Christopher Kimball and the Meaning of Milk Street

Home cooking, redefined

Christopher Kimball

Christopher Kimball / Courtesy of Christopher Kimball's Milk Street

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Eight years ago I asked Christopher Kimball point-blank if he had any interest in cooking with yuzu, a small citrus fruit popular in Japan that's become trendy in this country. Kimball, who at the time hosted America's Test Kitchen and edited Cook's Illustrated, did not mince words:

No. I have no interest, zero interest in talking about things our readers are not going to actually do. What's the point? Unless we give people stuff they really want to use, we wouldn't be in business. What I've said to the people here is, my theory is, when it comes to renewal time, if someone will remember two or three recipes they made over the course of the year that were really great, you get the renewal. And if they haven't made anything from the magazine or it didn't turn out okay or wasn't really something they wanted, you won't. So, no. I have no interest in playing with new ingredients or new recipes unless they make sense in the typical kitchen. I don't care. What's the point? This is not a hobby magazine. This is about cooking. So let's talk about what people really do at home.

This mattered. America's Test Kitchen was and still is the highest-rated cooking show on public television. At the time of my interview, Cook's Illustrated had nearly one million paid subscribers. The company enjoyed annual profits north of $20 million. And it was all because of a laser-like focus on audience demand. "They say they want chicken, cheese, beef, chocolate," Kimball said at the time. The cooks at ATK would then perfect the recipes and run them in the next issue or episode.

The problem, however, is us. In Boston magazine, Jane Black noted the mind-numbing variations on chicken found in Cook's: "Easy Roast Chicken, Pan-Roasted Chicken, Grill-Roasted Whole Chicken, Crispy Roast Lemon Chicken, Crisp-Skin High-Roast Butterflied Chicken, and, in 2008 alone, Stovetop Roast Chicken, Herbed Roast Chicken, Crisp Roast Chicken, and French Chicken in a Pot."

Americans truly love their chicken—or it's what they're content to make at home.

But after more than 20 years at the helm of America's Test Kitchen and Cook's Illustrated, Christopher Kimball was no longer content. It was time to try something new. And the result is Milk Street.

Named after its location—one of the oldest streets in Boston—Milk Street is a kitchen, cooking school, and publication, as well as a radio and TV show. But unlike Cook's Illustrated and America's Test Kitchen, Milk Street is going beyond our borders, searching the world for exotic flavors and adapting them into approachable recipes.

Milk Street cover"The world offers us the opportunity to simplify and improve our cooking," writes Kimball in the introduction to the newly released Milk Street cookbook. "Hot oil flash-cooks Chinese greens topped with ginger and scallions. Water instead of stock produces cleaner flavors. Fish sauce, soy sauce, miso, rice vinegar and other pantry staples give the home cook a head start toward culinary access. Instead of apple pie spice and a few dried herbs, what about za'atar, dukkah, ras el hanout, togarashi, garam masala, and baharat?"

Who are you and what have you done with Chris Kimball? "My curiosity has turned to how the world cooks, not how Fannie Farmer cooked," Kimball explained over email. "I am still learning and trying to teach other people what I have learned. Some new tricks if you like but the same old dog."

And yes, he was done with the roast chicken. "I have spent almost four decades dealing with roast birds. High heat or low? Flip it once or twice? Salt breast overnight in the fridge? To brine or not to brine? Stuff or not stuff? Spatchcock or whole? At some point, you just have to move on. Throw the bird in the oven (I like to spatchcock them first), roast at 400 degrees for 15 minutes, turn the oven down to 300 degrees, and be done with it. That's the easy part."

The real question, Kimball says, is flavor. "Rub it with za'atar? Pomegranate molasses? Grapes and vinegar? Or perhaps use a wet rub as in Piri Piri chicken from South Africa. Serve it with a barbecue sauce from Chiang Mai based on tamarind or perhaps something simpler, a chili-lime dipping sauce. The world has moved on. Home cooks are more sophisticated. The days of Fannie Farmer and The Joy of Cooking are over. And, let it be said, that a naked, baked chicken breast is the poster child for why classic 20th-century American cooking needs a refresh."

It's ironic he keeps mentioning Fannie Farmer. Kimball wrote the book Fannie's Last Supper, in which he re-creates a 12-course meal based on Farmer's 1896 Boston Cooking-School Cook Book. This involved, among other things, a mock turtle soup whose stock base was a calf's head, jellies made with gelatin from a calf's foot, and saddle of venison.

