Monday, December 27, 2010

Slow Food Meets America's Test Kitchen

Earlier this month, a group of Slow Foodies from Tufts visited the home of the popular cooking show America’s Test Kitchen (ATK) and the magazines Cook’s Illustrated and Cook’s Country. We were given a behind-the-scenes look into the busy operations of the company and its myriad activities (filming cooking shows, recipe and equipment testing, cookbook production, magazine publishing – the list goes on), all taking place right in Brookline, MA. Bailey Vatalaro, Sponsorship Coordinator, gave us a great tour, filling us in on all sorts of fun facts about how recipes and equipment are tested and chosen for the magazines and TV shows. America’s Test Kitchen and both magazines run on the premise of testing out recipes and equipment until they find the most surefire methods and products, and then presenting their findings (and the reasons why some tactics worked and others did not) to readers and viewers. As Bailey explained to us, the idea is that if you follow the recipes exactly as they write them, the dishes should truly come out just as they do for the chefs in the test kitchen. (Speaking from personal experience, the recipes really do work well!)

We were able to meet some test cooks in the midst of trying out pork chop recipes (which smelled great), and learned about the volunteer testers all over the country that try out recipes from home. The feedback from thousands of volunteer testers plays a major role in what recipes are featured in the magazines and on the shows, making the recipes customer-approved before they hit the general public. We decided that the test cooks have one of the best gigs in the food industry, being able to invent their own recipes, test them in an amazingly well-stocked kitchen, and potentially have them published, all while working a 9 – 5 job (elusive hours for most chefs!). Another unique aspect of the shows and magazines is that their sponsors are never companies whose products they might test, so as to keep their recommendations as neutral and evidence-based as possible. We were all impressed by the diligence and exhaustive testing that goes into every single recipe and product they recommend. As part of our tour, we were able to walk through the active test kitchen, where rehearsals were going on for some filming, and we were pleased to briefly meet Bridget Lancaster (see photo below), deputy editor of Cook’s Country and on-screen test cook. (We also caught a quick glimpse of founder Chris Kimball passing through, bowtie & all!)

Our last stop on the tour was the extensive library of cookbooks owned by ATK, organized into an astounding variety of topics ranging from poultry to pastry to Peruvian food (literally). While America’s Test Kitchen does not necessarily focus on the Slow Food principles related to knowing where our food comes from, they do focus on making cooking a more accessible, less intimidating activity by zeroing in on popular, traditional dishes and making them easy to execute. Their model is one-of-a-kind, and I appreciate their desire to draw in as many people as possible to the world of cooking. Without people knowing how to cook or wanting to cook, it will be difficult to even begin talking about such things as preserving biodiversity in our food sources. Cooking can be a crucial step to starting bigger conversations about food, and we had a great time discussing cooking and food on our tour of the test kitchen.

(If you're not familiar with America's Test Kitchen, you can watch the show on your local public TV station (check for listings), and you can also learn more about Cook's Illustrated and Cook's Country magazines on the same website.)

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