Special Sauce With Chris Kimball, Redux: The (Almost) Full Transcript

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[Photograph: Courtesy of Christopher Kimball's Milk Street. Flatbread photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

As much time as I spend (and enjoy) planning and recording interviews for our podcast series, Special Sauce, it seems like I invest nearly as much thought and effort into figuring out how to better spread the word about it. At the same time, we've heard from many Serious Eaters and Special Sauce listeners who have said they'd like to read Special Sauce interviews in transcript form. So I asked our team of feature editors to come up with a format that gives people the chance to pore over a written interview, judiciously abridged (the full transcript of most of these is long), instead of having to keep an ear out for all the pithy wisdom that's so easy to miss in the audio.

The result is this version of parts one and two of my conversation with Chris Kimball, with extraneous bits removed to create the editorial equivalent of a reduced sauce—a somewhat more concentrated and intensified experience. I hope it gives our listeners a more complete sense of the hyper-articulate, surprising, and provocative Mr. Kimball.

On His Family Dinner Table

Ed Levine: First of all, tell us about life at the Kimball family table growing up.

Chris Kimball: Well, it was schizophrenic. We had two lives. We had the Westchester County life, and that [dinner] was formal, 7:00 every night, jacket and tie, fingernails clean.

EL: Wait. Jacket and bow tie?

CK: No, no bow tie.

EL: Okay.

CK: The best thing about the table.... I mean, the food was good, but the conversation was great. We were expected at an early age to know what's going on and say something intelligent. We were part of the conversation. So I developed an early love of argument, or discussion. I love arguments.

EL: I think you probably would have been very comfortable at my family table. We argued all the time. I used to say it was like Hyde Park. Everyone got their chance to be on the soapbox.

CK: And you would have to defend your position, and a lot of people, I found in later life, don't appreciate the art of argument as much as I do.

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[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

I started cooking when I was eight or nine. I always liked to cook. I love the process, I like the chemistry, I like the alchemy of it, I love baking. I love the old cookbooks, The Joy of Cooking, Fannie Farmer, other books. There was always something quite mysterious about the process, and you could turn out something interesting. My first recipe was chocolate cake, out of The Joy or Fannie, and I did a pretty good job on the two-layer chocolate cake. But the seven-minute icing, which is kind of tricky anyway, turned out like snot. I mean, it was absolutely like snot.

EL: Really. You really don't want to eat anything that's described by the person that made it as snot.

CK: Well, my family did, and said how good it was. So...

EL: You had a very loving family.

CK: Well, sometimes. So my career was based on false pretenses.

On His Food Media Career and Starting the Anti-Food-Porn Magazine

EL: But you never thought you were going to make food your living.

CK: No. That came later. That came in the late '70s. I was looking at the food magazines: Food and Wine; Cuisine magazine, at the time, which was a great magazine; Bon Appétit; Gourmet. And they were all about the lifestyle of food and travel and restaurants. And there wasn't any cooking. They weren't talking about the process, and, being a process person, I had questions. The other magazines weren't answering the question: "Why does this work? How does it work?" No one was interested in the guts of the recipe. They were interested in the product. But they weren't interested in how to get there, and I was always interested in the process.

EL: So when you started Cook's Magazine.... I'm particularly interested in this stuff as it relates to my own experience. I didn't do the entrepreneurial thing until I was 52. But you did it rather young. So you raised some money from friends and family for the magazine?

CK: A hundred and ten thousand dollars, and started the magazine in the spring of 1980. I quit my job in mid-'79. I was 28 years old.

EL: How did your wife feel? Were you married at the time?

CK: I don't know if I asked her.

EL: Well, that tells me something, too.

CK: Well, look, I figured, there were no kids, we didn't need much money to live. And I figured, I'd saved a little bit of money. Probably had $20,000 or $30,000 sitting around. I didn't have much in the way of expenses, and, if not now, when, right? I mean, don't do it when you've got four kids and a big mortgage and car payments.

EL: I had one kid and payments, and I could tell you that it was not the smoothest way to do it.

CK: No. Well, when you're 28, the risk is fine. I mean, I've just, of course, done this again at a much older age, with a much higher burn rate in terms of children and other things. But I've never been somebody who's interested in doing market research and figuring out what people want. I figured, "Well, there must be other people out there like me who want to actually understand cooking, not just eat food." And I put out Cook's Magazine. Which...you know, if you go back and look at that first year of the magazine, it was pretty dreadful. I mean, the intent was good.

