OUT OF THE KITCHEN America’s Test Kitchen host Christopher Kimball has started a new radio show to address broader culinary subjects, from food culture to food politics.
Christopher Kimball is angry about olive oil.
Alone in a glass-walled recording room, a pair of comically oversized headphones framing his famous face, Kimball is conducting an interview for a segment on his new show, America's Test Kitchen Radio, about the olive oil business — a racket that appears to closely resemble the drug trade.
"Supermarket olive oils are about as good as lubricants," Kimball says. "I always thought [price] was a mark of quality. That's not true. It turns out you can have pretty awful extra-virgin olive oil." Confirming this bias, one olive-oil expert reveals that about 80 percent of supermarket extra-virgins are terrible because the US market is almost entirely unregulated, while another speaks of olive oil adulterated with hazelnut.
"Not only is nobody checking quality here in the United States, but the olive-oil industry had profits that were comparable to cocaine trafficking, with none of the risk," Kimball says, appalled.
"In Europe, there are standards, and people test shit; in the United States, there are no standards," he tells me later, his voice rising. "They ship over these huge containers of the worst-quality olive oil. That's why you wonder why when you go to a good restaurant and have some olive oil, you taste the olives, and you go to a supermarket and you don't taste anything. There are no standards! Those are the stories you don't get from the Food Network."
Olive oil isn't the only hot-button issue Kimball has tackled on his new show. The bulk of the show is standard ATK fare — tastings and recipes. But every week, America's Test Kitchen Radio takes 10 minutes for an in-depth look at a food stories in the news like school lunches, the "fat trap," and the mind-body connection — things he could never have discussed on his much-beloved television series.
Kimball has spent 30 years helming an empire built on the persona of a fastidious grump made sporadically euphoric by the right garlic press. He has published more than 50 cookbooks, not to mention Cook's Illustrated, the stately black-and-white, bimonthly magazine he founded and edits. Since 2001, millions have tuned in to PBS to watch Kimball alternately coo over or wrinkle his nose at the offerings of the effervescent cast of America's Test Kitchen as they perfect commonplace recipes. Last year, Nintendo DS introduced America's Test Kitchen: Let's Get Cooking, a recipe video game.
But he wanted something more. If, on his TV show, Kimball wanted to talk about a specific food, he can sample an assortment proffered by Jack Bishop of the ATK Tasting Lab and discuss which varieties he and his viewers like best. If he wanted to talk about anything beyond taste, price, and provenance, however, he was straight out of luck.
"My job is to stand there and ask questions on behalf of the audience," Kimball tells me last week in a phone call from his Brookline offices, explaining his role as host of America's Test Kitchen. "You don't have more to do than show people how to make an apple skillet pie."