Like Sesame Street or Downton Abbey, America's Test Kitchen is the sort of television program that could seemingly exist only on PBS. The host, Christopher Kimball, is a sixtysomething, bow tie-wearing New Englander with a team of co-hosts who don't look anything like the hosts of the familiar "dump and stir"cooking shows on commercial TV.
Beyond the hosts, it's the content of America's Test Kitchen that sets it, and the Cook's Illustrated magazine that spawned it, apart. The brutally honest reviews, meticulous step by step recipe and amusing blind taste tests help the show appeal to both novice and experienced cooks and have made Test Kitchen one of the highest rated cooking shows around.
Now, Kimball is taking the show on the road and will appear at Jones Hall on Thursday. America's Test Kitchen Live gives viewers a behind the scenes look at the show and provides an opportunity to ask Kimball questions about cooking.
"The audiences grew over time from three people to 400 or 500. I enjoy doing them."
"The show came out of years of doing live events, bookstore events and other things," Kimball tells CultureMap via phone from his office in Massachusetts. "The audiences grew over time from three people to 400 or 500. I enjoy doing them."
After a trial run last year in Boston and Portland, Kimball decided to embark on a wider run for 2014. "We sort of figured out what we wanted to do. We really talk to the audience about themselves . . . It’s a fun back and forth about what we do in our kitchen but also talking with our audience about what we’ve learned about them.
"To get as much back and forth as possible, we get them to fill out questions before the show. I bring some other questions from other shows we’ve done."
Audience members are invited on stage to participate in a chocolate tasting, challenged to try to recognize ingredients by smell alone and more.
Turning to the show, Kimball says he can't imagine it working on commercial TV.
"Public TV is a good match for us. We’re allowed to say we tested these 10 blenders. We hated these three and liked these two," Kimball says. "Food Network has been very successful but the formula is different. It’s not about cooking. It’s about entertainment."
A Different Food TV Show
Another aspect of American Test Kitchen that sets it apart is its willingness to acknowledge failed recipes. "It starts at a common point of reference, which is a bad recipe," Kimball says. "Then, let’s get to a good one. You don’t see bad food in other food shows.
"That’s the point of entry . . . Well, we’ve made a lot of bad pies here and let’s talk about how to make a good one."
"Food Network has been very successful but the formula is different. It’s not about cooking. It’s about entertainment."
Of course, no conversation between Kimball and a Texan would be complete without asking him about the show's recipe for barbecue brisket, which starts on a grill with wood chips but ends with the meat being wrapped in foil and finished in an oven. Any Texan who's ever painstakingly fed a smoker for 12 hours or more might view the method skeptically, but Kimball has a quick retort.
"It ain’t Texas brisket, but I don’t pretend it is," Kimball concedes with a laugh. "I’ve had Texas brisket. It’s very good.
"What we do is try to be practical with the way people actually cook at home . . . The problem is you do a brisket entirely on the grill, it is going to be six or seven hours or more." Still, Kimball stands by the recipe. "I do find though if you wrap it in foil for 225 (degrees) for two to three hours it does get really tender, which I like. You do lose the bark. You do lose the burnt ends."
Still, he recognizes a "kindred spirit" between Texas and his home state of Vermont. "There’s a whole graft of jokes," about Vermonters and Texans, Kimball says, and he offers his favorite:
"A Texan visits Vermont. As he's traveling around the state, he winds up Rochester for dinner, where he meets a farmer. The Vermonter says, 'Where are you from?' and, when the Texan explains, the man offers to show him his small, typical, hillside farm. After the tour is over the Texan says, 'Well, if I wanted to take you on a tour of my ranch, we'd be driving in my truck all day.'
The Vermonter replies, 'I used to have a truck like that, too. Had to replace it with a new one.' "
America's Test Kitchen Live is at Jones Hall Thursday, Aug. 14. Tickets range for $38 to $48 and are available via the Society for Performing Arts website.