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Serious Eats' tests of how creaming butter and sugar affects cookies. [Photograph: Sarah Jane Sanders]

EL: The first year of anything is terrible.

CK: If you don't think it's terrible, you're not doing your job.

EL: Did you struggle initially? Like, were there moments, as there were in Serious Eats, of "I don't know if this magazine's going to make it or not."

CK: My wife always says kids love me, and I say that's because I'm about five years old. I mean, I really have never grown up. So I don't really have anxiety about that. I just was having a great time, and the results were great, and we were able to, with that small amount of money, pay our bills.

EL: So you never were in danger of running out of money?

CK: No. In fact, three years later, almost to the day, The New Yorker.... George Green was the publisher at the time, and he bought a 51% interest in Cook's Magazine in 1983. And that probably saved us in the long run. And then, 1985, Advance Publications bought The New Yorker, and then I was on...

EL: Advance is the Newhouse family.

CK: The Newhouse family. And [S.I.] Newhouse owned 51% interest in my magazine and The New Yorker.

EL: We should say Condé Nast for those.

CK: Condé Nast, yes.

EL: So they owned you.

CK: Briefly. I liked him a lot, actually, and he didn't really have any interest in having a food magazine. So I got the Bonnier Company, very large publishers in Sweden...

EL: They own Saveur now.

CK: Yes, they do. And they came in and bought out Mr. Newhouse's interest and my partner's interest. I still had an interest. And then I worked with them, and I learned a great deal from the Bonnier Company. Very smart people. So I worked with them for three years.

EL: You say you're not a great employee, and I can relate to that.... How was it to work for people that you sold a controlling interest to?

CK: They left me alone entirely.

EL: As long as you made your numbers.

CK: Yeah. Well, yeah. Sort of made my numbers, sometimes. But they had a Danish subsidiary, a guy called Skipper Larsen. He's probably retired by now. He's one of the smartest guys I ever met. He really understood publishing. And I learned a lot from him. The problem is, foreign publishers have a very particular way of publishing which does not work in the United States. In Denmark and Sweden, you would pay monthly, with a giro account. It was a postal office account, and you pay all your bills once a month. So people would pay their magazine bills 12 times a year along with their heat and rent and other stuff. Well, I explained to them that would never work, because you'd end up with no subscribers after about three months. So they instituted a similar system here, which was a complete disaster. But in terms of editorial content and respecting the reader, very bright guy.

EL: And so eventually, you sold all of the magazine, and you left, right?

CK: I sold out at the end of 1989. And then, oddly enough, Mr. Newhouse, in mid-'90, came back and purchased the magazine from the Bonnier Company. And he folded it into Gourmet, which at the time was having some rate base problems.

EL: This is some complicated shit.

CK: So they folded it. In June 1990, they folded it into Gourmet. And then I went to Boston. Actually, I had an interim period with Peter Kaplan, from the New York Observer. He was my partner, and we were starting a men's magazine. This is an odd, dark corner of my life. And we ended up with a guy called Owen Lipstein, who owned Psychology Today, Mother Earth News, and Smart: For Men, which Terry McDonell had started. And we took over Smart and were turning it into our version of a men's magazine. It wasn't a sex magazine, I'll just say it up front; it was a men's magazine.

EL: Like Esquire was a men's magazine.

CK: Yeah. We loved the heyday of Esquire in the late '40s, '50s, and '60s. And then in November of that year, Mr. Lipstein ran out of money from their Japanese investors, and that whole thing collapsed. And then I ended up in Boston in March the following year, taking over a magazine called East West Journal, which was a macrobiotic magazine.

EL: Oh, I remember East West Journal.

CK: Sort of like a travel magazine. And I immediately turned that into Natural Health magazine that year, and just turned that ship around and made a natural-health magazine. And then, in 1993, I called the trademark office, and the trademark for Cook's Magazine had expired. So, for $175, I got my trademark back. It was an incredible story. And I restarted it that year, in spring of '93, as Cook's Illustrated. I took all the advertising out, because I'm the world's worst salesperson. And I thought that an advertising-free, small publication could focus on cooking.

EL: Was there a model that you were following?

