fb-pixel Skip to main content

Chris Kimball pushes back at America’s Test Kitchen, claims he was forced out

Christopher Kimball, of “America’s Test Kitchen” and “Cook’s Country,” at the home of his new venture, Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street in Boston.Tony Cenicola/New York Times/File 2016

Celebrity chef Christopher Kimball’s dramatic divorce from Brookline media company America’s Test Kitchen isn’t just getting ugly. It’s getting expensive, too.

That’s one takeaway from the counterclaim Kimball has filed to defend himself against his former employer. ATK sued him earlier this fall, alleging that he secretly started building a new venture to compete head-on with the company, while still on its payroll.

Kimball fired back in Suffolk Superior Court last week, telling a different version of that story. The former ATK star, who left the company roughly a year ago, alleges in a counterclaim that he only started the new venture after being told in 2015 that he would be pushed aside as the top executive. The overseers of his former venture, Kimball alleges, made it clear last year that he should start his own company for the purpose of handling TV and radio productions for ATK.

Advertisement



Kimball then goes on to state that ATK unfairly interfered with his new venture — now known as Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street — and that interference has already cost him millions of dollars in lost investments and potential profits, and harm to his reputation.

The slugfest comes at a precarious time for both sides, with Kimball getting Milk Street off the ground this fall and America’s Test Kitchen soldiering on without its former star. ATK argues that it was forced to file its lawsuit after it became clear that Kimball’s new venture would be a direct competitor, including the launch of a magazine that resembled ATK’s Cook’s Illustrated.

There’s some agreement on essential elements of the story: ATK’s partners wanted to bring in a new chief executive and to have Kimball, who is also an ATK partner, focus on the popular public broadcasting shows “America’s Test Kitchen” and “Cook’s Country” that he hosted. But the two sides diverge on the details of how this took place.

Advertisement



On Monday, an ATK spokesman issued a statement that stuck by its version: that Kimball took ATK’s information and trade secrets without permission and spent months while on ATK’s payroll planning his new business.

Kimball’s version became clearer in this latest court filing.

He alleges that the partnership began to go awry in June 2015, when ATK board member Eliot Wadsworth denied Kimball’s request for an employment contract that contained a fixed term and increases to his compensation. At the time, Wadsworth implored Kimball not to make the process confrontational, writing “no one has more to lose than you.”

Then in August of last year, according to Kimball’s counterclaim, Wadsworth informed him that it was the board’s intention to replace him as chief executive and that Kimball and his wife, Melissa Baldino, an ATK employee, should move their work space out of the company’s Brookline headquarters. Kimball was asked to sign a noncompete agreement, but he refused.

Kimball says he informed the ATK board at the time that the situation could significantly damage the brand that they had built together over 25 years. He says he also told the board he was committed to a mutually beneficial solution, one that involved him starting his own business. The board, in turn, asked him to continue to produce TV and events as a contractor for ATK.

Nearly all of Kimball’s management responsibilities were then stripped away. Kimball claims he reiterated his concern with new CEO David Nussbaum that ATK would be damaged without a gradual transition plan. But he said he was told he would have to go. Kimball was terminated in November, and he claims he didn’t get any severance or his 2015 bonus.

Advertisement



Kimball claims that a subsequent threat of litigation, which he says he was required to disclose to potential investors, scared away millions of dollars in possible investments in his new venture.

He also accuses ATK of embarking on a “defamatory media campaign” that included the creation of an “ATK Litigation Website” and the purchase of online ads to promote the website. Among the accusations listed on that website: that Kimball poached ATK employees and used proprietary information to start his own business.

Kimball concludes by pointing out that the company reported $22 million in profits during the last full year he was in charge, in 2014. That number dropped to $18 million in 2015, and it is on track to drop significantly again in 2016, according to Kimball.

ATK spokesman Joe Baerlein issued a statement on Monday denying many of the statements contained within Kimball’s counterclaim. Baerlein said that ATK worked hard to keep Kimball a fixture of the company’s long-term plans, “but Kimball had plans of his own.” ATK created the litigation website, he said, because “it wanted to state clearly and carefully to its public audience what the case was about.”

Baerlein said ATK’s expectation was always that Kimball’s new venture would collaborate with — rather than compete with — his former employer.

Advertisement



“Kimball knowingly interfered with longstanding ATK business relationships and secretly planned his new company while at the same time engaging in seemingly good faith negotiations with the ATK board to remain involved in ATK’s core business,” Baerlein said. “[The counterclaim] fundamentally distorts the context of Kimball’s departure.”


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.