Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Kimball at Kepler's

By George Powell 11.16.06
Photo by Antonia Kao

Christopher Kimball looks like what you would get if your recipe
ingredients were 1980s popcorn commercial star Orville Redenbacher
folded together with columnist/pundit George Will. It would come popping from the oven as a smart, no-nonsense, down-home master of giving his loyal following what they want: understanding what works in the kitchen and what does not.

That's precisely what he did during his appearance November 16 at the open-again Kepler's Books in Menlo Park, where Kimball was promoting the revised version of The America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook .

The initial 2005 edition of the cookbook (which this writer has purchased) had a little bit of everything assembled in a loose-leaf three-ring binder, which had to be assembled by the buyer. The revised 2006 version is printed on heavier paper, has new front and back inside covers, five rings instead of three, and only needs the buyer to put the section dividers in the proper place. From my standpoint, it would be great if there was some lesser-priced upgrade path, but that's not an option.

Christopher Kimball has a New Englander's love of utility and simplicity (he lives in Boston and Vermont), and the clear and unrelenting focus he had when he founded Cook's Magazine in 1980 has remained a key to his huge success. After an early advertising-supported format was ditched, the magazine became Cook's Illustrated, and with 36 basic black and white pages every issue, circulation began to increase exponentially.

In between reading some of his e-mail to the overflow audience of more than 150 at Kepler's, for proof of that torrid circulation growth, Kimball revealed that Cook's Illustrated magazine was set to welcome its one millionth subscriber in January 2007. That's stunning growth from a subscriber base of just 25,000 in 1993.

Kimball, dressed the same way he is on his top-rated PBS cooking show, America's Test Kitchen , had on his usual bow tie and suspenders, and without any ado at all launched into sharing e-mail with the audience, then took questions, then signed his books. That was all there was. Before Kimball appeared, the audience was offered some appetizers prepared from recipes in the revised cookbook Kimball was promoting. But once Kimball stepped to the podium, it was obvious he was appearing not as much to promote a single cookbook as to enhance and reinforce the unique mojo that keeps Kimball at the top of an ever-expanding cooking show field.
Kimball also attributed his recent success to the increasing popularizing of cooking by the Food Channel on cable TV, as well as the added circulation brought to the magazine by America's Test Kitchen , now in its sixth year on PBS.

Then came questions aplenty that included convection ovens, baking, special diets, shallots, oven temperatures (calibrate your oven every few months), substituting in recipes and pie crust (“I could talk about that for hours,” Kimball said).

Keeping close to the subject at hand, Kimball revealed only a little about himself, stating that he started Cook's because “food magazines in the 1970s were a crock.” That insight has taken his company, Boston Common Press, founded with an investment of $500,000 to a publishing house with $20 million in revenue in 2002 and profits that year of more than $4 million. Kepler's had several cookbooks published by Kimball's company on hand for purchase and autographing in addition to the Family Cookbook Revised Edition , and the line for autographs after his half hour of answering questions was suitably long.

Also on this Western tour was Kimball's wife, Adrienne, who first met Kimball, she said, when she was employed as one of his assistants in the 1980s. Kimball also mentioned that his daughter, one of four children, was an excellent baker in her own right.

But that was as far as Kimball went into his private life. Some quick Internet research revealed a bit more, like the first album he owned was Meet the Beatles , his favorite movie is Murder, My Sweet , that he liked Grateful Dead music, and that his favorite sports team is the Boston Red Sox.

His range of interests besides cooking was best revealed in an answer he gave in 2005 to the question, “What four people (alive or dead) would you invite to dinner?” and Kimball's reply was “Calvin Coolidge, John Mortimer, Mark Twain and Billie Holiday.”

For his Kepler's appearance, Kimball, although a man of eclectic cultural tastes, chose to stick with what his audience came for and what he was best at doing, explaining what works and what doesn't when it comes to cooking. That has proven to be a most successful recipe.

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