His signature bowtie may remain, but Christopher Kimball has a newfound approach to cooking than what public television viewers have come to expect.
After a very-public departure from America’s Test Kitchen, Kimball is wrapping up a series of tour dates with his latest project, Milk Street, an entity that has quickly grown to encompass a bi-monthly magazine, new cookbook, weekly TV and radio shows, and live events.
He’ll bring one of those events to the Kirkland Performance Center on Wednesday night, after signing copies of the cookbook at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park that afternoon.
While his old job came with a focus on the testing the standbys of American cooking until perfect, Kimball has traveled the world over learning how others approach the craft. He eschews the idea of “ethnic” cooking as an unnecessary qualifier, and sees the definition of dinner morphing to embrace “big and contrasting flavors.”
“We go around the world, sit at the same table as other home cooks, share ideas, and find out that there are many different ways of thinking about cooking that are radically different than what Northern Europe’s been doing for 500 years,” he said.
We caught up with Kimball by phone to chat about his new outlet and more on his vision for the future of cooking in the kitchen.
You present this idea with Milk Street Kitchen that there’s no such thing as “ethnic” cooking. What do you mean by that?
Kimball: Well, I think I mean that when I was learning to cook in the 60s and 70s, we thought about “our” cooking versus “their” cooking, and so you know … [chefs] would go out and take a cuisine that to us seemed exotic, and bring it to these shores, but it was always remote and seemed to be quite apart from how we cooked here. And I think that the world has changed since then.
If you go to Reagan Airport in Washington, you can get Lebanese take out, or you can get mezze, and so the fact of the matter is the world’s collapsed as it has in fashion and music, and it isn’t us and them, it’s everyone’s just cooking. Eataly opened in Istanbul. If you live in Mexico City, you don’t cook Mexican food, you just cook. All of these barriers are gone, so the idea of calling something ethnic — which implies foreign — is just not where we’re headed, that’s not the world we live in anymore.
How does that mindset drive what you’re now trying to do with Milk Street?
Kimball: Naomi Duguid said to me a year ago in an interview that all the cooks in the world are just sitting at the same table, and so I think that’s the concept, we go around the world, sit at the same table as other home cooks, share ideas and find out that there are many different ways of thinking about cooking that are radically different than what Northern Europe’s been doing for 500 years.
That’s what home cooks are going to do, they’ll start incorporating other ingredients into their repertoire, they’ll think about cooking differently, in essence to make it really quick. Northern European cooking was about technique, because they had fairly bland ingredients, and you applied heat and technique to get to flavor development. Julia’s [Child] book was called, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” which implies an art in mastering. The rest of the world doesn’t think about it that way. They start with big flavors, chilies, handfuls of herbs, tons of spices, ginger roots, fermented sauces, you name it. So when you start with all that stuff, then getting to big flavor is pretty easy because you started with big flavor. In French cooking, you start with fairly bland ingredients most of the time — high quality but bland — and you cannily coax flavor out of it through a fairly technique-heavy process. That’s a very different proposition, and you end up thinking about what cooking is and what dinner is in a very different way.
What you’re describing seems like a strong departure from the work you were doing on America’s Test Kitchen. When did you start to sense this shift in your own approach to home cooking?
Kimball: It is. The continuity is curiosity, I’d been curious about the food I grew up with, and then now we’re just turning our attention to something else, but it’s still, the same process of being curious and trying to it figure out and translate it to American home cook, but I would say four or five years ago, I started cooking out of Ottolenghi’s books, I met him a few years ago, really interested, went to London, went some of his places, Fuschia Dunlop’s, “Every Grain of Rice.” There’s a number of books that started coming out that really were talking about everyday food in other places, not just the fancy stuff. It’s funny because those books I grew up, with a lot of those books, were more Saturday night cooking. It was fancy Indian cooking or fancy Moroccan cooking or fancy Mexican cooking and the really simple everyday stuff didn’t really make it into those books. When I started cooking out of those books, the simplicity of it appealed to me, and the flavors and the way recipes were built was very different, and so that’s how it started.
What else does this new role allow you to do that your previous one didn’t?