CK: Yeah, there were two. Reiman Publications, Taste of Home. They were "advertising-free." And there's a company called Whit Smith that also has a cooking magazine now, which is advertising-free. So there were a couple out there, and I just wanted to focus on the cooking. I didn't want the travel, I didn't want the restaurants, I didn't want the big, beautiful color pictures. And I decided to take all the color out of it. Let's just talk about the cooking. There was a monograph from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden on pruning trees and bushes, and it was on lousy paper, it was poorly printed. And I thought, "You know, the worse it looks, the more useful it appears."

EL: You're a contrarian. You're such a contrarian, man.

CK: But it's true. If something really looks awful, then it must have...it's serious. Right?

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[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

EL: It has more intrinsic value.

CK: Yes. It has more intrinsic value. It's like people, right? So anyway, I decided, "Look. We'll do black and white. We're not here to sell sex; we're selling cooking. So it should be black and white, because..."

EL: So it was an anti-food-porn magazine.

CK: Yeah, exactly. And so...you know, it took off. We were profitable within a year.

EL: You know, I assume the idea behind Cook's Illustrated, and then America's Test Kitchen, is really the same thing that you articulated about Cook's Magazine. Which is, you're process-obsessed, and you really did see this as conveying information in the clearest way possible, without any artifice.

CK: Yeah. I'm incapable of doing anything else other than what I do. So, it's not like I was so smart that I figured out, "Well, here's the niche in the market." I just did what I wanted to do, which was exactly that. I did have one insight, though, which I still have. Which is, how people really cook at home has nothing to do with what you think they do. And so, when cooking shows and cooking magazines think about the home cook, they imagine a world that does not exist. Because when I started to cook, I had all these questions, and I didn't understand stuff. "Do you really have to dice an onion perfectly? Well, I don't know, why?" So I was just trying to answer the questions I had for other home cooks, and be a translator. Julia Child—it wasn't that she was an expert on French cooking; she knew how to translate that to the American audience. That was her great skill. She was an educator. And my job, I thought, was to take cooking and translate that for the real home cook in a way that made sense to them.

EL: So entertainment wasn't in your brain at all.

CK: Well, it's not in my personality, either.

On Not Giving Away Content

EL: So you've built this super-successful business engine. No advertising, public television, public radio, more than one magazine. You kept at it with the same model, with the digital revolution upon us. You kept to your values, in always keeping everything behind a paywall. Not giving away anything for free. Which, of course, now seems beyond prescient, but how did you react when the digital revolution....

CK: Well, the problem with the digital revolution is, if you view it from the point of view of publishing—newspapers, magazines, et cetera—it's the biggest tsunami disaster ever to hit this part of the media business. And we all know what's happened to newspapers and magazines. And so, the question I always ask myself is, if I'm going to be successful, being a "content provider," although I hate that term, I need to create something that people really want. There's high perceived value, that it's useful to them in some way, and that, for whatever reason, they can't get it somewhere else. Because that's the only way to survive, I think. And therefore, you need to charge for it. And I think people will be happy to pay. The New York Times put up a paywall not too long ago for their food section. The reason I got rid of advertising was because that's a race to the bottom.

EL: And you thought a free publication was the same way, was another race to the bottom.

CK: You know, I had this conversation, actually, at the New York Times a few years ago. I came in and had some discussions with the folks there. And on one hand, it was the advertising people, and on the other hand, it was the paywall people. And what I said was, I thought in the long run, the cost per thousand impressions online was just going to keep going down. Because you have millions of competitors.

EL: It's true.

CK: And that's what's happening. So you might as well create content like the New York Times has, which is unique, and charge for it. That's what they've done. They have over a million people paying to get access to the Times, which is the right way to go.

EL: Right. But it doesn't solve their overall business problems, because the foundation of the business was not built on it.

CK: Right. But at least they have a future, whereas most other newspapers in this country may not.

EL: Sure. Absolutely.

CK: I mean, at least they can get up in the morning and not start sweating as soon as they get up.

EL: Right. And it's still the greatest newspaper in the world.

CK: And it's still the greatest newspaper in the world. So I've always believed in creating value...something you believe in, and give something to people, or sell something to people, I should say, that they really treasure and can't get somewhere else. And people.... I have no problem. People always said, "Why do you charge for your content online?" And I said, "Well, why should I give it away? I mean, this costs a lot of money." I have people flying to South Africa and to the Middle East, and doing this new project. It's expensive. And we have cooks, and we have...we pay a lot of money in rent, and, you know, we need money to pay our bills. And so, I'm perfectly happy to say to people, "Look, if you'd like to participate—it's $20 or $30 a year. It's sure money."

