Watch out Emeril, 'America's Test Kitchen' is hot

The cooking series is now king of its kind on public TV

Who would have thought that a cooking show without a celebrity like Emeril, Julia, or Jacques would succeed? With a bow-tied Yankee as its host and a more thoughtful-than-entertaining format, "America's Test Kitchen" has defied some skeptics with its staying power. It's no culinary sporting event along the lines of "The Iron Chef" or voyeuristic reality show such as "The Restaurant," but the down-to-earth cooking series has captivated viewers just the same.

Poised to begin its fourth season in January and currently in reruns, "America's Test Kitchen" airs on 90 percent of public-television stations across the country and is the highest-rated cooking show on public TV.

No doubt the trusty reputation of Cook's Illustrated magazine - founded, edited, and published by Christopher Kimball - helps. A collection of cookbooks by Mr. Kimball and his team may have further boosted appeal for the show. The magazine, books, and TV show follow a similar format: tinkering with recipes as many times as it takes to arrive at "the best" recipe for a particular dish.

Also working in Kimball & company's favor is America's enduring appetite for such classic comfort foods as hearty soups and stews, meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and gooey chocolate cake. These are just the kinds of foods that Kimball, a Vermonter who grew up on a farm and learned to bake from "The Joy of Cooking," features in his publication and on his TV series.

"During the last 10 years," says Kimball, "people have eaten at restaurants more and experienced some really good food. But that doesn't translate to good cooking. There's a huge gap between restaurant food and home cooking. We try to give people a repertoire for home."

A visit to the TV production studio of "America's Test Kitchen" in Brookline, Mass., reveals that Kimball and his on-camera sidekicks, Julia Collin and Bridget Lancaster, are just as likable and relaxed on the air as off. It helps that they are backed up by a team of 15 meticulous testers. Also putting them at ease is the tone of the show, which is all about trial and error. If a recipe fails, the camera keeps rolling.

"Watching someone make a dish perfectly doesn't teach them," says Kimball.

He and his crew might even start a segment with a bone-dry turkey and then roast it again until it emerges from the oven golden, moist, and succulent. Watching this transformation is when the real learning happens, Kimball says.

"People's greatest reason to not cook is fear, the fear of failure," he explains. "So if you give them a recipe that's been tested so much and explain how it works, the odds of success are better."

So that he can "be at viewers' level," Kimball has steered clear of earning a cooking-school degree. Even Julia Child warned him against this: "Get yourself an education," she once told him.

"Knife skills and mastery of basics such as how to make a pie crust are important," he says, "but I'm not a big fan of formal training."

This often makes for good TV. When Ms. Collin, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, notices that Kimball's steak sandwich looks like an unmade bed, she tells him with a laugh: "Your sandwich is looking really sloppy, Chris."

To which he responds good-naturedly: "OK, let's fix it up."

" 'America's Test Kitchen' has broken the form in cooking shows," says executive producer Geoffrey Drummond, who also produced the award-winning public TV series "Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home."

"It's not all about entertaining and personality," he explains, "there aren't any big names, and yet they are all pros who take their mission - teaching how to do it better - very seriously.

"Clearly, people are ready for this."

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Flank Steak and Arugula Sandwiches With Red Onion

1-1/2 pounds flank steak, trimmed of excess fat and patted dry
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 baguette, cut into four 5-inch lengths, each split into top and bottom pieces
1/2 cup Garlic-Soy Mayonnaise (recipe below)
1/2 small red onion, sliced thin
1 bunch arugula, stemmed, washed, and dried (about 3 cups)

Heat a heavy-bottomed, 12-inch skillet over high heat until very hot, about 4 minutes. While skillet is heating, season steak generously with salt and pepper. Add oil to pan and swirl to coat bottom. Lay steak in pan and cook without moving it until well browned, about 5 minutes. Using tongs, flip steak; cook until well browned on second side, about 5 minutes longer. Transfer steak to cutting board, tent with foil, and let rest 10 minutes. Cut steak into 1/4-inch slices diagonally against the grain.

Spread each baguette piece with 1 tablespoon Garlic-Soy Mayonnaise; portion out steak over bottom pieces of bread and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Add portions of red onion and arugula; place tops of baguette on top and serve.

Serves 4.

Garlic-Soy Mayonnaise

1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 small clove garlic, minced (about 1/2 teaspoon)
1/2 teaspoon honey
1 piece (1/3 inch) ginger, minced (about 1 teaspoon)
1/2 teaspoon Asian sesame oil

Mix all ingredients together in a small bowl. Can be covered and refrigerated for up to 1 day.

- From 'The America's Test Kitchen Cookbook'

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