Monday, May 17, 2010

When I Worked for ATK...

Many of you know that I don't work with food professionally.  By day, I'm a web application developer.  By night (and weekends), I'm a food and gardening hobbyist.  I like to tinker with recipes and learn new things, be it from books or television or from fellow bloggers.  I love entertaining and do so at every available opportunity.

However, one of the coolest jobs I've ever had was at America's Test Kitchen, a publishing powerhouse of sorts, best known for its two successful PBS television shows (America's Test Kitchen and Cook's Country), Cook's Country Magazine, a huge library of cookbooks, and its flagship magazine, Cook's Illustrated.  During my time at ATK, I served as Director of IT Development, responsible for three of its membership-based cooking websites and one of the electronic gatekeepers of thousands of tested, tried and true recipes.

Working at ATK was truly a fantastic experience, having been surrounded by some of the best, brightest, and most determined food minds in the industry and some of the best food too, if I do say so myself.  There's nothing quite like walking into the office in the morning to the smell of sauteing onions or charcoal grilled meats.  The folks at ATK live, eat, and breathe food and they don't rest until they've nailed a recipe 100%.  It's a place where food science meets gastronomy in the quest for perfect, repeatable recipes.

That's why I was happy to see that the ATK television show is wrapping-up the filming of its 11th season and that this year, instead of producing just the requisite bloopers reel for YouTube, they have released a series of "behind the scenes" videos on Chris's blog.  These videos show the real people who work behind the scenes to make ATK the fantastic phenomenon that it is and who bring you all that it has to offer.  I hope you enjoy them as much as I have.

With that, I thought I'd share with you a few things you may have not known about ATK that I learned while being a part of the organization.

10 Things You (Probably) Didn't Know About America's Test Kitchen

10) Chris really does wear a Bow Tie most of the time.  It's not just a costume for the show.

9) The Cook's Country house is a real antique farmhouse in Vermont that was refurbished to be the Cook's Country set.  When not being used for filming, it is rented out for guests who would like to stay there.

8) The test kitchen seen on the set of the ATK television show is the real deal.  It's located just outside of Boston in a historic factory building and well over 10 test chefs labor in the very same kitchen every day to bring you the recipes seen in the magazines, cookbooks, and television shows.  Each year, it is cleared-out for three weeks and becomes the set of the TV show.  Food is prepped during the show in a smaller kitchen that can also sometimes be seen in the background of some of the segments.

7) Adam from the Equipment Corner no longer works for ATK full-time and hasn't in awhile (to my knowledge, at least).  A woman by the name of Lisa is his "real life" counterpart as the tasting and equipment testing expert.  She's a brilliant, hard-working person and she takes her job very seriously.  From the looks of the videos, she just might have a speaking part in the show this year.

6) Julia Child was friends with Chris Kimball and once visited the test kitchen.  I was thumbing through a digital library of photos one day and found a shot of Chris and Julia standing behind the counter of the older kitchen.  I wish I had "borrowed" a copy when I left because I really thought it was a neat photo.

5) Cook's Illustrated once rated a grill brush that they purchased from a small website and it was rated the best brush.  Unfortunately, they didn't know that some guy produced them on a small scale in his garage and they didn't warn him.  When the magazine was published, his website tanked and he had to stop taking orders for awhile.  The "Grill Wizard" is still their top-rated grill brush.  Its unique design uses a replaceable scouring pad instead of wire bristles.

4) The backyard set used in the grilling segments is actually the back alley behind the office.  The tall fence belongs to the neighboring property and the grass, shrubs, trees, and mulch are all brought in by a landscaping company for the shoot.  The same alley is used for all of the grilled recipe testing throughout the year, though without the fancy decor.

3) Because the magazines are prepped 3-6 months in advance, all of the cooking is done off-season.  This means that I'd often walk into the office to the smell of delicious roast turkey in the middle of the summer and the sight of shivering test chefs out in the alley grilling steaks in December.

2) The majority of the test batches of the recipes don't go to waste.  There are two large refrigerators that all of the food is placed in and employees are allowed to take it home or eat it for lunch.  Once a year, after the television shows have been filmed, all of the excess equipment and pantry items that did not make the cut is raffled off for employees to take home.  The good stuff, of course, ends up in the test kitchen.

1) I had a very brief cameo in some "B-Roll" footage used in seasons 8 and 9 of the ATK television show.  I can be seen at the tasting table during the intro to the food tasting segments.  We were tasting chocolate, I believe.  Granted, you probably won't see me unless you have a DVR and can pause and advance frame-by-frame, but there you go.  That's my 5 minutes of fame.  :-)

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