Christopher Kimball is contemplating guacamole. He sits in a capacious conference room in front of a dry erase board, which is spotless save for a bow-tie doodle. His brows are furrowed, and his own signature bow tie is slightly askew.
“No lime juice. No garlic,” he murmurs.
The cooking guru is heading up a digital content meeting in which he and his staff analyze the most popular social media posts from his new culinary venture, Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street. One buzzy dispatch involves a lime-and-garlic-free guacamole recipe (shocking!) from Mexican cooking legend Diana Kennedy.
“It was a really polarizing post. There was lots of talk about it. People were angry. ‘What do you mean, no lime juice?’ And the ‘Today’ show post also did really well,” offers senior digital marketing manager Rayna Jhaveri — a chipper woman in bright green glasses who does a little seat-dance whenever someone says something funny — referring to a recent Kimball appearance on the morning show that ran on their website.
“Great. So when we make guacamole on TV, we’ll be all set!” Kimball deadpans, crossing his legs and folding his arms behind his head. Everyone chuckles.
There’s some cognitive dissonance involved in hearing Kimball discuss modern details such as social media likes. He’s been in the food firmament for so long that he seems to transcend time: an owlish, suspender-clad culinary elder statesman, a bow-tie guy in a tattoo world. As a radio personality, magazine publisher, and TV host, he has been teaching people how to cook classic dishes with foolproof recipes since 1980, when he started Cook’s Magazine. In 1993, it relaunched as Cook’s Illustrated, and Cook’s Country magazine joined the fold in 2004 — the print pillars of America’s Test Kitchen, the food-media company Kimball helped conceive. Through 2016, he hosted and executive produced the TV shows “America’s Test Kitchen” and “Cook’s Country.” He was an unflappable, erudite presence — no frills, no trend-chasing — who appeared at a time when home chefs began to regard cooking as a pleasure instead of a chore and needed guidance.
But last year he departed Brookline’s ATK and opened Milk Street, a sleek, columned affair on the first floor of downtown’s Flour and Grain Exchange Building, home to his editorial offices and a cooking school. The company includes a weekly radio show and a bimonthly magazine that launched last fall, a weekly public TV show coming in September, and cookbooks with a Milk Street imprint, published by Little, Brown and Company. Kimball and his wife, Melissa Baldino, cofounded the company; he also has investors (whom he declines to name).
On any given day, you might find director of education Rosemary Gill leading cooking classes in the front test kitchen, either for paying customers or for charity with the Big Sister Association of Greater Boston or the Boys and Girls Clubs of Dorchester. In an adjacent back kitchen, kitchen manager Sara Ross typically oversees a recipe development process determined by Kimball, editorial director J.M. Hirsch, and recipe editor Matt Card. This is a multi-step endeavor: Card writes up a recipe directive including research on its history and possible variations; then he assigns it out to a recipe developer for refinement. Recipe editor Rebeccah Marsters painstakingly tries it out, and once it’s deemed fit for perfection, it ultimately arrives in-house for final testing by senior recipe developer Diane Unger and production cook Erin Ross.
Some mornings around 7:30, Kimball has a call time with DGA, his longtime production company, for the TV show — three episodes have been shot at Milk Street so far, with 10 more to come in March. (They’ll ramp up to 26 in 2018.) On other occasions, he’s hosting culinary luminaries in the same kitchen or traveling to meet them for his radio show, recorded at Boston’s WGBH studios or on location alongside cohost Sara Moulton: tapas pioneer Jose Andres, British cooking personality Nigella Lawson, and food activist Michael Pollan, to name a few.
There’s also a small row of offices off the main kitchen, most of which house his 20-plus staff. Editorial director Hirsch, a longtime food editor at the Associated Press, is a big get. He’s charged with cultivating a network of writers across the globe — the magazine has already reported from Portugal to Spain to Thailand, and he is currently in Tel Aviv.
Because while ATK mainly focuses on American classics, Milk Street goes global. The magazine’s charter issue contains an exploration of harissa, the spicy Middle Eastern paste; a chile-pineapple margarita recipe; and an examination of Chinese chicken-cooking techniques. Sure, there are still the same unfussy, exacting recipes, but the flavors have changed.
Kimball prides himself on presenting recipes that are simple to follow, made with ingredients that the tentative chef can easily find. With much being made about the cultural appropriation of food and who is authorized to cook what cuisine these days, he bites back.
“We think of recipes as belonging to a people and place; outsiders are interlopers. Milk Street offers the opposite — an invitation to the cooks of the world to sit at the same table,” Kimball wrote in his inaugural editor’s note.
One table he might not be welcome at, however, is ATK’s. In 2016, America’s Test Kitchen sued him. The complaint alleges that he built Milk Street — “a new venture which literally and conceptually ripped off America’s Test Kitchen” — by making use of confidential information from ATK, among other charges. Kimball has filed a counterclaim. There are other legal woes: Nearby Milk Street Cafe filed a trademark lawsuit against Kimball over the name, and ex-wife Adrienne filed a suit earlier this year claiming that he failed to make adequate support payments and that his departure from ATK decreased her ownership stake in the company, and therefore its income. Kimball declined to comment on the suits for this story.