And I think it's a good deal because, you know, I always say, "What's one good recipe worth? Or two?" I mean, the cost of dinner is $50, $75.

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[Photograph: Shutterstock.com]

On Milk Street and Finding a New Voice

EL: So do you consider yourself a publisher? An editor? A cook? Or some bizarre hybrid, a Rube Goldberg–like contraption?

CK: "Bizarre." If I get to pick one word out of that question, I would say "bizarre." Well, I don't know. Look: Who wouldn't want my job? I mean, I get to do radio, which I love. I get to do television, which I love. I get to travel. I get to do the magazines and the books, and the events, and the cooking school. We have a nonprofit part of the cooking school, which is great. So I get to work with people I love to work with. So, I don't know. I don't know what the job title is. Whatever it is, I like it. It's a good one.

EL: Exactly. I agree. I agree. I've found myself in the same position these last few years. So let's talk a little bit about voice, and brand, and all those buzzwords that I'm sure you never think about. Was the voice of Cook's Illustrated, America's Test Kitchen, and now Milk Street your voice, or was it a voice you created for your business?

CK: It's a good question, but it's complicated. It depends on which part of the media platform you're on. I think Milk Street's actually pretty different than what I've done before. But until that point of view, it would be, "Gee. Why isn't this recipe working? Let's go figure that out and make it work better." I always describe what we did as a mystery. You start with, why isn't this working? Whodunit? And you go through a process of developing and testing a recipe to figure out whodunit. And the answer was, these three things turned it from a bad recipe to a good recipe. So it was a little mystery.

EL: Basically what you're saying is, that same pain in the ass you were in those Connecticut cooking classes, that became your voice.

CK: Perfect description. Yeah. Succinct and accurate. Yes.

EL: I would say that there was a fair amount of drama surrounding your departure from Cook's Illustrated and America's Test Kitchen, in a very public way.

CK: What, you think?

EL: What can you tell us about that?

CK: Not much. I would just say that, forgetting about while that happened, for me, looking back two years later, it was wonderful. I got to focus on how I really cook now. I got to rethink how I cook.

EL: It was wonderful what you got to, but not the process of getting there.

CK: Well, that's a whole 'nother story. You know what it is? I have a touchy-feely yoga friend who always has these great euphemisms, and she always said, "When you need it the most, the universe shows up to help." We just had a lot of people come out of the woodwork to help us, and things fell in place. Now, I'm doing something I really love with a new group of people. I get to do exactly what I want. I think, as a business grows and you have lots of employees, it's hard...and I'm a terrible corporate CEO, in terms of managing a process—the org chart. Someone actually did an org chart in Milk Street last week. I said, "If you ever show that to anybody, I'm gonna fire you. Get this out of here."

I like to be involved with the details. I like to sit down and talk about the design of the magazine. I like to sit down and talk about the radio show and the TV show. I like to be involved in the creative process. I'm really not good at sitting in a meeting and having those people take a meeting, and those people take a meeting, and eventually something else happens. I'm really not the person you'd want to run a big organization, 'cause it's not me.

On Not (Just) Giving People What They Want

EL: Got it. Okay, so, you started Milk Street, and how is it different from all the other ventures? God knows you've started enough successful ventures.

CK: Well, it's totally different, in that I wasn't asking people what they wanted and giving it to them. There's a wonderful story of when S.I. Newhouse bought The New Yorker, and a guy called Steve Florio was the publisher—I don't know if you've ever heard of him.

EL: Yes, he's a legendary publisher—larger than life.

CK: He was physically and personality-wise larger than life—I've met him a few times. He was at the Four Seasons in the Grill Room, having lunch with [then New Yorker editor-in-chief] Bill Shawn, and he called Mr. Newhouse over—this is the story, anyway—and he said, "Mr. Shawn, how do you decide what your readers want?" And William Shawn said, "Well, I don't. I put what I'm interested in in The New Yorker. I'm there on behalf of my readers, but I never ask them what they want. I do what I want—what I'm interested in." And so, I've spent my whole life before this essentially asking people what they wanted and giving it to them. I'm doing the opposite now. I'm not asking them what they want.

