At first glance, America's Test Kitchen looks like the quintessential weekend afternoon skip-it. It features a dreary set, webcam-quality lighting, and a host who looks like a grown-up version of Encyclopedia Brown. My finger was hovering over TiVo's "delete" button when a voice-over announced that the show was public television's official companion to the widely respected food magazine Cook's Illustrated; and suddenly all the studied crumminess made perfect sense.
Cook's Illustrated, with its non-glossy, heavy-stock paper and pencil-drawn illustrations, prides itself on its artisanal simplicity and utter incorruptibility; and ATK is presented in precisely the same self-consciously threadbare manner. Unlike your average cooking show, ATK is not exotically foreign or aspirationally gourmandish. By stripping away all the lifestyle trappings of, say, Emeril or Nigella, it reduces the cooking format down to two essential components: the inside of your own kitchen, and the inside of your own mouth. (Julia Child once praised ATK as "not a program for fluffies.") Hence that lackluster soundstage, which is no one's idea of a dream cookery—it features a Science Desk, an Equipment Corner, and a Tasting Lab—and menus that are no one's showoffy dinner party fare. Drawn from the basic comfort food staples, they feature hearty stews, meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and the occasional shameless crowd-pleaser, like potato-chip-encrusted salmon or pork marinated in Coca-Cola. And as it turns out, the universe of anti-fluffies is pretty big. Cook's Illustrated now has a circulation of around 600,000, and ATK is the highest-rated cooking show on public TV.
The key to ATK's success is its upside-down faith that a lack of snobbery is what best leads you to, well, the best—the best equipment, the best ingredients, the best recipes. In one episode, the 50-buck rice maker turns out to be every bit as good as the one retailing for $169; and in a recent blind taste test, Doritos handily beat out the toniest of stone-ground corn chips. (The rule is simple: Things are good because they taste better, period. "These are really heady, gorgeous, perfumey mushrooms," co-host Julia Collin tells us, without bothering to walk us through their exotic provenance.) The feeling is one of overwhelming wonkiness; everyone on the show is a "tester"—a food tester, an equipment tester—and even though they wear matching aprons, I always somehow remember them as dressed in lab coats. The only colorful outburst is reserved for bad food. Recently, host Chris Kimball tells us, he ordered Chinese takeout. "I got Kung Pao shrimp that was a sea of misery. I wouldn't give that to a dog."
Kimball is Cook's Illustrated's founder and editor in chief, and as host of ATK, he sports the standard-issue ATK apron, granny glasses, a doofy bow tie, and helmet hair. (You could practically land a Cessna in his part.) The point is hard to miss; no one is supposed to envy geeky Chris Kimball—even though Chris Kimball, in real life, is genuinely enviable: He has a $25 million-a-year publishing business, a Vermont hobby farm, complete with 40-tree apple orchard, and a townhouse in Boston's trendy South End. Why has this bounty been hidden so assiduously from the ATK viewer? Why not at least play up Kimball's idyllic Vermont childhood? The answer, of course, is that the entire enterprise of celebrity cooking is in a state of near-total exhaustion; and audiences are wearied by the over-association of food with entire ways of being. The obvious foils to Kimball are Emeril, whose outsize persona, as Slate's Rob Walker recently pointed out, supports a line of Emeril-branded restaurants, cookbooks, cookware, and even apparel; Alice Waters, whose every utterance is a hymn to the agrarian utopia that will ensue once we all learn to appreciate baby arugula; and of course, that perfect blending of Anglo-Saxon husbandry with Mediterranean sensuality, the glorious Nigella Lawson. ("I am sometimes extravagant," Nigella tells us on a recent episode of Nigella Bites, stuffing unused egg whites into her freezer for some future meringue, "but never wasteful.") Oh, how one aspires to Nigella-dom—to live so fully, to mouth the word "succulently" so succulently. Watching ATK, no one would ever aspire to be Chris Kimball. And what a merciful reprieve that is!
The net effect of the science-class aesthetic is to separate the sensual pleasure of eating—its aromas, flavors, and textures—from ostentation altogether. Which is why ATK, in its own sweet way, is a sexier show than even Nigella's, for asserting that gastronomic pleasure is essentially a private pleasure. It's the difference between an old married couple with a gleam in their eyes, and Ashton and Demi. (And in fact, Chris Kimball and his co-host Bridget Lancaster, flirt in the most peculiarly surreptitious ways. "Chris and his co-host, Bridget, are totally doing it," asserts one of the show's blogging fans.) By extension ATK is saying, look, we'll give you the recipe, you do the rest. For those in the audience who still need all the other embellishments to know they're enjoying themselves: Get a life.