Let Them Eat Chicken

When Chris Kimball founded Cook’s Illustrated, he broke all the industry rules. Now he’s beating the glossies at their own game. Has his scrappy, undeniably geeky enterprise in Brookline Village come up with a new recipe for successful magazines?

As a longtime reader of Cook’s Illustrated, I can say this with confidence: I know how to make roast chicken. Not just a roast chicken, but 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, a refreshingly hands-off recipe that advises roasting the bird, covered, at an ultralow oven temperature. I can also make brownies (the fudgy kind, the cakey kind, the chewy-and-chocolaty-with-made-from-scratch-caramel kind), several types of mashed potatoes, and a mean pie crust. It all makes me, on paper, a perfect young bride—for 1954.

It’s a time warp that figures into almost every aspect of the magazine, and such anachronisms have their charms. Its kitchen tips address pressing issues like how to crush tomatoes without any splatter. Equipment tests put measuring cups and spatulas, not souped-up espresso machines, through Olympic-style trials. The ingredient taste tests, conducted weekly by 21 cooks and editors working in Cook’s Illustrated‘s sprawling offices in Brookline Village, focus solely on supermarket staples: ketchup, chicken broth, and, if they’re feeling especially wild and crazy, teriyaki sauce. I like knowing that some type-A editor is going to roast 42 chickens to figure out the “best” way to get a crispy skin.

And yet you can’t help wishing they applied that same rigor to dishes beyond steak Diane and chicken tetrazzini. This is 2008. The United States of Arugula, to borrow from author David Kamp. Pick up almost any national food magazine—Bon Appétit, Gourmet, and so forth—and you’ll know that amateur gastronomy is no longer just about recipes. It’s political. It’s an adventure. It’s sexy. It’s a lifestyle. We seek out Vermont cheeses and Japanese yuzu, and top most everything with microgreens—so long as they’re in season. Even Rachael Ray, America’s self-consciously homespun sweetheart, will get fancy and whip up a lemon-pepper ricotta spread every once in a while.

Cook’s has unapologetically, even defiantly, sat out the foodie revolution. The magazine continues to publish its predictable spate of roast chicken recipes—seven in all this year alone. And though the company has expanded, its repertoire has remained narrow. Cook’s Country, launched in 2004, makes over regional American recipes à la raspberry chiffon pie. The book division publishes eight cookbooks annually with straight-to-the-point titles like The Best Recipe, The New Best Recipe, The Best Light Recipe, and, of course, The Best Chicken Recipes. The test kitchen’s two public television shows, America’s Test Kitchen and, new this fall, Cook’s Country TV, feature dorky test cooks talking through the steps to the ultimate layer cake.

From one perspective, the Cook’s shtick seems risible: Just how many ways to roast a chicken or bake a sugar cookie does one really need? But while the glossy food magazines were publishing high-minded gastronomic essays and intricate recipes from hot chefs paired with stunning, full-color photography (Cook’s, by contrast, uses sober black-and-white illustrations), a funny thing happened: The economy tanked. As advertisers began to slash their budgets, conventional media took a major hit. In the third quarter, ad pages in Bon Appétit plummeted nearly 30 percent (from 2007’s), Gourmet‘s slid more than 25 percent, and Food & Wine‘s dipped 7 percent. When the books close on this quarter, it’s expected to be even worse.

Meanwhile, over at Cook’s, which accepts no advertising, business is better than ever. And after years of watching these nerdy recipe analysts with bemusement, some observers—including this one—are starting to wonder whether there’s a certain hidden genius to the Cook’s trademark single-mindedness.

 

When Cook’s Illustrated debuted in 1993, it intentionally broke every rule of magazine making. Not only were there no ads or color photography, but there weren’t even any journalists—just a few obsessive cooks who would spend months testing a recipe or tasting vanilla extracts to find the best one.

The man behind it all was Chris Kimball, then a 42-year-old publishing entrepreneur who had recently moved to Boston to rescue a flagging natural-health magazine called East West Journal. Kimball wasn’t new to food. His first enterprise, Cook’s Magazine, launched in 1980 with a focus on home cooking and technique. But it also included the kind of stylish lifestyle features designed to appeal to deep-pocketed advertisers.

Cook’s endured, but it was a never a runaway hit. As financial pressures came to bear, Kimball was forced to sell off stakes in the magazine, first to The New Yorker, then to Swedish publisher Bonnier, and finally, in 1990, to elite New York publisher Condé Nast, which promptly shuttered the magazine and shunted Cook’s subscribers to its own flagship food title, Gourmet. Kimball says he was determined that the second incarnation of Cook’s would not suffer the same fate: “I was fed up and just said, ‘To hell with it. I’m going to create the exact magazine I’d want to read.'”