EL: So, you're actually reverse-engineering the Chris Kimball way.

CK: I'm going totally against that fundamental precept, which is "Give people what they want." I think that we're right at the moment where people are rethinking and want to rethink how they cook at home. I think there are much better ways to cook at home than we have cooked here for a couple hundred years. I think people are open to being given ideas and techniques and recipes that they've never made before. So, now I'm going out on a limb and saying, "Look, you know what? I've been around a long time. I have a pretty good idea how people cook at home, what they're willing to do, and what they're not willing to do, but you know what? You've never cooked with sumac before? Okay, we're gonna do a recipe with sumac, and trust me, it's gonna be worth it, and you can go find it in your supermarket." I really want to be ahead of my customer a little bit now instead of being a half step behind. I want to be a little bit ahead. It's riskier, but it's a lot more fun.

EL: Right. It's more forward-thinking, and you're sort of leading, but where people already are, you think. You hope.

CK: Yeah. I mean, look, I didn't invent this stuff. I mean, people...there's been a ton of people out there that have been doing this a long time. All I'm doing is, a little bit of what Julia did, in a way—I'm a translator, saying, "Look, we'll go look at all of this stuff, and we'll bring back that portion of it which I think makes sense here, and then we'll put it together in a form that makes you comfortable with it." There's a million people like Fuchsia Dunlop, Every Grain of Rice, for example, if you really want to know something about Sichuan cooking...

EL: We love Fuchsia Dunlop.

CK: Fuchsia Dunlop is brilliant. So, I'm not gonna know more about that kind of cooking than she does, but my job is to go figure out, "Okay, this kind of works, that works, let's figure out how to put this together in a menu for people where they can consume it and it makes sense for them." So it's exciting because I'm doing something I've never done before, and my cooking's totally changed. I mean, in the last five years, I don't cook at all the same way that I used to. I mean, everything has changed.

EL: 'Cause I do think of the cooking at Cook's Illustrated and America's Test Kitchen as very Americana-driven, and you call it "Northern European–derived." But as you say, you're not the first person to say, "Oh, yeah, I had something great to eat in Chiang Mai; how could I do it here?"

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Khao soi gai. [Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

CK: The fact of the matter is, people want different flavors. They want big flavors. They want contrasting flavors. They want something new, and guess what? Many places in the world cook in a way that makes more sense for us today than the way we have been doing it. That's really the thing. If you think about Thai cooking, it's all about the prep. You prep it, and then it cooks in five minutes, right? A lot of things do. Handfuls of herbs, chili, spices; I mean, how many spices were there in Northern Europe? If you look at French cooking, go through Mastering the Art of French Cooking and see how many spices there are. You know, four? They don't use spices, really.

EL: Half dozen, six.

CK: Maybe half a dozen. Ottoman Empire had 88. Handfuls of herbs, chilies, fermented sauces, ginger, galangal, lemongrass, fish sauce—all of these big flavors, and when you're starting with a palette of really big flavors, you can get something that has big flavor pretty easily, 'cause you're not dealing with a ton of technique, you're not dealing with a lot of time. French cooking starts with relatively mild ingredients that have to be very high-quality, and then you have to work with them in a way to coax out flavor just the right way. It's a process that requires skill, and besides which, if you take a supermarket chicken that's six weeks old and try to make coq au vin, you're not gonna—

EL: You're in trouble.

CK: You're in trouble. So, yeah, that's exciting because there are more interesting solutions to the problem "What's for dinner?"

EL: What you've hit upon is something that's simultaneously reductive and expansive, in terms of...you—

CK: Can I steal that? That was really good.

EL: Yeah, you could steal it.

CK: Reductive and expansive.

EL: Yeah.

CK: That was good.

EL: To me, when I read the book, and when I look at what you're doing at Milk Street, there's sort of a more direct emotional and political slant—the political may be more in subtext.

CK: Yeah, I don't know if "political" is the right word, but it is emotional for me, because if you go to some other country and you talk to somebody else who cooks, you immediately have a bond with that person. It's an amazing thing, to be in someone else's kitchen in another country. Food is the portal through which you can discuss anything.

EL: Milk Street has a lot of components, as all of your previous ventures have.

