Last Thursday, as a result of my entry in ATK’s Boston Blogger Cookie Challenge, (See my post here, I was a finalist!) I was given the amazing opportunity to take a private tour of America’s Test Kitchen along with a few other very lucky bloggers. I’ve been a big fan of the Cook’s Illustrated and America’s Test Kitchen series since around 2001. My very sweet Sicilian mother-in-law (who has always appreciated how much I love to cook, but more importantly, eat-mangia!) bought me my first subscription to the “Cook’s Illustrated” magazine.
My only complaint with the Cook’s series is they are a little too caught up with the method. The warmth and art of cooking is often lost in their recipes. On the other hand, the intense focus on the method is what makes this line so accessible. They lift the veil, you get to see the wizard at work, and I’m a much better cook because of it.
I don’t know if they’d gotten wind of this complaint, or if they are just very clever, but ATK has just launched a new website that lifts the veil even further. If you’re the type that likes all the special features on DVDs, then “America’s Test Kitchen Feed” will whet your appetite. The best part of this website is the methodical test cooks get to let their hair down. Recipes like homemade bacon jam are proof positive! Create a login and password, and it’s totally free. I need to have a gathering as an excuse to make bacon jam to avoid the problem of wanting to eat it all at once: http://www.americastestkitchenfeed.com/recipes/homemade-bacon-jam/
The test kitchen resides in a 2,500 square foot converted camping equipment warehouse in Brookline, Massachusetts. It has been in the same location since the birth of “Cook’s Illustrated” in 1993. You can imagine how tight quarters are since two floors now house “Cook’s Illustrated,” PBS show “America’s Test Kitchen,” their newer magazine focused on regional American cooking, (everything from Hawaiian kalua pork to New England style clam chowder) “Cook’s Country” and “America’s Test Kitchen Radio,” not to mention their prolific website and cookbook publishing.
Apart from two weeks of filming the “Cook’s Country” TV series, absolutely everything is done in-house from filming, recording, and photography, to researching, developing, and testing food (and yes, if you were wondering, the staff is very well fed). Even their back alley gets its share of activity-all of their grilling recipes are tested back there (in parkas, mid-winter, since they work six months ahead of publication.)
The tour began with an unmarked, unassuming green door. I tried the buzzer, but nothing happened. Before I took another step, a friendly delivery driver asked where I was headed. “America’s Test Kitchen,” I said. (How many times do you get to say that?) I must have seemed safe, because he showed me the delivery entrance. Suddenly, there I was walking up the brick-lined stairs, which smelled surprisingly of stale cigarettes.
I then faced a second buzzer, but this one buzzed right back. I turned the knob, walked in, and there I was signing my name on the guest list! My fellow bloggers were standing nearby in an expectant circle. I joined them and seconds later Stephanie Yiu, the cheerful social media relations director, greeted us. She scored big points by remembering each of our blogs by name. And then, off we went!
The tour could easily have taken 5 minutes, but it was stretched and savored to about 45. Both floors are filled to max capacity. Tall racks of equipment line hallways and fill every nook and cranny. The open reception area begins and ends the circle of the kitchen.
A few steps to the right, and we were in the largest private collection of cookbooks in the country, over 4,000 cookbooks (drool)! What’s the point of all these recipe books made with real paper, you might ask? Surprisingly, not every recipe is on-line. (yet)
Cook’s extensive recipe development process begins with a shout-out, “5 recipe test!” A small stampede of test cooks (over 40 rigorously trained cooks are currently employed) head to the library and peruse until they get five like-minded recipes. The chosen five are then executed as written, followed by a critique of what went right, and what went wrong. And then, let the testing begin!
To the right of the library is their tiny photography studio, capable of capturing three highly edible (nothing faked here!) dishes at the same time, and a small pantry that holds every cutting board, picnic table surface, and place setting seen in their delectable photos.
This is where much of the prep is done.
One of the most surprising things I learned on this tour was that, despite testing recipes umpteen times, commercial-sized equipment is not used (save for the walk-in refrigerator and freezer). Pots and pans, utensils and gadgets are all home cook-sized.
Now I see why their equipment reviews are so useful, particularly in this day and age of endless choices. As a working kitchen replicating the home environment, they have a vested interest in the quality of their equipment. To perform their reviews, they buy products off the shelf just like a consumer would. Rigorous tests are performed and graded on forms more complex than an SAT. They buy more of the test winners to use in their kitchen, which further demonstrate performance with real life wear and tear. (The best part is, it’s often not the most expensive model that wins the day. )
One of the many benefits of working at the Test Kitchen is the equipment lottery held each year. All staff members get equal chance at picking from a table brimming with leftover test kitchen gadgetry. (Sign me up for that!)
Two shoppers are employed full time just to do the grocery shopping. Over $500,000 a year is spent on groceries alone! This is partly because they shop like most consumers do rather than buying in bulk, and partly because they buy products available nationally, and are recommended in their extensive taste tests.
Upstairs is the editorial room where Chris Kimball leads very serious discussions about crepes and whether a home cook would take the time to make them. That is another thing I really appreciate about the test kitchen. They take the home cook very seriously. After taking a recipe to task and whipping it into shape, they send it out to real home cooks for further testing and review. The deciding factor is whether the home cook would make it again. If a recipe fails this test, it’s back to the drawing board. If it fails again, all that hard work goes down the drain. That’s how much we matter to them!
And with that, we walked downstairs into the reception area where we began.
I love the feel of the Test Kitchen. It’s a great mix of traditional and modern. Stainless steel, up to the minute kitchen accoutrement, and large windows set off brick-lined walls and oak work tables that look like a freakishly long version of anyone’s dining room set. All in all, very homey.
Apparently Julia Collin-Davison walked through while we were on the tour, but I was oblivious (as usual). I was probably busy taking pictures of furniture.
In 1906, O. Henry published a collection of 25 short stories including one entitled, “The Green Door.” In this story, O. Henry uses the green door as a symbol for everyday adventures he is encouraging us to seek out. That is exactly how I would describe cooking, an everyday adventure. Thank you America’s Test Kitchen, for opening your door to me, and the wonderful world of cooking!