For the last 30 years, Christopher Kimball has had a very simple — and very effective — business strategy: teach people how to make no-frills food in a fail-safe way, and they’ll buy your magazines and books, and watch your TV shows.
Kimball is the bow-tie wearing entrepreneur behind Cook’s Illustrated and Cook’s Country magazines, and a whole bookshelf full of “Best Recipe”-branded cookbooks. He’s familiar to public broadcasting audiences for his America’s Test Kitchen TV show which airs on Saturdays at 1:30 p.m. on OPB TV and Sundays at 5:30 p.m. on OPB PLUS. He has a new weekly radio show which you can hear on Sunday nights at 6 p.m. on OPB Radio.
His team’s latest offering is a book called The Science of Good Cooking. It’s half chemistry textbook and half cookbook. During his interview on Think Out Loud, Kimball talked about his philosophy about teaching cooking, as well as how cooking has changed over the course of his career.
On the importance of knowing why something works in cooking:
“In the kitchen, for example, if I say to you, ‘Pat the steak dry before you sauté it,’ well, sometimes you’ll do it and sometimes you won’t. If I explain that if you don’t do it, then the meat’s not going to heat up over the boiling point of water for awhile, and the Maillard reaction, which means amino acids change into flavor compounds, doesn’t happen over 300 degrees, so you get no flavor development and you essentially steam the steak. So if I explain to you, ‘You’re not going to get flavor, you’re not going to get enough heat,’ you will in fact pat the steak dry the next time you do it. So understanding why gives you a much higher probability of actually doing the right thing.
On teaching people how to cook:
“When I went to school, people never explained stuff; they would tell you what to do. If you were learning music, you were told what to do and the theory, very often, was a little vague. If you went to chemistry class, in fifth grade I still remember, they had those stupid colored balls with the dowels, right? And you know what? That has no relationship whatsoever to what molecules really look like. It’s completely made up. So I actually remember talking to my teacher, I finally questioned him, and he said to me, ‘Well, actually that’s just a way of representing the idea.’ And I said, ‘Well, why don’t you just tell me how it really works?’ “
Very often in teaching, it’s rote. You assume, and this is very true in cooking, you assume that home cooks aren’t smart enough to understand equilibrium or understand what happens to proteins, and so everybody just said, ‘Do this or do that.’ I think what’s happened, and I’m surprised it has to some extent over the last 20 years, is that people kept going, ‘Why?’ And so when you tell people why, they’re perfectly intelligent, they can understand the concept, and once you understand the concept, once you really get the theory, you’re going to be a much better cook …”
On the evolution of food culture:
“I remember in the early 1980s, 1982, I sat down with a bunch of people and they said, ‘Well, the next new movement is going to be American cooking and American food.’ It’s funny because [James] Beard died in the mid 1980s and American Cookery I think is one of the great cookbooks, and he had championed that for a very long time, but that had been eclipsed by [Julia Child] and some other things. So the fact that people care about ingredients, they care about good, basic cooking — there’s an emphasis on local, I know in Vermont, for example where I spent a lot of time, a lot of old dairy farms … are being reconditioned to grow organics, the land is being brought back, the barns are being brought back, you can get local cheese, milk, other things … I think we’re on the cusp, however, of a revolution in home cooking that hasn’t happened yet, just starting to happen. There was a revolution in restaurants going back 25 years — home cooking still, because I know pretty well what people cook, hasn’t changed that much, yet. It’s just starting to change … Today, American cooking isn’t that much different in many respects from what it was 30 or 40 years ago. But 10 years from now, I think it will be very, very different.”
On the changing demographics of cooking:
“Thirty years ago, it was 15 percent men, 85 percent women. Today it’s 40 percent men, 60 percent women. I can tell you at book signings and other events the last 10 years, I see a ton of kids. I see 4-year-olds, 5-year-olds, 8-year-olds … and these kids love it! The fact of the matter is that the kids are now interested in it and that was not true [before] so I see this huge influx of the younger demographic coming in; the older demographic, you know 45, 50 and over has been there a long time. I’m not sure about the in-between yet, but I see a huge interest from the younger group, which is great, because that means that there’s a future to it.”
Listen to Think Out Loud‘s full conversation with Christopher Kimball.