CK: We have a weekly television show, which just launched, public television. We have a weekly public radio show that's an hour—and it's a podcast as well, of course. You have the magazine, the cookbook—the Milk Street cookbook just came out from Little, Brown. We do events—I go out in the fall and do stage events in nine or 10 cities. We have a cooking school three nights a week at 177 Milk Street in Boston—some of it's nonprofit work, some of it's for money. We have, obviously, the newsstand part of our business, social media, the website itself. We have a lot of bits and pieces to that. We will actually have an online store going up in October, mostly to provide some of the ingredients that we talk about in the magazine—spices, that kind of thing. Yeah, we have all of those. I was once at a conference...actually, I was also with the New York Times, and there was a guy there from Major League Baseball. It was me, a guy from Major League Baseball, and a Wall Street Journal guy—it was about the digital world—and the baseball guy said, "My job is to be there every time someone turns around and they want information about Major League Baseball. I have to be there." And I thought, "Well, okay, there's some truth to that." You have to be there at all those places for people.

On The Food Lab

EL: You know, one of the things I've realized that we have in common, that I have to ask you about, is Kenji López-Alt. Kenji worked for you for a long time.

CK: He did.

EL: Then he worked for me, and still does. Are you surprised at, sort of, the crazy way he connected with millennial cooks?

CK: Kenji.... It goes back to my comments about brands. Kenji is authentic. He has a science background. I remember, in America's Test Kitchen, he's the guy who would build the smoker out of the kettle grill and back, and make half an ounce of liquid smoke over 24 hours, just because he could. He is that person he says he is. I think The Food Lab...I think he managed to create a book where he has a voice that's very genuine. I think it's personal, and I think he was able to combine science and recipes and food in a way—

EL: In a very human way.

CK: That's exactly right. He wasn't just, "Here's the science, and the amino acids, and the calcium and chloride ions, and what happens"—he was able to put that in a context that was very personal, and so you really felt there was a voice there. He's on our show as a contributor once in a while, and if you listen to his voice, you just get a sense of confidence. He says, "Well, yeah. I tested that, and here's what I did." He's done his homework. He's done his homework.

EL: He's an obsessive. That's what you—you share that.

CK: He's obsessive, but he's also colloquial. He's able to do both.

EL: Yeah. I describe him as Mr. Wizard meets The Simpsons, because—

CK: Which Simpson?

EL: Well, that's a whole other question. That's a longer conversation.

CK: Bart.

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Kenji and Adam Savage test searing a steak at ultra-hot temperatures. [Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

On the Future of Thoughtful Food Writing

EL: I'm gonna take a page out of Reddit—what question do you want to ask me? You're sort of familiar with what we've done at Serious Eats. This is an Ask Me Anything moment.

CK: Yeah, I do. Here's my question: The world has gone from thoughtful writing and consideration—think about the old Gourmet, or think of the old books, or How to Cook a Wolf, or whatever—and now we're in the place we are today. Do you think that that core of interested people who really want thoughtful writing and discussion about food—do you think that's still there, it's just that it's being swamped a little bit by everything else going on? Or do you think that, in 10 or 20 years, that just will not be there?

EL: I think it has to be there, 'cause that's the only thing I know how to do.

CK: That's my answer, too. I mean, you and I are both playing the long game, which is, we're gonna be here a long time from now, and we'll just keep doing our best work, but it is sometimes disheartening when you see things getting a tremendous amount of play that are not...it's just not thoughtful work. I sound like some horrible third-grade French teacher, and that's really annoying.

On His "Last Supper" and Chris Kimball Day

EL: So, who's at your—and I'm really curious about your answer here—who's at your "Last Supper," no family allowed? I just want four people that you'd love to sit down with.

CK: John Le Carré. I think he's one of the best writers of the 20th century.

EL: You're the first person that's ever said that, and I couldn't agree with you more.

CK: He's also.... I just heard him on Fresh Air recently. He's one of the most thoughtful [people] about the state of the world. He understands—and his novels, I think, show this—he understands how the world works in a very unique way. He's just an amazing guy.

EL: Yes. He is an extraordinary thinker.

CK: He's really amazing.

EL: All right. I like that. Keep going.

CK: I have to keep going.

EL: Yeah.

CK: Dead, or they have to be—?

EL: Yeah. No, dead. Dead.

CK: Oh.

EL: Dead. Dead. Dead.

CK: I would actually love, oddly—this is an easy one, but I would love to have Rosa Lewis.

EL: Rosa Lewis?

