Christopher Kimball spent much of the past year as the dark prince of the recipe world, a brooding exile who had left his multimillion-dollar America’s Test Kitchen empire in a painful split he hadn’t seen coming.
Now he is moving on. Instead of polishing his carefully created New England sensibility and hovering over the obsessive recipe-testing platform on which he built Cook’s Illustrated magazine and its offspring, Kimball is loosening his bow tie and shifting his culinary worldview.
His new project is called Milk Street Kitchen. With $6 million from investors and more at the ready, Kimball is remodeling the ground floor of the Flour & Grain Exchange building on Milk Street in the financial district in Boston. In the fall, he plans to publish a new magazine, shoot a public television series and begin writing books. He’ll start a cooking school, and promote the whole enterprise at a dozen live road shows. He is even designing a chef’s knife to sell.
The big idea is to bring techniques from the world’s kitchens to America’s Wednesday night dinner table. It’s a bold pivot for a man whose magazines rarely showcased ethnic recipes.
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“It’s not looking around the world and doing a tagine or a couscous dish,” he said of the concept. “It’s looking around the world and seeing how people are thinking about food.”
Instead of using Eurocentric techniques that rely on concentrating flavors through long applications of heat, Kimball is exploring ways to build dishes that rely on texture, spice and freshness. Instead of making chicken stock like a frugal French cook who simmers bones and scraps for hours, why not boil a whole chicken for just an hour like a Chinese cook, using ginger, scallions and herbs to elicit a more delicate flavor?
Kimball, who lives in Boston and Vermont, has been cooking this way at home for the past few years. He has become a student of spice and of authors like Yotam Ottolenghi. He has taken inspiration from his travels, too. Sliced oranges coated in cold caramel sauce flavored with star anise – a dessert inspired by a trip to Rome with his four children – is much more interesting to him these days than apple pie.
“I don’t think I have anything left to add about how to make an oatmeal cookie,” he said.
If it works, Kimball will cement his reputation as an intellectual and business powerhouse of American recipes. But if it fails?
“What’s the worst that can happen?” he asked over dinner one evening. “Public humiliation?”
The move is certainly a gamble. Kimball, who is worth tens of millions of dollars, turns 65 this month. Although he can be tender in person, his public demeanor is stern and sometimes awkward. He is the guy in the room who always knows more than you, a fan of rabbit hunting and classic literature who is more closely associated with roast turkey and root vegetables than with Mexican street food and Israeli hummus.
Even he worries how that persona will translate into a new brand focused on global flavors. He doesn’t want to come off as a late-comer in a nation that has already moved past its pot-roast perspective. It doesn’t help that cooks like Rick Bayless, the non-Mexican chef who has become an authority on Mexican cooking, are being swept up in a battle over cultural appropriation.
“We’re not translating the ethnic soul of a community,” Kimball said. “We’re just saying this is a good idea. You need someone who knows a fair amount about cooking to do this, who has the thoughtfulness and testing to translate Thai cooking to our kitchens.”
Corby Kummer, a Boston-based food writer, has never been a big fan. “He has a tendency to flatten things out, and that can be dull,” Kummer said. But, he added, Kimball has great value as someone who offers authority and reassurance.
“If he can do that with newer flavors and make the cooks who look to him for that reassurance understand a new way to cook, more power to him,” he said.
Kimball is building his venture with a small crew who followed him out of America’s Test Kitchen, chief among them Melissa Baldino, a former executive producer who was once his assistant. She married Kimball a year after he divorced his second wife in 2012.
It is a loyal team, and food-publishing veterans are betting that Milk Street Kitchen will succeed.
“It’s a huge mistake to write off Chris Kimball,” said Rux Martin, a cookbook editor who has her own imprint at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. “He’s always been really good at following where the money is coming from, based on what people want.”
Kimball’s first venture publishing reliable recipes with a wonky specificity came in 1980, when he used $100,000 from investors to start Cook’s Magazine. He went on to sell it for a big profit to Condé Nast Publications, which later shut it down. He bought back the title for $175 and reintroduced it as Cook’s Illustrated in 1993.
It was a black-and-white antithesis of Gourmet magazine and took no ads. It still doesn’t. If you wanted to know how to make perfect Bolognese in a slow cooker or a foolproof pie crust (pro tip: use vodka), here it was.
His approach ushered in an era of intellectual cookbook authors who preferred analysis to romance. Among the magazine’s alumni are Mark Bittman, a former New York Times columnist, and J. Kenji López-Alt, the author of “The Food Lab,” who developed the vodka pie crust during his time at Cook’s Illustrated.
America’s Test Kitchen, which includes the magazine Cook’s Country as well as radio and television programs, is built on a culture of testing so rigorous that it can border on fetish. And when other food websites were offering free content, Kimball insisted on paid subscriptions.
“It all comes from Chris’ idea that you can’t give anything away,” said John Willoughby, the first executive editor of Cook’s Illustrated and now its executive editor for magazines.
The schism, by all accounts, was painful. Kimball said he saw it coming during a board meeting last July. The company had grown to 180 people, and the board of Boston Common Press, which owns America’s Test Kitchen, thought a new management style was in order.
Although America’s Test Kitchen was doing very well financially, the initial investors wanted more profit. They added new board members who were aligned with that goal. David Nussbaum, a former media and e-commerce executive, was hired as the company’s chief executive, outranking Kimball.
One day last August, Kimball walked into Willoughby’s office. “I got fired,” he said.
“I didn’t think you could,” Willoughby said.
“I didn’t think I could, either,” Kimball replied.
The new leadership put some of its well-regarded product reviews outside the subscription pay wall. Editors began creating a free digital magazine and a traveling road show based on the success of the 2012 book “The Science of Good Cooking.” The hunt is on to find a bigger space and more digitally savvy employees.
Nussbaum said America’s Test Kitchen, with its 50 recipe testers, would stay close to what he called a Consumer Reports point of view, but “having said that, the world in which we eat has continued to change, and America’s Test Kitchen wants to participate in that change.”
He and Kimball continue to speak well of each other, at least to a reporter. They had lunch recently. Kimball may do work for America’s Test Kitchen, which still provides much of his income.
He seems happy to be starting something new. “I like to get up in the morning and go to work,” he said. “And I think there is still a substantial audience for that work.”