Christopher Kimball, host of the PBS series America’s Test Kitchen, would like you to know that he ties his own bowties. He also admits he has no personal experience as a celebrity chef or in any kind of commercial cooking whatsoever.
That would make him a strange choice for his hosting role, were it not for his 25 years’ experience in food journalism, which ultimately led him to his other gig: editor-in-chief of Cook’s Illustrated. The culinary magazine promotes recipes and techniques useful to home cooks who want to realistically develop their kitchen capabilities.
That same goal also drives America’s Test Kitchen, which operates as a television show, radio program and, increasingly, an online outlet. Next month, it finds another medium to educate — live shows. On Nov. 3, Kimball will be hosting America’s Test Kitchen LIVE at Milwaukee’s Riverside Theater, an evening in which he’ll reveal the show’s inner workings.
The evening-long look inside the test kitchen was originally scheduled for the Pabst Theater, but was moved to the much larger Riverside due to a groundswell in ticket demand. Such interest supports Kimball’s notion that more people are cooking than ever before, driving up the demand for affordable, accessible recipes.
“The concept is simple,” Kimball says. “Most recipes don’t work and therefore home cooks have a fear of failure. By doing extensive testing, trying almost everything, and by showing and discussing our mistakes, we can bring home cooks into our kitchen and make them comfortable with the process and the recipe.”
America’s Test Kitchen’s approach is one of simple show-and-tell, Kimball explains. The show employs some 40 cooks in its own test kitchen, several of whom appear regularly on the air. Recipes are discussed, dissected and tested in ways that are accessible to cooks without professional culinary training. He says that’s the show’s secret to success.
“For the most part, we stay away from professional dishes and chefs’ recipes because that is a totally different type of cooking,” Kimball says. “The challenge with all recipes is to figure out how the home cook plans on messing up a dish. They make substitutions, skip steps, change techniques and rarely follow a recipe as written.”
Correcting those mistakes before they happen — and in the process promoting successes while easing the frustrations of home cooks — is the main course offered by Kimball and his colleagues.
“At the heart of what we do is an authentic process,” Kimball says. “What we do on radio, TV and even onstage is not about showmanship. It’s about bringing our audience into our very real test kitchen.”
The stage show coming to the Riverside offers audience members a variety of ways to enter the test kitchen. Videos and photography highlight the presentation by Kimball and co-presenter Dan Souza. However, there is little cooking that goes on during the presentation.
“We have tried it and watching someone cook onstage is like watching paint dry,” Kimball says. ”We do have contests, taste tests, weird science experiments and even Dan Souza jumping at a Velcro wall wearing Velcro suit. However, we have not road tested this idea yet.”
The videos also show things that do not work, including a now infamous episode of NBC’s The Today Show featuring a recipe gone awry. Unlike episodes in the PBS series, the stage show does not seek to replicate the work of area chefs and adapt it for home cooks, nor does it offer a kitchen gadgets segment like one seen in the series.
The purpose of the stage show is to expose audience members as much as possible to the test kitchen process and make them more successful in their own kitchens, Kimball says. Part of that success for any cook is taking the proper approach with the proper tools, he adds.
“Preheat your pan properly so you are cooking with heat,” Kimball says. “Use a sharp knife and buy a good knife sharpener. Use enough salt and check all of your seasonings before serving for those recipes which can be modified before serving.”
The show also does not predict food trends, something to which Kimball has a personal aversion.
“I pretty much hate trends,” he adds. “The only trend I really like is that more people are cooking. And you can keep that quinoa on the shelf.”
America’s Test Kitchen LIVE featuring Christopher Kimball is coming on Nov. 3 to the Riverside Theater, 116 W. Wisconsin Ave., Milwaukee. For tickets call 414-286-3663 or visit pabsttheater.org.