The result was a publication that reached out to home cooks’ inner wonk. Instead of entertaining and travel pieces, there were articles that read like detective stories—though here the pressing mystery to be solved was the path to great grilled steak or foolproof peach shortcake. Following “hunches” and deductive reasoning—”My first step was to increase the surface area of the peaches so that more of it would come in contact with the sugar”—Cook’s provided not just a way to make a recipe, but the best, ultimate, fail-safe way. The idea was to offer recipes so good that readers would pay a premium. Subscriptions would be the primary revenue stream; there’d be no need to pander to fickle advertisers.

Kimball says his inspiration was Julia Child, who had applied that same exacting, intellectual approach to classic French dishes. Like Child, Kimball believed that good cooking could be achieved only with good technique. But he was tired of being told he needed to fold the egg whites just so simply because that’s the way it was done. Kimball wanted to know why he was doing it. “I want to understand the process,” he says. “My theory is you can’t be good at anything if you don’t understand it.”

If you don’t cook, articles explaining how and why recipes work may not seem like a Big Idea. But they do to anyone who has stood at the stove, furiously stirring a ginger custard that refuses to thicken, as the guests wait for dessert. Most recipes serve two masters. Yes, they should work. But just as important, recipes in glossy magazines and elegant cookbooks are meant to inspire. You want to make Thai spiced watermelon soup with crab because all the hip chefs are playing with Southeast Asian flavors. You want to make a lavender-infused strawberry tart because you’ll be just like those beautiful people at a long wooden table outside a Provençal villa. If your tart comes out tasting like Grandma’s underwear drawer, it’s not the recipe’s fault. It’s you.

Cook’s recipes, by contrast, have one goal: to give home cooks in-depth yet simple steps they can comprehend and follow. The concept’s appeal was instant and enduring, and Kimball, in his trademark round glasses, bow tie, and clip-on suspenders, became a hero and mascot of sorts for the Cook’s cultlike fan base. While most magazines take several years—or forever—to turn a profit, Cook’s was in the black within six months, says Kimball. Fifteen years later, it has more than 1 million in paid readership—that’s more than Gourmet, more than Food & Wine. Its renewal rate for first-time subscribers is about 80 percent, double that of most general-interest magazines.

 

For all his championing of casseroles and pot roast, Kimball says he isn’t philosophically opposed to cooking food invented after the Kennedy administration. Indeed, he is known from time to time to lay out a pretty sophisticated spread for friends at his sprawling Victorian brownstone in the South End. The reason Cook’s repeatedly returns to retro classics is simple pragmatism, he says: It’s what the readers want.

Kimball knows what they want because before it can appear in the magazine, every recipe gets put through its paces not only in the test kitchen, but also in an extraordinary survey process that gives readers the final say. Test cooks may want to “solve” the problem of the best bloody mary, but like almost every other cocktail, it consistently polls low, as do lobster rolls, duck, lamb, and most ethnic foods. So those recipes are passed over in favor of what readers do like, which includes pork chops, mac and cheese, and, especially, the vaunted roast chicken. “The survey is Chris’s bible,” says test kitchen director Erin McMurrer.

Here’s how it works: Editors and test cooks come up with ideas, which each week are sent out to a rotating group of 5,000 subscribers, who rate their interest in a dish on a scale of -2 (no interest) to 2 (great interest). If an idea doesn’t get an average rating of at least 1, Cook’s will not develop the recipe. Some staffers try to game the system, sending out ideas several times in an attempt to slip them by readers. If gambas al ajillo, a classic Spanish shrimp dish, doesn’t pass muster, they might survey it again as “Garlicky Shrimp.” In a third pass, it might be “Easy, Sizzling Garlicky Shrimp,” and so on, in the hopes of winning approval. And sometimes it does. But if such finagling fails, the recipe won’t get tackled.

Next, test cooks develop a recipe, and a draft is sent out to about 2,000 select readers, known as the Friends of Cook’s. Within a week, dozens of them will try it at home and answer 21 standard questions, including: Was this recipe worth the time, effort, and expense? Did the recipe meet its goal? And, most important, would you make this recipe again? If fewer than 80 percent say “yes” to this last question, the kitchen must redevelop the recipe. No exceptions.

For Kimball, empowering the reader in this way just makes sense. Subscribers pay $28.95 annually to receive six issues, more than four times the going rate for the average national consumer magazine. If they don’t like what they see, they won’t renew.

But former and current employees say Kimball’s unwavering faith in the survey blinds him to its limitations. The Friends of Cook’s rarely give a thumbs-up to anything other than old-school meat and potatoes (literally and figuratively), which in turn means that test cooks are forced to solve and re-solve recipes, rather than put their expertise to work cracking the code of more diverse fare.

