Last November Christopher Kimball, the brains and raison d'être of America's Test Kitchen — one of this country's most respected sources for recipes, cooking techniques, and product reviews — abruptly stepped down from his post. Though rumored for sometime, the news nevertheless came as a surprise to the food world, and perhaps to Kimball himself. Today, in a profile in the New York Times, the former test kitchen director and educator announced his much anticipated next move: Milk Street Kitchen.
Based in Boston and funded with $6 million from investors, Milk Street Kitchen is a multimedia project that involves a website and online cooking school; magazine; PBS show; books; a hands-on, in-person, brick and mortar cooking school; a live, traveling show; and a limited selection of merchandise.
This is not a celebrity chef cooking set endorsement deal.
Reached by phone, Kimball explains the merch: "I'm not going to be doing equipment testing anymore, like I used to... But there are a limited number of items I always wanted to work on. I've yet to work with a knife I've really loved. So I'm designing a knife. But this is not a celebrity chef cooking set endorsement deal." The limited run of Kimball-approved kitchen equipment will also include an oven thermometer and a kitchen scale.
So is this like starting over? "In a way," Kimball says, "but I think what's happened is that my cooking has changed so much in the last few years. I'm thinking of cooking differently. I've fallen in love with it again. I think there's a way to teach people how to cook that's different and more powerful. Grocery stores have changed, cookbooks have changed, TV cooking has changed, but how we teach home cooks to cook — this has not changed. Yes, I've taught people to cook before, but not in this way."
Kimball has spent the last year or so thinking about how cooking is taught: Usually lessons are recipe-based, and technique or theory becomes an afterthought. Per a release, Milk Street Kitchen is a "company focusing on a fresh, healthier approach to home cooking." Kimball says this means there will be a website with free online tutorials plus users can subscribe for more online content and a monthly magazine — which is much as America's Test Kitchen operates. However, there's also the brick and mortar cooking school, which is currently under construction. Set to be complete by this September, the courses will compliment the book and the television show. There will be free community courses for parents and their kids; part of the company is a non-profit. The first itineration of the website launches this November, with the full company set to be fully built out by next year.
"I spent 35 years giving people what they wanted, and now I'd like to be a little bit of ahead of the consumer."
Kimball elaborates on the state of food media, with its sudden emphasis on lifestyle and diligent reliance on setting trends and maintaining a status quo. "I spent 35 years giving people what they wanted — [at America's Test Kitchen] we always asked what they wanted — and now I'd like to be a little bit of ahead of the consumer." He had a revelation while cooking from Rick Bayless and Yotam Ottolenghi's books. "I realized cooking, and in particular cooking magazines feel stuck. People don't make French chicken stock any more — who wants to roast bones? That's ridiculous." So he turned to the cuisines of other cultures.
"We're way beyond so-called ethnic cooking. I hate that word. That's just an old fashioned idea. It's about building upon influences from all over the world." He goes on, "If you go to people's kitchens now people are cooking differently. People are more sophisticated about eating, and they want to be more sophisticated about cooking but don't know how." He cites as an example Andy Ricker's Pok Pok cookbook: "This is a fabulous book, but you almost need someone to go in and say here are the 10 incredible ideas you can glean from this book. And here's how to apply them to your everyday cooking."
Of note, Kimball doesn't believe this is a new sort of American home cooking. "I don't think it's American. I don't think it's English or Sichuan. I think it's just cooking. Think of music. Reggae started in Jamaica but now there's reggae everywhere. I don't think there's going to be country-specific cooking. It's just going to be cooking."