Walking through these doors, there’s no trace of distress. When I accidentally yank on a locked side door, a sympathetic woman ushers me into a hallway lined with shelves of aspirin bottles and cleaning products. (This is not the main entrance.) It’s Baldino. “Come on in!” she says with a wide smile.
Kitchens usually hum with frenzied adrenaline, but this place is fit for an Architectural Digest photo shoot. There’s a long demonstration kitchen outfitted with KitchenAid ovens and Chefman toasters; chalkboard conversion charts and vintage Hostess cupcake ads line the walls. The ceilings are high. Vast windows look out onto the street, so downtowners can easily spy on the action within. It would be a fine place for a gourmand’s wedding.
At a far end of the room, Gill leads one of Milk Street’s free monthly tours at a long wooden table. A dozen or so curious eaters slurp spicy red lentil soup with coconut milk and spinach as she guides them through the layers of flavor: sweet, spicy, pungent. Next, they’ll sample tahini swirl brownies.
A trio of photographers and food stylists fuss over a lentil salad, pressing themselves against one of those big windows for just the right shot. Deborah Broide, Kimball’s longtime New York-based press agent — a soft-spoken media vet who publicized classics like “The Silver Palate Cookbook” — ambles through the space and gets gentle hugs after a recent car accident.
“Usually I stay in Harvard Square, but I was afraid I’d get bumped on the T. So I stayed at the Langham this time,” she says.
“Oh, Deb, I think that’s more than OK,” says Gill.
There are plates of food here and there — a pan of migas, a tray of Swedish gingersnap cookies.
Baldino, Kimball’s wife, stops by to graze. She’s expecting their first baby in May; Kimball also has four grown children, the youngest of whom is a college freshman.
“I love ice cream! So much so that I try not to keep it in the house, but it means that Chris just ends up having to go out in the evenings for me when I want some,” she tells me later.
Baldino is one of the people who have joined Kimball’s full-time staff from ATK; her sister, Jennifer Cox, also came over as art director.
Kitchen manager Ross, on the other hand, is new. She used to manage the Kitchen at the Boston Public Market, and before that she ran Somerville’s late, lamented Kickass Cupcakes. She concocts scallion pancakes in the actual kitchen, just off the display version, with an air of monkish Zen.
The pace is peaceful, or Ross makes it look that way, even though she’s prepping countless dishes from all corners of the globe in one day: Thai fried rice, crying tiger steak (also Thai), those gingersnap cookies, margaritas.
What does it take to cook for a demanding audience (and an exacting master)?
“We have a ‘bench test’ chicken” that cooks who want to join the team are asked to prepare, Ross says; made with cream sauce and sliced vegetables, it showcases proper knife skills. She also asks hopefuls to make a brown sugar tart filled with custard, a complex creation that can go limp in a hurry thanks to a highly sensitive baking time. Ingredients come from food distributor Baldor, Whole Foods, and sometimes good old Star Market.
“If you can properly bake a pie shell, that’s the top of my list,” says Kimball, sipping a Flat Black coffee delivered to his office by longtime executive assistant Christine Gordon. His lair is sparse, accessorized with an old-fashioned typewriter, a bobblehead doll in his likeness, and little else.
At this stage of his career, one would forgive him for relaxing on a beach in Bermuda. But this is a man who seems driven to cook, who exudes a professorial charm while hailing the virtues of time spent in the kitchen.
“It’s the last thing you can do for yourself that’s handmade and homemade. It takes experience, skill, creativity; it’s something you do with and for other people. There’s nothing else like it,” he says. “It’s social, it’s creative, it has immediate gratification, it has to do with yourself and your friends. You can travel the world. As we try to do at Milk Street,” he says, sitting up a little straighter.
Kimball prefers to cook at his Cambridge home, however, though he does dine out from time to time. Shepard, run by Rene Becker and Susan Regis, is his neighborhood favorite.
“I used to go to Gordon’s” — chef Gordon Hamersley’s former Hamersley’s Bistro. “He didn’t have to change his menu 89 times every year,” Kimball says, frowning a bit. He perks up. “And Café Sushi! It looks like a college kid’s hangout. But holy [expletive]! It looks like nothing, but it’s absolutely wonderful food!”
And sometimes, when out and about, he runs into fans who’ve been transformed by his work.
“The satisfaction is when you run into someone at an event who says, ‘You’ve changed how I cook. I cook more. I like it more, it’s more fun, you’ve opened my eyes to taking my time in the kitchen and making it better.’ It’s that response you get from people. Sometimes people are very emotional about it,” he says.
He considers himself an educator and a translator. And, still, a learner. He’s just back from Thailand. Senegalese food is a growing interest.
Does he know there’s a Senegalese restaurant in the South End? He stands up and leans against his doorframe.
“The South End! I was there for years!” he says. “What’s it called?”
Teranga, I tell him.
He leaps back to his desk and dutifully jots it down, peering over those trademark specs.
The image sums up Milk Street itself. The venture is very much of a time and a character — with someone as recognizable as Kimball at the helm, it has to be. But this time around, it’s also about the rest of the world.