Christopher Kimball on Building an Empire with Milk Street
Kitchn readers are no doubt are familiar with Christopher Kimball, the bow-tied food expert who was for years closely associated with America’s Test Kitchen. You may be less familiar with his new venture: Milk Street, a mini-empire launched just over a year ago that already includes a magazine, TV show, radio show, cooking school, live touring show, and a cookbook. (Maybe you heard about how Kimball severed ties with his former employer and they’re currently deep in a lawsuit.)
We caught up with Kimball last week to learn more about Milk Street, why he thinks ethnic food is “dead,” and what he has to say about the America’s Test Kitchen suit (spoiler alert: not much).
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Zach & Clay: You’ve said before that ethnic food is “dead.” But one of the first things you notice about Milk Street is its international focus.
Kimball: Our mission is to rethink how we should cook at home. For [The Milk Street team], it’s about going abroad and cooking with people, and then bringing bits of that back home. We don’t want to replicate the dishes; it’s about coming up with a new repertoire.
The legacy of European cooking in America still has a place. But it turns out that most places in the world have a very different take on home cooking. And for the most part, it’s a better way of cooking.
Classic European cooking had — what? — seven spices, including salt and pepper? The classic French recipe is a sprig of thyme. Which seems absurd! Meanwhile, the Ottomans, for example, had 88 spices. The rest of the world starts with big flavor and builds from there.
Zach & Clay: When you’re thinking about translating international dishes to the American cook, where do you draw the line with what’s too extreme? Any ingredients that are off limits?
Kimball: I’ve always been a big promoter of not including ingredients that are hard for people to find. But that’s all changed so much in recent years, with Whole Foods and any number of other grocery stores, and Amazon.
We want to make our recipes as easy as possible with a limited number of ingredients. Eighty percent of the time, there will be nothing out of the ordinary. Twenty percent of the time, we do [have unique ingredients], but we’ll offer substitutions. So we’ll include things like sumac, but we always suggest a substitute.
Zach & Clay: Milk Street set an interesting tone with your very first cover story, which was a recipe for caramel oranges. How did you decide to make that your first cover?
Kimball: I had, had that dish in Italy 10 years ago, in Rome. It was spring; we used to take the kids for spring break. And we were in a restaurant and the dessert was a peeled orange with a caramel sauce. That’s it! It was March; that’s what they had in season.
It turned out that caramel and oranges go way back as a classic Italian thing to do. It’s also just five ingredients. It’s very simple. The sweet spot for us is giving readers something that’s familiar but also different.
Zach & Clay: What feedback have you heard from readers? Has that changed anything about the magazine so far?
Kimball: I was surprised to see that readers were really interested in the travel aspect. They really want to be in the place and hear the story and context of the recipe. Whether it’s Chiang Mai or Cape Town, readers appreciate that the recipe has an origin, that it isn’t made up out of thin air. It’s a real thing from a real place.
Zach & Clay: Milk Street’s first year has been a blur of activity: More than 150,000 paid subscribers, distribution for the television show on more than 90 percent of public television stations, a cookbook launch with a first printing of 80,000 copies, and products partnerships J.A. Henckels and Thermoworks. What’s next?
Kimball: We’re going to be designing more products. That’s a big push for us. Knives, for example. We’ve got some kitchen tools and specialty cookware that will show up in March.
We’re trying to bridge that gap between how people really cook and how we design cookware. Take a standing mixer, as an example. Do people really use all the attachments? When they have all the attachments, people don’t want to keep the mixer on their countertop. So they store it away and then never use it. So maybe we do a simpler mixer that’s lighter weight.
Zach & Clay: Obviously, your split with America’s Test Kitchen has been widely reported, along with the ongoing lawsuit from them. Anything you’d like to say about that at this point?
Zach & Clay: Fair enough. One last question: Where do you see home cooking going in the future, and how does Milk Street fit into that?
Kimball: When we started 18 months ago, we took a huge gamble. Do people really want this kind of cooking? But the answer is, home cooks are thrilled to rethink how they cook.
Everything about the way we eat has changed in the past 10 years, but home cooking is the last vestige of the old ways.
The appetite — no pun intended — for change in the home kitchen is huge. My bet is that 10 years from now, you’re not going to recognize how people cook at home.