Kimball: That’s a good question. One thing is I am not an enclave. I think before, everything happened within our kitchen, and we didn’t bring in outside experts, and I think at Milk Street that’s where we start everything, We start in Cape Town or we start in Tunis — my editorial director’s in Singapore right now — we start in some other place in the world … and we acknowledge the starting point’s different — we’re the student, not the teacher. There’s a little more humility in that, and I think it allows us to open our eyes to a broader take. For example, if you do apple pie, in about two minutes you can write all the things, how many apples, what kinds of apples, how much sugar, what kind of sugar, what kind of piecrust, etc. If you’re going to be in Singapore, and going through street food, well, you have a lot more choices and so, it’s a much more expansive process to think about what kind of recipe comes out of that, so it’s a very different approach because it’s not just optimizing a recipe everyone’s familiar with like the best lasagna, it’s going, well, if you go to Rome, we were just in Rome, what are all those recipes we’ve never heard of here that people make on a Wednesday night? What are those, and how do they work, and which of those will work best here? So it’s a very different starting point and one that includes a lot of other people.
Another thing that Milk Street espouses is this idea of the “new” home cooking. What does that future look like, and how do we get there?
Kimball: Well, I think a few things. What defines dinner? Is it a bowl of rice with something on it or a bowl of noodles with something on it, or it is just lentils with some onions and gorgonzola? The whole definition of what constitutes supper has changed, I think, for people. It’s not what it was 20 years ago. It’s not as meat-centric, most of the world doesn’t have a lot of meat compared to northern Europe, where it was cheap, so you might use a pound of meat in a dish that serves six. Meat’s almost more of a flavoring in some respects. I think that’s different.
I think starting with the notion of big flavors and contrasting flavors. Northern Europe was melting pot cooking, like beef stew, everything tastes like umami at the end of the day, a sprig of thyme. If you taste a tajine from Morocco, if it’s well-made every single spice and lemon and potatoes and ginger and everything else, you can taste at the end of the cooking period, so the ideal for me is that all the ingredients retain their flavor and their texture and so you have that constant interplay, rather than be reductionist and melting pot so everything comes down to the same flavor. Chicken soup in America is everything tastes like chicken, the celery, the carrots, the chicken, the noodles, the broth. If you make chicken soup anywhere else in the world, there’s a lot more going on. There’s chilies, there’s handfuls of herbs, there’s spices, there’s this, that, and the other thing, ginger, soy sauce, whatever, so I think there’s more complexity because there’s more going on in the food. It’s not monochromatic, there’s a lot of stuff going on, and you get there by simply having those ingredients available, which they are now, which they weren’t available 10 or 15 years ago.
And, people are sophisticated. Any town, any small town in America, you can now get much more sophisticated food. Everyone knows Mexican food’s not what they thought it was 20 years ago. You can get Tibetan food in a lot of small towns in America now. So people are much more sophisticated, so the way we get there is internet, television, restaurants have completely changed the landscape and now we just have to start doing that at home, and that’s what people want.
And we’ll wrap up with this. On your TV show, you go to these locations around the world and immerse yourself with the people there. Is there anywhere you feel like you have to go, or a dish you have to have when you come to the Pacific Northwest?
Kimball: Well we were just in Vancouver … and we ended up with an Indian couple who has, we did a yellow lentil curry and some other things, we just found something interesting there that came from another place, which is part of that landscape now so, I don’t think we’re so much — we were in Santa Fe and did Carne Avovada for example, which is a good example of something that is part of the tradition but not a recipe most people make, because it’s essentially chilies and meat. That’s what that is.
We’re not so much looking for things that are representative of an area, we’re looking for things that maybe people don’t know, you can find when someone’s cooking something at home. We went to Montreal and made Haitian pumpkin soup, because there’s a neighborhood with a lot of Haitian expats there who make that dish. So, I think before in my other life, we were trying to find the obvious, the usual suspects, I mean, like Chicago deep-dish pizza, or whatever. Now, if we go to Chicago, I actually prefer to find a group of people who cook something really interesting from some other part of the world, some part of their tradition. It’s not so much finding something that people know about in an area, it’s more finding something people probably don’t know about.