CK: Remember The Duchess of Duke Street, the '70s BBC? And she was a real person who...actually, her hotel was on Jermyn Street in London, and she was a scullery maid who ended up being a consort of Edward VI, I think, or VII, whatever. She rose to the top of the cooking world in London pre–World War I, and her story's just an amazing story. She ended up—World War I, of course, destroyed that whole world, 'cause everyone was dead and poor after that. Going from a scullery maid to a top chef, and being at the top echelon of society, always just really fascinated me. I thought that was really great.

EL: All right. That's great. This is really interesting, so we've got two Brits—Le Carré and Rosa Lewis.

CK: I suppose that's true, yeah. I would love...I know this is completely lame, but—

EL: We accept lame here.

CK: I still love Lincoln. I'm sorry. I just think he's.... The second inaugural is one of the most beautiful pieces of writing ever. I love his stories. One of his great stories was, there was a couple engineers in a town, I guess, somewhere, and the supervisor said to the guy, "Look, when you write reports, they're much too long. Could you please keep it short?" And then there was a huge flood, and the guy wrote his report, he said, "Where the town was, it ain't now."

I mean, he used to go around on these circuits and stay in these boardinghouses, and they'd tell stories and jokes all night. I think he was just an amazing...and the Gettysburg Address was three minutes long. There's actually a recording I heard of an interview in the 1920s with someone who was there.

EL: Wow.

CK: The person before him was a governor or somebody, who had spoken for two hours. Lincoln had a high voice, and he stood up, and no one heard a word. It lasted three minutes, and no one could hear a word. But I think he would be just fascinating.

EL: Just the combination of brevity and wisdom.

CK: And a curiosity, and a sense of humor, which, I think, unfortunately, our great leaders, many of them have sort of lost.

EL: All right, I love this. I love this table. And one more person? You're a Deadhead, or you were, like me. You're a lapsed Deadhead; like there are lapsed Catholics, there are lapsed Deadheads.

CK: Saving my best for last—it would be Jerry Garcia, of course.

EL: It would be Jerry Garcia.

CK: Yeah, I started going to Fillmore East concerts in February 1970.

EL: Me too. You went to the midnight-to-dawn with the Grateful Dead?

CK: February 10, yes. I remember, when they do an acoustic set for an hour with Bob and Jerry, which was terrific.... I spent a lot of time going to Dead concerts, and I'm still a Deadhead. He had...I mean, he was a great musician. He had old-timey, he had jazz, he had rock and roll, blues—he put a lot of stuff together...bluegrass. But he had a way of connecting...I remember, there was one at the Fillmore East in '72 or '73, he asked the house light to be turned up, and he played to the audience for about 15 or 20 minutes. He just played, and he'd look at people. Of course, I thought he looked at me, which of course is ridiculous, but—

EL: That was his genius.

CK: That was his genius! He could look at everybody at the same time. He was the Buddha.

EL: So, what are you eating? What are you all eating? Lincoln, Rosa Lewis, Jerry Garcia.

CK: Well, Jacques Pépin had the great answer. Someone asked, "If this was your last meal before being executed," and he said, "Whatever meal would take the longest to cook and eat." I thought that was a three-day feast.

EL: Coulibiac.

CK: Yes, coulibiac. Yes. Takes a long time for that brioche. I think that it would be very simple. I think it would be a lot of meze—I like to eat that way. You start off with a lot of vegetables, and then you move into some fish and a little bit of meat—something very simple. The wine is obviously crucial to that. It's where you're sitting.... It's all about the conversation. I love the conversation around the table.

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[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

EL: So...and this answer may be different since you started Milk Street, and are thinking about food in a different way—what do you cook when there's not much in the house to work with?

CK: There's a few things. There's midnight noodles, which comes from Fuchsia Dunlop, which is.... You can use soba—you can use anything. It's a very simple, soy sauce, water, toasted sesame oil, scallions, ginger—that's very simple to do. I would put something...rice. I have this wonderful Japanese pot I cook rice in, and just put stuff on rice, I find.

EL: "Stuff on rice." That's a very technical term.

CK: Stuff on rice, well—

EL: I appreciate that.

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[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

EL: So, it's just been declared Chris Kimball Day all over the world. What's happening? What's happening on Chris Kimball Day?

CK: Rioting at the streets—bread riots, like in Russia, 1917.