The acrobatics required to reinvent recipes over and over again risk undermining Cook’s reputation for practicality, insiders say. The constant tinkering can lead to recipes that offer a new “solution” but are far more complicated than necessary. Consider the magazine’s 2006 recipe for London broil, which calls for salt-curing a 2-pound bottom round steak in the refrigerator for three to 24 hours (the salt is supposed to pull out the livery flavors inherent in this cut), submerging the plastic-wrapped steak for an additional hour in 100-degree water (“giving the fatty acids in the meat less time to break down into off-tasting compounds”), building a two-level charcoal fire, grilling the steak over the hot side for eight minutes—flipping it every 60 seconds (“to keep the long muscle fibers from contracting and buckling,” of course)—then cooking it on the cooler side for five more. Pretty fussy footwork for what amounts to grilled steak.

Worse, the quest for new scientific explanations can force test cooks to “discover” things just so they have something to say. For example, a recent article about sweet potatoes claimed that more starch converted to sugar when the tubers were cooked at a low temperature, though tasters did not notice a significantly sweeter result. “We fudge the science a lot,” says one Cook’s employee. “We look up the science and know what it’s supposed to do, and that can influence what are supposedly blind tastings.”

The survey’s tyranny also prevents some good recipes from making it into print. Like a clever politician, Cook’s plays—some say panders—to the middle of the road, a Joe Snak-Pack with utterly average tastes and skills. That’s why you never see a recipe for pomegranate-glazed duck or prune flan, though they’re both dishes that serious home cooks might very much like to see “solved.” A butterscotch pudding that executive editor Jack Bishop says is one of the best recipes Cook’s developed this year was recently abandoned because readers couldn’t get the caramel just so. “I was actually joking that we should all publish ‘The Real Best Recipes from America’s Test Kitchen,'” says David Pazmiño, a test cook who left in August after three and a half years at the magazine.

Kimball brushes aside such concerns. Without the survey, the magazine might stray from dishes that produce the Cook’s signature “aha moment,” when the tester discovers the secret to the juiciest turkey or evenly browned biscuits. By definition, there is no “aha moment” for prune flan, because most people have never made it before. And if you haven’t struggled or flat-out failed, you won’t appreciate the brilliance of the solution. “I think it’s romantic to think you know what people want,” says Kimball. “But I’ve learned the hard way that when it comes to cooking, you’re much better off talking to people about things they know.”

 

Romance. For many in the magazine world, that’s indeed the attraction. We journalists work for relatively little pay but in exchange are allowed to fancy ourselves savvy, dashing trendsetters, the progeny of Mad Men, though we don’t smoke and we drink less, at least during working hours. The Cook’s model, to give readers what they want, requires freakish discipline. It means snubbing suggestions from creative, ambitious staffers. It risks turning off readers who may want escape from the everyday. What Kimball calls “reader service” would be to many of his peers an admission of defeat.

For half a century, that attitude has been supported by advertisers, who are equally thrilled by novelty and the latest fashion. But as the media landscape continues to fracture and advertising—or what’s left of it—gets spread increasingly thin, editors are realizing that listening to readers is a smart move. New media, it turns out, has nothing to do with the Internet; that’s merely the platform on which it’s delivered. It’s about creating content that’s tailor-made for the audience, not Madison Avenue.

Making that change means addressing production as well as editorial arrogance. Ad-supported magazines have an incentive to put out big, thick issues: The more ads, the more money they make. But those thick issues are also more expensive to print and ship to subscribers. One of the reasons that Cook’s is so profitable is because unlike a Vanity Fair or Vogue, it produces just 32 two-color pages for every bimonthly issue. As Kimball likes to say, he’s not in the business of printing and selling paper. Instead, he tries to give readers value at a price that covers costs and produces a tidy profit.

Following such logic has already helped some newer publications navigate the rough media seas. Take The Week, the pamphlet-thin magazine that serves as CliffsNotes to the latest national and international news. It doesn’t survey readers like Cook’s does. But its editors have abandoned any notion that they should be the ones to write 10,000-word stories about what’s relevant. Instead, they summarize “boring but important” news, editorials, even celebrity gossip—a process that helps readers cut through the information overload but remain in the loop. In August, The Week announced that its circulation had reached 500,000, double the level in 2004. Ad pages climbed 13.5 percent over the previous year.

The Cook’s tactics won’t work for everyone. (Kimball himself failed when he applied them to a decidedly niche magazine he launched in the 1990s called Handcraft Illustrated.) But as advertisers pull back, magazines can’t rely on subscribers to pay for information they can find for free elsewhere. To keep readers, magazines are going to have to radically change the way they do business, just as Kimball did 15 years ago. It’ll be humiliating, sure. And after swallowing their pride, they’re going to want to seek out a little comfort. Perhaps in the form of a nice, old-fashioned roast chicken dinner.

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  • g

    i've picked up cooks illustrated several times and always felt like i was reading the same issue over and over. now i know why…