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Test Kitchen Confidential

Imperfect chef meets perfectionist cooking show

In my twenties, I was torn between two loves: writing and food. A marketing job—putting together business proposals for a civil engineering firm—satisfied the urge to write, at least partway. But as riveting as parking garage construction was, my thoughts were consumed by my other love. I’d daydream about perfectly seared scallops and how they should achieve the same color as a well-torched crème brûlée. That would remind me of the satisfaction you get from shattering the custard’s sugar crust with the tap of a spoon, which would, in turn, send me deep into contemplation about whether it would be rude to ask for a second torching halfway through dessert. Before I knew it, my technical writing would have taken on the sensuous tone of a Valentine’s Day dinner menu.

What I really wanted to do, I realized with a slap to the forehead, was write about food. And because I would have more credibility if I actually knew something about food, I decided to enroll in culinary school. Yes, I told myself, the sensible course was to go into debt learning skills I may never use outside my own kitchen in order to make a living writing for peanuts.

I had barely broken in my chef’s whites at culinary school, however, when the buzz hit: the test kitchen of Cook’s Illustrated, the only cooking magazine in town, was hiring. Yes, yes, YES, I thought. This was the job for me. And to the amazement of my instructors (who had witnessed me scrambling the eggs in my gougère and nearly burning a hole through my finger with hot caramel, among other antics), I got it.

Cook’s Illustrated had been my bible for years. Its detailed, step-by-step approach to the lost kitchen arts was my generation’s answer to The Joy of Cooking, in bimonthly installments. Never cut up a whole chicken before? No problem. They’ll painstakingly sketch out the whole dissection process, from wing to thigh. Don’t know a crisp from a cobbler from a brown betty? Cook’s can help: a crisp has a loose, rubbed mixture of butter, sugar, and flour (and sometimes nuts or oats) on top, while a cobbler usually has a more cohesive crust, and a brown betty relies on buttered bread crumbs or cake crumbs, which may be layered in with the fruit as well.

Cook’s also prides itself on finding the perfect version of any given dish. Test cooks experiment with dozens of recipes, tasting and tweaking until the magical combination of ingredients is reached. And as it happened, they were spinning off a new television show, America’s Test Kitchen, which would compete on public television for a share of the growing number of armchair chefs glued to the Food Network.

That was where I came in. I was assigned to the real test kitchen behind the televised one. My job was to not screw anything up.

The first few weeks on the job were all I had anticipated. The head recipe testers, many of whom had spent years slaving in commercial kitchens, offered lots of clever tricks—like how to peel garlic in under a second (whack it with the back of a knife), and how to cut a cake into multiple layers using dental floss (non-minty, please). After a few hours of light chopping, I might depart for the extensive cookbook library to research an upcoming recipe, maybe write a sidebar for the magazine. Then I’d mosey back to the kitchen and listen to a heated debate over the textural quality and flavor expressiveness of eight or nine almost-but-not-quite-perfect chocolate cream pies (they all tasted pretty good to me). I even got to be in a few cameos, since I could be counted on to carry a bowl of fruit across the set as robotically as possible.

Gradually, reality set in. The test kitchen operated with relentless precision. How many trips to Whole Foods does it take to get the right cut of salmon? Three, if the fish department keeps giving you the tail end of the fillet rather than the more photogenic front end. Was it really so bad to spray a thin mist of Pam on a sheet pan so the parchment paper wouldn’t slide? This was something I had once seen done. In any case, an “off flavor” set off the spider senses of the kitchen’s resident super-tasters, and an entire batch of cookies was “ruined.” And were you supposed to measure the flour before you sifted or after? That could mean a difference of a quarter cup. Whichever way you did it, you did it wrong. Mistakes were rewarded with the silent treatment. If I planned it right, I could have quiet for an entire afternoon.

On top of that, the job’s physical demands were starting to wear on me. The test kitchen was outfitted with seven ovens, fourteen gas burners, and four refrigerators, but only three dishwashers—two of them automatic and one of them me. I developed a torrid relationship with Bar Keepers Friend, the only cleanser that could keep up with the mounting stack of blackened pans. Even taste-testing, previously the high point of my day, started to lose its appeal. Shrimp bisque. Lamb kebabs. All-you-can-eat apple turnovers. After thirteen virtually indistinguishable white bean soups cross your palate, all you notice is the gas. Soon I just wanted to get my dishpan hands through the day without chopping off all my fingers.

