Christopher Kimball Looks Beyond America (and 'America's Test Kitchen')

Daniel Hautzinger
Christopher Kimball. Photo: Courtesy Milk Street
Photo: Courtesy Milk Street

Christopher Kimball's Milk Street airs Saturdays at 2:00 pm.

It’s obvious that we’re in an unprecedented culinary era, where you can eat Lebanese food at an airport and phở is au courant.  But Christopher Kimball believes home cooking has yet to catch up. “American cooking, which takes a lot from Northern European cooking, starts with ingredients that are not that flavorful and builds flavor slowly over a long period of time, as in a beef stew,” he explains over a bowl of chicken pozole at Rick Bayless’s Xoco, a restaurant he eats at every time he’s in Chicago. “It’s a lousy method if you don’t have a lot of time or really high-quality ingredients. Most other global cuisines, however, start with really flavorful ingredients like ginger or scallions, so it’s faster and less complicated to create a delicious dish.”

To modernize home cooking then, the former America’s Test Kitchen host, who has spent nearly four decades fastidiously teaching you to cook American and European classics, is now bringing global techniques to your kitchen through Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street. Launched in 2016, Milk Street has multiple arms to share culinary tips and recipes: a magazine, a TV show currently airing its first season, a radio show, a cooking school in Boston, and touring live demonstration-plus-competition events hosted by Kimball.

“You can’t be a single-media company anymore,” he says. “You have to be present in whatever medium people are at. But if you have more outlets and formats you also become a more interesting brand that people will continue to come back to, and you’re pushed to do new things: I’ve learned things doing the radio show that I later incorporated into the TV show or magazine.”

Take, for instance, his conversation on Milk Street radio with the Senegalese chef Pierre Thiam. This introduction to Senegalese food culture fascinated Kimball; he cited Thiam multiple times in conversation. And now the second season of Milk Street’s TV show will feature a trip to Senegal.

Christopher Kimball. Photo: Courtesy 'Milk Street'Photo: Courtesy Milk Street Christopher Kimball ventures outside the confines of a cozy kitchen in his new show? Yes, unlike in America’s Test Kitchen, which he left in late 2015 in an acrimonious split that has spawned a lawsuit, Kimball travels the globe for Milk Street, exploring cuisines and recipes in Thailand, London, and Mexico in the first season. (The second season will feature even more countries, among them Austria and Tunisia in addition to Senegal.) In fact, it was Kimball’s travels in the past decade or so that inspired him to move beyond his traditional culinary training.

“My cooking had started to change as I discovered new techniques from traveling, so there was a bit of disconnect between what I did at America’s Test Kitchen versus at home in the last few years,” he says. As he learned about other global cuisines from chefs like the Israeli-British Yotam Ottolenghi or the British specialist in Chinese cuisine, Fuchsia Dunlop (who appears in the first season of the Milk Street TV show), he was blown away by the use of contrasting flavors: sweet and spicy, bitter and salty, all at once.

“Yotam’s books really opened up a new world to me,” Kimball recalls. “I was amazed when I saw a recipe calling for two cups of cilantro, but then I tried it, and wow! I began to discover new methods of cooking to use and adapt, and it was actually more fun and exciting.”

But while the culinary techniques are new, he insists that his intellectual approach to cooking remains the same as it always has been, from his founding of Cook’s Magazine back in 1980 through Cook’s Illustrated and its siblings, America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Country. “It’s still essentially the same gig,” he says. “I’m still curious, I’m still trying to understand recipes: how do they work, why do they work, what is the idea or technique behind them?”

It is this focus on method that he claims distinguishes Milk Street and makes it useful for home cooks. Rather than adopt recipes from other cuisines, Milk Street aims to translate their techniques or concepts to cooking at home in America. “We’re not trying to do authentic; it’s pointless to try to do authentic in a home kitchen,” he says. “Take Senegalese thiebou djeun, a fish and rice dish: the available ingredients are different, the culture it’s presented in is different. It wouldn’t work very well in an American kitchen. But you can learn something from it.”

Culinary technique is not the only thing you can learn from thiebou djeun, however; like any food or cuisine, it teaches you about the culture from which it comes. In the Milk Street radio show, Kimball’s curiosity extends beyond simple recipes and into the culture behind them. He’s taken on a role similar to that of Anthony Bourdain, in which food becomes a facilitator of conversation, an avenue to learning more about the people who make it and the place it comes from.

The food doesn’t have to come from far away, either. Kimball also turns his gaze towards American food culture, but not the kinds of heartland food you would see on Cook’s Country. Instead he looks at dishes like carne adovada in Santa Fe or African-influenced Southern food such as jambalaya and gumbo. “I don’t want to just do buttermilk pancakes and fried chicken,” he says as he dips a churro into chocolate. “There’s so much other American food out there.”