Back in May I took part in “The Boston Blogger Cookie Challenge” from America’s Test Kitchen. The grand prize was an invitation to come to their studios in Brookline, Mass. to watch a taping of the show.
Well, I didn’t win the prize, but I was still happy to have participated in the challenge. I had a lot of fun, and my family is thrilled with the new-and-improved chocolate chip cookies.
Imagine my happy dance (OK, maybe you don’t want to do that!) when I received an email from the ATK social media manager, Steph Yiu, telling me that all contestants were invited in to tour the facility after production had wrapped for the season. She said the tour would take about 30 minutes, and because the space is tiny (2500 square feet), we’d schedule in groups of ten.
I booked my tour for July 14, and started counting the days. Finally, the day arrived. I secured childcare, grabbed handful of quarters for the parking meter, and headed in to see where the magic happens! Behind this unassuming green door is home to America’s Test Kitchen, where the television show is taped, radio show is recorded, and recipes are tested on a daily basis. They have 140 employees here – including test cooks, IT, film, research, and interns.
They do all their food photography in-house, in a small studio (really, small. maybe 15 x 15 feet). All the food we see in the magazines is real (edible), not fake food that has been styled for the shoot. Steph showed us the colored mats, plates, and serving bowls they use in the shoots – it’s a textile/platter library!
America’s Test Kitchen was working on Christmas cookies when we were in … this was July! Because of the lead-time required for the magazines, they often find themselves grilling in the alley behind the building in December … wearing parkas!
Everything at ATK is tested for the home cook. That is, they use supplies, ingredients and equipment that you and I would buy, not industrial grade (or even industrial size). The only exceptions are for storage and cleaning (which don’t affect the tests) – walk-in fridge, industrial ventilation hoods, and super-sized dishwashers.
There are two kitchens in the building; the prep kitchen leads to the film kitchen. Both were in use for recipe testing on the day we visited. There are 30 electric ovens, which are calibrated frequently – did you know that the average home oven is off by 90 degrees?! Note to self: recalibrate ovens!
They hold weekly editorial meetings in the upstairs offices. We’re told that these are “lively” sessions, with test cooks and Christopher Kimball (founder of ATK) bouncing ideas off each other. Each issue of Cook’s Illustrated has only 8-10 recipes (compare this to over 20 in a typical “woman’s magazine”); the ATK recipes go beyond the how-tos and tell us why a recipe works.
In addition to this behind-the-scenes look at ATK, Steph gave each of us the latest editions of Cook’s Illustrated and Cook’s Country, as well as the ATK Healthy Family Cookbook - thank you! Several of us walked around the corner for lunch at Cutty’s a local sandwich shop run by a former test cook. One of the bloggers I had lunch with flew in from California for the week; she built her summer vacation around the invitation from ATK!
So, this was my whirlwind tour! I have a lot of messy notes (I believe the term “chicken scratch” is appropriate) … let me know if you have any questions about what we saw, and I’ll try to further decipher my hieroglyphics!