Meanwhile, the dogs were getting under foot. Three or more canines had free run of the kitchen when the cameras weren’t rolling, despite the many dangers to man and beast. After a chef’s knife flew off the counter and nearly cross-sectioned a French bulldog loitering underneath, much gasping and scolding ensued, but no real steps to prevent a recurrence. It became increasingly clear that perfectionism didn’t apply to dogs.

If the job was losing its charm, I was also receiving subtle messages that I was not exactly a rising star. Each episode of America’s Test Kitchen would open with a failed rendition of a dish. On a show about apple crisp, for example, you would be fed a shot of gummy, gray-looking fruit slopped unceremoniously onto an ugly plate with a few burned nuts scattered on top. “This is probably what your apple crisp looks like,” Chris Kimball, the show’s star and creator, would insinuate. It would later be contrasted with the America’s Test Kitchen version: glistening, cinnamon-laced, streusel-encrusted apples in a footed crystal bowl.

In early episodes, I was sometimes called upon to create the too-pretty-to-eat version of the featured foods. But as the season wore on, I was asked more and more to produce the butt-ugly one. There was no doubt about it: I had been demoted. Quietly relegated to the land of gluey, gloppy stir-fries and miserable, sunken soufflés—of curdled sauces and weepy, overcooked egg custards. Banished to the leper colony of lopsided birthday cakes with broken butter-cream frosting sliding down the sides. But I’d show them, I thought. I would make the best ugly food anyone had ever seen.

One day, just as I was regaining my self-confidence, we were slated to shoot two episodes of the show back to back. First up were pork chops, followed by cookies. I had put the finishing touches on my pièce de résistance for the pork episode: a chop charred beyond recognition, with a knife stabbed into its leathery core for good measure. My spine was tingling as I thought of the various ways to defile a cookie. But the production assistant seemed to have read my mind.

“No, not yet,” he shouted across the kitchen. “We need a runner for the good ones.”

Sheet after sheet of flawlessly mottled chocolate chip cookies emerged from the oven, and I whisked them, two by two, over to the set. The last pair in hand, I yelled “hot pan” as I weaved through the other test cooks and production crew. But someone stood squarely in my way. “Hello,” came a greeting in a Brahmin-tinged warble. Annoyed, I looked up. It was Julia Child.

I stared, dumbfounded, at the legendary figure who towered over me despite her eighty-eight years. Then I realized that the two pans I was carrying were about to sear her midsection. I darted aside to let her pass, and in the process upended several water bowls belonging to the dogs. Now the floor was flooded. Julia made her way, somewhat unsteadily, to shake hands with Kimball.

As she stood there in that slick puddle, I considered my options. I could lay down the pans, grab a towel, and mop up around her feet. But would this be more or less of a hazard? I could politely point out the very obvious water situation. But would she be insulted, the battle-scarred test-kitchen veteran that she was? At last, partly to soothe my burning hands and partly to minimize my role in the potential demise of America’s favorite chef, I fled with my cookies to the set. Reports were that Julia departed the kitchen unscathed; she died peacefully in her sleep three years later, at age ninety-one.

America’s Test Kitchen went on to be a hit—it’s now in its ninth season—and my niche as “ugly food stylist” was taken over by someone who (of course) could do it better. After graduating from culinary school, I shifted my focus to the craft of writing. I still cook, though. You can read about my culinary and other adventures on my blog, Food on the Food (www.foodonthefood.com), a study of the often-messy collision between food and life. Yes, food and life. That’s what I really want to write about.

A freelance writer, obsessive blogger, and former editor of Boston magazine, TAMMY DONROE INMAN, J95, is secretly glad her Tufts professors flunked her out of her science major. She lives in Waltham, Massachusetts, with her husband and two sons. Her kitchen is a mess.

  © 2009 Tufts University Tufts Publications, 80 George St., Medford, MA 02155