Food Network: A Peek Into America's Test Kitchen

photo by Steve Klise, America's Test Kitchen

Boston chefs have been popping up on reality TV in droves lately: Ken Oringer guest judging on Chopped; Mary Dumont making a run on The Next Iron Chef. Yes, we watch these episodes breathlessly waiting to see whether our local heroes will sink or swim. But sometimes, all we really want is a reality check. No confessionals. No spiky haired hosts. No fancy sound effects. Just some solid cooking advice.

America’s Test Kitchen has been producing this kind of kitchen geek content for the past 12 years right in our own backyard. Located in Brookline Village, the ATK offices take up several floors of an old warehouse; the entire television studio is housed here, behind a library of about 4,000 cookbooks in a completely unassuming corner of the city. From that studio, the television production team shoots 26 episodes in just 13 days, often putting in at least 15 hours per day to get every last segment taped in their short time frame. (They also shoot a show called Cook’s Country, which will tape its fifth season at a studio in Vermont later this fall.)

Last week, ATK invited us in to check out a taping of an episode that will air during the upcoming 12th season (look for it starting January 2012). We watched as the show’s host, Christopher Kimball, clad in bowtie and suspenders, grilled test cook Adam Ried on how to pick out the perfect measuring cup. It was sandwiched between segments on baking chocolate and buying pork.

Like the magazines and books these shows are based on, ATK episodes (some of the most watched on public television) are for the home cooking fanatics, folks who really, really want to know which of the many canned tuna options they should buy or why certain household ice cream makers work better than others. It’s straight forward and instructive without being droll — Kimball and the test cooks that appear on the show don’t work from a script so their banter is genuine and, oftentimes, quite funny.

At the end of a long stretch of filming, the staff blows off steam not with a wrap party or bottles of champagne but with a highly contentious Rice Crispy treat bake-off during which the test cooks show off their most delicious and often wacky versions of mom’s easiest dessert.

It may be nerdy and educational stuff but at the end of the day, that’s what cooking at home requires. No sound effects. No spiky-haired hosts. Just a good measuring cup, the right type of chocolate, and a reliable recipe. That it comes from a few local heroes surely doesn’t hurt.

The Emmy-nominated series, America’s Test Kitchen, airs locally on WGBH.