving knight and essential creative force and return some day to salvage and rebuild a seemingly foundering ship is unknown. But his absence leaves a noticeable void — one that begs the question: Will it all last long enough for a rescue?
Kimball, a certified resident of the lawsuit landscape that has developed, can’t say anything about those old efforts. He nicely pointed out the restrictions during a recent phone interview. For example, when asked if he missed the programs and publications, he skirted the question with, “I’m fully occupied now” with new print and broadcast projects.
But he was happy to share where that creative talent is now planted and blooming. All of it is cooking-related, and it all comes under the umbrella name Milk Street. (No, the name doesn’t refer to a dairy business underwriter; it’s an actual street in Boston on which Kimball’s new venture is located.)
The Milk Street location housing the new Kimball ventures is a busy place: It’s the home base of a new, semi-monthly cooking magazine that carries the name of where it’s based; it’s the setting for three-a-week cooking classes; it’s where the weekly radio podcast cohosted by Kimball and well-known TV chef Sara Moulton originates; the spot from which a soon-to-be-published Milk Street cookbook was compiled; home base from which a full website will be hosted, starting in April; jumping-off point for a 10-city, two-hour Milk Street road show that will commence in the fall; and (what many Kimball-deprived TV fans have hoped for) home studios for a weekly half-hour public-TV cooking show that will debut in the fall.
The always bow-tied, Vermont-loving, sometimes-genial, sometimes-caustic food expert/food snob will be back in front of a camera. And viewers who love that unique combination of attributes will get to experience the vintage Kimball video presence again when Milk Street TV premieres on public-TV stations. Three shows already have been shot, Kimball said, and 10 more will be produced next week. Each show will showcase three recipes that surround a specific theme. The point each week, he said, is “to start side of the kitchen,” then return and explore other ways to prepare that dish. At times, the subject in question will require travel to another country, as in an early show that originates in Thailand. Other starting points will be an easier travel.
“The goal is to learn from other people as a starting point,” he said.
The current website explains the whole endeavor’s philosophy: “…searching the world for bold, simple recipes and techniques. Adapted and tested for home cooks everywhere, these lessons are the backbone of what we call the new home cooking . . . By using simpler, more streamlined cooking techniques combined with more powerful combinations of ingredients, you can produce dishes that, until now, you thought were beyond your culinary skills.”
Kimball said the production is “very expensive.” In addition to any travel costs, part of each program is shot in front of an audience using five cameras. Although the show has underwriters that will help cover those costs, Kimball said he wouldn’t yet reveal who they are.
His on-air presence is a man of intense beliefs about food who is more interested in converting viewers to his high-level standards of quality than capitulating to those whose tastes and food budgets don’t match his. His verbal sparring with some of his former on-air associates left the impression he was “advised” to lose some of the culinary aloofness that characterized early Test Kitchen episodes. Which of those perceived personalities will prevail in more independent milieu will, in itself, be a reason to watch.
Christopher Kimball isn’t a beloved character, as was Julia Child. He doesn’t have a culinary CV anywhere near that of Jacques Pepin. And even though in his former role he regularly put on really odd costumes to introduce a segment (Carmen Miranda may have been his nadir), his unique humor comes nowhere near the silliness exhibited by Graham Kerr when he inhabited the persona known as The Galloping Gourmet. Yet his presence was an integral part of two television series that may be impossible to replace. When his new series premieres, it will be the time to see if he can replicate that popular singularity — or if all that Milk Street stuff will quickly sour.