Wednesday, July 4, 2007

America's Test Kitchen (behind the scenes)

Do they really make 250 cheesecakes or 300 steaks? And does Christopher Kimball wear a bow tie every day?

Yes and yes!

A few weeks ago, a chat window from Jason popped up on my machine. "Would you like a tour of Cook's?" he wrote from his office. I was speechless for a moment or so (or is it chatless?) "Cook's? You mean, THE Cook's?" I've learned to never underestimate the power of the geek industry, but how could he possibly get me a tour of Cook's?

"You know how we hired this lady to do our focus group at Stylefeeder?" said Jason. "Well, turns out she works for Cook's Illustrated. When I mentioned to her how much you love the magazine, she said she'd be glad to show you around the test kitchen."

* * *
I was waiting for Melissa (my tour guide) at the Cook's reception area when I saw a tall gentleman in a bow tie walk down the stairs and greet another guest. It took me a second to register that this was Christopher Kimball. Seeing him in color and moving was like watching one of the characters from a Dr. Seuss book come to life. The only images of him that I've seen were the pencil drawings in Cook's magazine. The backwards person that I am, I don't watch TV, and have never seen America's Test Kitchen cooking show.

In a few minutes, Melissa came down and led me to the kitchen. She was really sweet and just as food and travel obsessed as I am.

"Can someone please taste these triple chocolate cookies for me?" asked one of the cooks as we walked in. No one wanted to volunteer. It wasn't surprising considering that the counters were packed with sugar cookies, pistachio cakes, spice cakes, and something called Texas sheet cake (I've never heard of this one before -- it looked kind of like brownies). I guess I must have gotten there on a sweet day. It was late in the afternoon and all those poor cooks were probably baking and tasting this stuff all day.

The space felt like a cross between a commercial and a home kitchen. The enormous amount of space and some of the equipment was far beyond any home kitchen, but the pretty wood cabinets and windows made it feel less industrial (most of the commercial kitchens that I've seen didn't have windows). I was trying to figure out what was so unusual about a dozen or so test cooks deep in thought over their projects. In spite of their chef's whites, they didn't look like the cooks I was used to seeing in restaurants. They were too calm and not sweaty. I am used to people in chef's whites moving at a frantic pace with sweat rolling down their brow. These guys had spotless uniforms, and instead of juggling 7 sauté pans, they were juggling 7 surveys on the different aspects of cookies. On a closer examination, they looked more like scientists in lab coats than chefs in whites.

That's one of the reasons I love Cook's Illustrated. They are willing to take a scientific approach to such a culturally and emotionally loaded field. Some people might find their approach dry -- there are no romantic stories about fishermen in Marseilles or someone's first trip to Rome. There is just a description of characteristics the test cook wanted to achieve in the dish and procedures they followed in their experiments to reach that goal. Since my interest in food is more epicurean than cultural, I find this approach fascinating and don't mind giving up some traditions for the sake of taste. Take the Cook's recent article on steaks, for example. It has none of the testosterone, flame, smoke, or sizzle of a raw hunk of meat hitting the grill that we associate with a good steak. What does it have? A very low heat and a thermometer, and yes -- a little sizzle in the end. I don't know of any cuisine that cooks their steaks this way, and yet, it is the best steak I've ever had. Would it be possible to come up with this idea in less than 300 steaks. I am pretty sure it would be. But it probably does take 300 steaks to make sure there isn't an even better method.

When I mentioned the steak story to Melissa, she said, "Oh yes, Kenji Alt did that one." "Is he around?" I asked. "I think we'll see him," she said. And sure enough -- 5 minutes later, she was introducing me to Kenji. I am not sure if Kenji felt like talking about beef after cooking 300 steaks, but I just couldn't help it. I was so excited to meet my steak hero that I tried to ask him all those things about beef that still puzzle me (grass-fed vs. grain-fed, dry-aged vs wet-aged vs not aged, etc). Kenji didn't have any empirical data on this stuff since it's not Cook's territory to get into such specialty ingredients, and he was reluctant to give me any information not supported by proper testing. But surely a guy who cooked 300 steaks had an opinion. Before Melissa dragged me away and rescued poor Kenji, I managed to learn that he does like dry-aged beef when he cooks at home and that the Whole Foods by MGH in Boston carries it at only moderately high (vs. truly insane) prices.

When it was finally time to go, Melissa loaded me with goodies (a few books, DVDs, and a spice cake). I couldn't thank her enough for her hospitality and generosity. It was like spending an afternoon in a cooking Disneyland.

The DVDs are still sitting on my coffee table (what is it with me and TV?), but the books have kept me nicely occupied. Oh, and that spice cake with cream cheese frosting -- it was awesome! They must be in the later stages of testing on that one. I am not normally a cake person, but I would actually like a recipe. I guess I'll have to wait for the January 2008 issue -- that's the one they are working on right now.

I wish you all a Happy and Yummy 4th of July! And I realize that it's one of those holidays that calls for a grill (even if there is a better way to cook a steak ;)


BipolarLawyerCook said...

Sounds like a lot of fun, although I'll admit I've given up on CI in favor of Fine Cooking. Maybe it's time for another try!

Happy Fourth!

Peter M said...

That's really cool that you got the tour! I like the show, as I always pick up a tip or two.

Anonymous said...

I totally geek out over situations like this, Helen. The Disneyland analogy was spot on. And now I have to try the steak method--sounds wonderfully promising, especially if they cooked 300 steaks to get to that point.

Helen said...

Hi Terry,

Have fun with the steak :) Let me know how it turns out. Just keep in mind that a thermometer is invaluable and so is having a thick steak (at least 1.5 inches).


MyKitchenInHalfCups said...

You lucky lucky girl. I'm also a big fan of CI and have never seen the show. The closest I get to behind the scenes is doing some of their testing at home. And that is fun too.

Anonymous said...

What a great blog, Helen. Makes me want to come take a class.


SteamyKitchen said...

I wish I was YOU that day!

I love CI.

Still haven't had the guts to try cooking the steak again. Maybe this weekend?

Toni said...

What a fun experience! You're one lucky girl. Thanks for sharing your story.

Steve Garfield said...

Hi Helen,
That's so cool you got a tour. I recently visited America's test Kitchen too on a video shoot for Nina Simond's Spices of Life.

We filmed a behind the scenes. I'll be editing it next week and will be posting it to her video blog.

Here's the news on it:

Here's the video blog:


Steve Garfield said...

Oops. I should make those links so it's easier to see...

Here's the news on it:

Here's the video blog:

Anonymous said...

If you like to bake, I can give you a recipe for the Texas Sheet Cake. It is thin like a brownie but cakelike, not as dense...very yummy!
aredeebee1 AT yahoo DOT com

Helen said...

Hi Anonymous,

I am not big on sweets, but I am sure my readers would appreciate a Texas Sheet Cake recipe.

Thanks :)