Needless to say, there is nothing from the Boston Cooking-School in Christopher Kimball's Milk Street cookbook. For that matter, there's nothing from France or northern Europe. Instead, the flavors are Asian, African, Middle Eastern, and South American.

"The world thinks differently about cooking," Kimball writes in the book. "While so much of northern European cuisine relies on heat and time to build flavor—long simmers and roasts fueled by fire—elsewhere, flavors are built by layering bold, simple ingredients. The Ottoman Empire had access to 88 spices."

I've since tried two recipes from the book—curry-coconut braised fish (Thai/Cambodian) and no-sear lamb and chickpea stew (Yemeni). Both were relatively easy to make and robustly flavored. The stew, based on the Yemeni dish maraq, was particularly rich and savory two days later.

Kimball, however, chafes at the traditional use of the term recipe. "I have no interest in appropriating or replicating ‘other people's food' or, in the vernacular of the 1960s, ‘ethnic' food," he stressed in his email. "You can't take a recipe out of Senegal or Capetown and hope to faithfully replicate it somewhere else in the world. People mistake a recipe for cooking. Cooking is performance art—it's what one does with a recipe that matters."

He further elaborates,

In Japan, how one moves in the kitchen is part of cooking. In Vietnam, it is one's ‘intent' that matters, a Buddhist concept. Naomi Duguid once told me that all the cooks in the world are sitting at the same large table sharing their food, their cooking. That's what Milk Street endeavors to do. Sharing is a good thing—it's not stealing. And, at the end of the day, recipes and techniques need to be adapted to whatever country one is cooking in; very few things can be transplanted wholesale. Maybe cooking can be a way of uniting people instead of separating them. Sharing recipes is a good thing. 

Unfortunately not everyone agrees with this. Just as Kimball was about to launch Milk Street, America's Test Kitchen filed a lawsuit against him. It's messy and complicated and the suit and countersuit have been well covered in the New York Times, Boston Globe, and elsewhere. (And no, he did not sign a noncompete clause.)

Kimball was obviously not going to discuss the matter, though he did stress the differences between his current and past ventures. "We do not test cookware. We do not taste-test supermarket foods. We do not do science segments per se," he explained. "And, our entire premise is different. We start with inspiration from somewhere around the world and bring it back to Milk Street. We don't start with an American classic and focus entirely on what our kitchen has done."

Speaking of American classics, I expressed my disappointment that there's not a single recipe for Thanksgiving turkey in the Milk Street cookbook. "I am no longer interested in the inherent madness of arguing about the perfect turkey in my 38th year of doing this," Kimball replied. "The fact of the matter is, well, there is something to know. A few important facts about white meat, dark meat, etc. Beyond that, there is a whole world of cooking that offers lots of fantastic possibilities, none of them limited to high heat versus low or when to ‘flip the bird.' Turkey, like most things in the kitchen, is a starting point. Let's see if we can do something fun and interesting with it rather than getting limited by the mechanics of roasting. It's time to take off the training wheels—home cooks are ready for it."

I was reminded of Jacques Pépin's observation of the ever-evolving supermarket. "When I first came here [in 1959] there were two salads in the supermarket," said the French chef, whom I interviewed in 2007. "It was iceberg and romaine. There were no leeks, no shallots, no chervil, no herbs, no mushrooms even. I remember going to a store in New York, to D'Agostino's, a good store. I asked where are the mushrooms. They say, ‘aisle five.' That was canned mushrooms. You had to go to a specialty store in New York to just get regular white button mushrooms." And today you can get za'atar, dukkah, ras el hanout, garam masala—and yuzu.

Kimball is banking on our desire to embrace these bold new (to us) flavors, even if marketing studies don't clearly indicate that. "My first rule of thumb in business is don't base a business on market surveys," he replied. "People often do not know what they want. Did anyone know that they wanted an iPhone or an Apple Watch? (I thought the watch was ridiculous until I bought one!) I remember working with a marketing expert who told me that market surveys and focus groups should rule the creative process. Nuts! It's much better to do what you love and what you are good at and go from there. In the case of Milk Street, we have doubled down on that philosophy. We are cooking the way we like to cook and are hoping to bring that enthusiasm and expertise to other home cooks around the country and elsewhere."

Kimball's own enthusiasm exudes, even over email: "In Season Two, which we are starting to shoot soon, I will travel all over the world from Taipei to Sichuan to Senegal. We have opened up our kitchen to the entire world. We are bringing in new ideas from all over—we aren't simply having a discussion among ourselves. The only thing that remains the same is me but I am allowed to be me!"

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