EL: Besides bread riots?

CK: I think all the restaurants would be closed. I think people would be forced.... It would be Thanksgiving. People would be forced to..."force," that's probably too pat a term. People would be enjoined, or suggested, that they spend the day cooking, and they do it with friends and family. They don't go out, and they stay home, and they just cook. That's why.... We can argue about the menu of Thanksgiving, although I happen to love it. That's why I love Thanksgiving, because everyone actually cooks. It's odd to me that, since we all do that on Thanksgiving—or, except Calvin Trillin, he goes out for Chinese food—but—

EL: Right. No, or spaghetti carbonara. He has spaghetti carbonara.

CK: Okay, he's become more liberal, then.

EL: 'Cause he says the Indians really were serving spaghetti carbonara.

CK: That would be Calvin.

EL: That's so great, though, the idea that on Chris Kimball Day, it's really just Thanksgiving. That's a wonderful metaphor.

CK: Well, yeah, and it doesn't.... The great thing, the revelation is, it can be something really simple. It doesn't have to be complicated. When I started cooking, in the '70s, everything was complicated. We were all doing these.... I'd prep Friday night, and cook all day Saturday, and have a dinner party, and have five courses, and make the bouillabaisse, and everything else. It can be the simplest thing in the world. You can make some hummus, and make some flatbread in a skillet or something, or make a little spiced meat to go on top of it, and you're done.

EL: 'Cause it's the feeling. It's the gathering around a table and cooking that's much more important than—

CK: Yes. And I think that taking the time.... I mean, look, how many things can you do today where you can make something by hand? That's why I think cooking's not going away. You can't fix your car anymore. No one knows how to fix their plumbing, electrical, or do sheetrock, but you can cook. You can do something for other people, with your hands, and you get immediate gratification, you get immediate feedback. There's not many things in life that fit that category, right?

On Christopher Kimball's Milk Street

EL: So, I realize, I haven't given you an opportunity to talk about the book, and give me a succinct description and three favorite recipes.

CK: The book is a way of changing your cooking, because the recipes aren't hard, for the most part; they're not hard-to-find ingredients—a few recipes, a little more difficult, maybe—but most of them not. The concept is that a recipe should end up having distinct flavors and textures, as opposed to the kind of cooking I grew up with. So, when you take that first bite, you can taste the coriander and you can taste the cinnamon, or you can taste the cilantro. You can taste all these things, and they're still there and present when you eat the food, and so on the fifth bite, you still have something interesting going on in your mouth. I would say there's a few things in there that I think are really terrific. I think the first is the lamb or beef stew. The point is, you have just about a pound of meat, you essentially make a soup with it. You have lots of herbs and spices, and it points out the notion that you don't need stock. I don't use stock anymore, I use water. Guess what? When you cook meat or poultry with water, you make stock. So, you just use water, and there's some potatoes and some spices. So, you have spices, you have herbs, you have a little meat, you have these things, and it's very simple. At the end of it, you have a lot of complexity, and I think that's really terrific. The second one, which is the simplest recipe in the book, is the scrambled eggs, which is—

EL: The olive oil.

CK: Yeah, and the point is, olive oil gets hot, butter doesn't, because it's got water, right? So, you get to 380, 400°F—you get the oil almost smoking-hot—you put the eggs in. It just puffs right up, and takes 15, 20 seconds to cook, and you get a totally different product than you would in butter. It's a simple thing. It's got two eggs, salt, and some olive oil, but the Basque.... I opened a Basque cookbook a year ago and found exactly the same recipe, and that just shows you that just changing one ingredient can make all the difference in the world. I would say the other one that was really like guacamole is.... We were with Diana Kennedy, and—

EL: Famous Mexican cooking instructor, and chef, and cookbook writer.

CK: Yes. A wonderful personality, and she.... No garlic, no lime juice, and it's just how you treat the ingredients, and how you get the flavor. It's very simply done, and it's about simplicity—you let the flavor, obviously of the avocado, come out. You don't drown it with other things. You use onion and some other things to get sharp flavors. There's simplicity in all of that. A little complexity with a soup or the stew, very simple point about the scrambled eggs, and then in between you have guacamole, which is very simple to do, but it's.... You just pay attention to the specifics, and that's a more authentic way, by the way, in central Mexico, of making it.

EL: That could be your last supper.

CK: It could be.