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Milk Street Kitchen's Christopher Kimball explains the indulgence of starting over

"How many people get this kind of opportunity at this point in their career?”

Chris Kimball

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When former America’s Test Kitchen former test kitchen director and educator, Christopher Kimball told the New York Times he wasn’t afraid to fail in May, he really meant it.

“They were will ‘Will he succeed?’ and I’m like, ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ And I stand by that,” the 65-year-old Cambridge resident says about his new $6 million project called Milk Street Kitchen, a one-stop-shop cooking venture in downtown Boston, all done through its founder’s fresh set of eyes.

“We’ll be successful; I don’t know how successful, but it’s fun and it’s building out a loft and kitchen where people can hang out," he continues. "I’ve always wanted a real home, in a sense, where people can hang out.”

His abrupt November departure from America's Test Kitchen, the household recipe and media empire he co-built, was indeed shocking; but that was the catalyst of something new for Kimball.

And yes, there’s a shiny new kitchen and loft setup in the Flour & Grain Exchange building on Milk Street, where the new operation will oversee a range of cookbook development, multimedia productions and a culinary school using methods Kimball has learned from around the world.

He calls in after a visit to the Milk Street location (currently under construction) where he notes, "It's going to cost me a million dollars, but after the fact, I'll be really excited to move in."

How long has the idea for Milk Street Kitchen been in the back of your mind?

I'd say three or four years ago, I started cooking differently. I made a lot of [recipes from] Yotam Ottolenghi or Ana Sortun, and my cooking changed all of a sudden. I was thinking differently. I thought it was, at first, quote-unquote "ethnic food," a term I can't stand, but then I realized, I was just cooking.

If you lived in Mexico City, you wouldn't be making "Mexican food," you're cooking dinner. People all around the world are thinking differently about how food words. Heat and spices and fermented ingredients are how you get flavor. The stuff I've been doing for 20 years [as a cook], it's just a range. I didn't want to just replicate things, I wanted cook better.

Was there an A-ha moment for you, where you realized this was what you wanted to pursue?

I would say there were a few.Sizzling greens from Fuchsia Dunlopwas one. You can take Swiss chard, blanch them for two or three minutes, and take the thick stems out. Heat a quarter cup of oil with grated ginger and scallions until it sizzles; then you add a quick dash of soy sauce and chili oil. It takes three minutes. Nobody blanches their greens anymore, but you can with this incredibly simple scallion sauce. It's a less universal technique, but it changed my entire way of thinking about greens.


What's going to be unique about Milk Street's approach to food and cooking?

Most cooking schools are about teaching someone to make a recipe. Obviously you need how to teach [how to make a dish] too, but it's more about thinking about recipes and how to deconstruct them. It's a little bit of music theory; there's a key and a counterpoint bass line, then melody and chords. If you think of a recipe like chicken noodle soup, noodles are the baseline and chicken is the key. Then, if you look at it in a smart way, the herbs and spices and other things are the melody. Then there's texture and taste.

If you look at those, you're teaching people how to think about food, not just make a recipe. And over time, that makes a better cook. It's not about knife skills, it's how and what you're putting [ingredients and techniques] together. My cooking has gotten twice as good as it was two or three years ago.


In your career, you've seen food photography and multimedia reach a new level. What will Milk Street's approach to visuals be?

You mean that semi-pornographic approach to food photography? [Laughs] I just had a meeting with my editor and art director and if you pick up any 20 new books that are well produced, they'll all have spectacular photography. On one hand, that's great, but I think we're trying to make our food feel real and approachable. There's an energy to that. I want to stay away from the picture perfect. I want movement and imperfections from a real home kitchen; I think if the food's too perfect, it removes you from making it.

It's like fashion photography and Bill Cunningham, who I think is brilliant. He brought street fashion into homes in a way where you felt like you could apprecaite it. I like street fashion, and I like that feeling of everyday kitchen photography.

Now that you've heard everyone and their brother's opinions about you leaving America's Test Kitchen and your new endeavor, how are you feeling? Any regrets?

This is the most fun I've ever had in my life. I didn't know I could work this hard. There's nothing better in the world than sitting around a table with smart people and arguing about an idea and turning an idea into something that people look at on a piece of paper or a screen or in a book, especially when its cooking.

We have the fortune of starting with a fresh palette and rethinking everything I've done. I've brought on a lot of people I've worked with over the years, but a also different cast of characters. I don’t have to deal with 200 employees. It's small and we can get stuff done make decisions in an hour.

I'm not alone in saying I've made plenty of mistakes. This is an opportunity to do it all over again. How many people get this opportunity in their career?

 

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