Christopher Kimball: Bow Ties, Recipes, and Lawsuits
For this beloved TV chef, life after America’s Test Kitchen is no piece of cake.
While a steely personality has helped Kimball’s public appeal, it turns out he wasn’t always beloved behind the scenes. “He would rip people’s work apart in front of other staff, and he wouldn’t even know our names. And what’s more, he didn’t care,” recalls one former employee who worked closely with Kimball and insisted on anonymity. “[It was] very disheartening, and many nights we’d all go home upset.”
Kimball chalks that demeanor up to his tough-love approach to the editorial and learning process—something he first absorbed in boarding school and took with him to the magazine. “In our editorial meetings, you would offer your ideas and recipes and had to defend yourself and your development process,” he says. “It could be tough for people, especially if they weren’t used to it…. I do remember one time there were tears at the table. But Milk Street editorial meetings will operate the same way.” As for not remembering names, Kimball doubles down on his excuse that “it’s genetic.”
It was fall. The final episodes of ATK with Kimball as host had begun airing on PBS, and the man in the bow tie was hard at work preparing for the release of his new magazine, aptly titled Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street. When he founded Cook’s Illustrated, one of the reasons Kimball caught fire was because he remained defiantly unwilling to bend to the whims of mainstream culture. While many cooking magazines embraced global diversity by showcasing ethnic cuisine from around the world, Kimball spent his time refining recipes for prime rib and berry cobbler.
With the launch of Milk Street, though, Kimball is abandoning many of the cooking instincts he’s honed over the years and seems ready to join the foodie revolution already well in progress. He wants us to know that the Old World Kimball we’ve come to know and love is gone as he grasps for the future and “a style of cooking that makes more sense for the 21st century. That means bolder flavors, fresh food, and simpler techniques. French cooking is all about technique and the coaxing of flavor out of ingredients using time and heat. The rest of the world has lots of other, simpler solutions to the challenge of creating flavor.”
In addition to the magazine and the TV show, set to air in 2017, Milk Street has spent its $6 million in seed money on a cooking school. Kimball says he’s always wanted a kitchen to be available to his viewers and subscribers. Kimball will also offer “Milk Street Sessions,” during which a visiting author or chef will answer questions and perform a cooking demonstration. (The first session, with Fuchsia Dunlop in late October, sold out in two hours.)
What, then, really sets Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street apart from America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Illustrated ? The scope, it would seem, though not Kimball’s perfectionism: Testing and retesting remains part of the process. “My question is, What does real home cooking look like in Bangkok or Mexico City?” Kimball says. “It’s not, for the most part, the classic dishes we associate with a particular culture or country. It’s a real-world approach that is much faster and simpler. So why focus on meatloaf when the world awaits? There are a thousand other recipes I would prefer to make today than meatloaf…although a meatloaf sandwich the next day is divine. I don’t want to throw out everything I have learned. I want to expand on it and increase the possibilities.”
Before airing his new television show, though, Kimball faces serious challenges that threaten his new operation’s existence. In July, Marc Epstein, the founder of Milk Street Café—located nine blocks down the street from Kimball’s outfit—filed a trademark lawsuit in Boston federal court. Epstein claims he personally wrote letters to Kimball begging him to choose a different name before turning to the courts. The small business is now seeking to prevent Kimball from using the Milk Street name for its burgeoning culinary empire, arguing that the café’s own marketing efforts, Internet searches, and social media are being overshadowed by Kimball’s similar name and causing customer confusion.
In the long run, Epstein’s lawsuit may be small—though perfectly cooked—potatoes compared with recent accusations that Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street is a complete rip-off. At the time of Kimball’s departure in 2015, both he and ATK seemed to let bygones be bygones. But then Kimball’s new magazine hit stores in the fall. “Seeing the physical magazine was the last straw,” Jack Bishop, ATK’s chief creative officer, has said. “It feels hauntingly familiar because it is hauntingly familiar.”
The lawsuit claims Kimball began developing Milk Street Kitchen while he was still working at ATK and points to similarities between Kimball’s new magazine and Cook’s Illustrated, including that they are extremely similar in design, are both 32 pages long, and that Cook’s Illustrated, too, has taken on global cuisine in the past. The lawsuit also alleges that in addition to stealing creative concepts, Kimball pilfered email addresses, recipes, and employees while at ATK, and that his Milk Street is eating into ATK’s TV and radio distribution. When asked by the New York Times, Kimball called the lawsuit “absurd.” For this story, he declined to discuss the latest lawsuit or his departure from ATK. “I won’t comment on leaving ATK,” Kimball says, “other than to say that my partners and I had a very long and very happy relationship for 25 years.”
If Kimball and his Milk Street ultimately prevail, there’s still the lingering question of whether Kimball’s anti-cult-of-personality personality will be strong enough to bring fans with him on this decidedly more mainstream undertaking. Much of the answer will depend on his ability to adapt. At a time when we want our food heroes to be not just characters but also genuine and approachable, that may mean working on his human touch as much as on his professional persona. It may also mean loosening up the bow tie a little, and even remembering a few more names.
On that, Kimball seems to suggest he’s found a point of clarity: “We should reach about 30 employees by year end,” he says. “I want to keep it small and personal. I’ve found that once a company reaches 50 employees, the nature of the organization changes. If you walk through the office and don’t even recognize half the people there, something’s wrong.”
As for the biggest adaptation—the food itself? It would seem the entire world might just be his oyster. “I’ve fallen in love with cooking again,” he has said. “I think there’s a way to teach people how to cook that’s different and more powerful. Grocery stores have changed, cookbooks have changed, TV cooking has changed, but how we teach home cooks to cook—this has not changed. Yes, I’ve taught people to cook before, but not in this way.”