A Challenge -- and a Response

October 16, 2009

Chris KimballFood52

Amanda and Merrill

Yesterday on his blog, Chris Kimball (editor and founder of Cook's Illustrated) proposed a recipe challenge to "any supporter of the WIKI or similar concept," specifically mentioning Amanda and food52 as potential opponents. (This morning, the reference miraculously disappeared -- perhaps Chris got nervous we'd actually accept?)

  • "The current rage is the WIKI recipe notion — a community of on-line foodies who can select and tweak recipes to come up with the best possible version. Then there is the opposite contention — I think that only a professional test kitchen with substantial resources, strict testing protocol, and lots of time can develop the very “best” recipes, all things being equal. So, I am willing to put my money, and my reputation, where my big mouth is. I offer a challenge to any supporter of the WIKI or similar concept to jump in and go head to head with our test kitchen. We will jointly agree on a recipe, on the rules, on a time frame, etc. At the end, we will ask a panel of impartial judges to make and test the recipes and declare a winner. Should be fun! Who is interested?"

We're intrigued by the invitation, and we have some thoughts on the matter. So do some others on the internet.

Shop the Story

What Chris sees as mutually exclusive approaches to recipe-sourcing we view as complementary ones that can peacefully co-exist. (And by the way, we're not a WIKI in a traditional sense.) That's one of the things that makes the internet so great. We didn't set out to compete with Cook's to come up with the most reliable panzanella. At food52, our mission is to inspire home cooks to share their best original recipes and most noteworthy cooking techniques with our online community -- we're more interested in a panzanella with panache. We hope that at food52, everyone (including us) learns a little something, sees the site as a resource for memorable, vetted recipes and and finds a community of like-minded cooks.

Cook's objective is admirable and always has been. (In fact, Merrill cut her own recipe testing teeth working in America's Test Kitchen years ago.) But while Chris's aim is to create "dependable" versions of familiar, tried-and-true recipes using scientific methods and relying on a team of professionals, ours is to celebrate the individuals behind great recipes. Cook's is about a foolproof test kitchen apple pie, while food52 is about going to the kitchens of great home cooks to taste the apple pie they've been making for 30 years -- or the one they modeled after a fantastic restaurant version they ate last week.

Since any food52 challenge includes you, our users, we would like to hear from you. Let us know: do you think we should take Chris on? If this challenge goes ahead, we promise to work with Chris to set some fair terms.


See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • mcvl
  • ntuitive1
  • pierino
  • zeus
  • Cheryl Arkison
    Cheryl Arkison
Food52 (we cook 52 weeks a year, get it?) is a food and home brand, here to help you eat thoughtfully and live joyfully.


mcvl October 20, 2009
Cook's Illustrated's schtick tickles me. "First I tried making Beef Wellington with Wonder Bread and bologna, which produced an unappealing dish far from the masterpiece I had in mind, then I upgraded to saltines and Spam ..." It's sometimes possible to glean from their little essays good information on what method or ingredient will have what result. But I haven't taken their tastebuds seriously since 1999, when they rejected okra as an ingredient in gumbo. Some expertise.
ntuitive1 October 18, 2009
What Chris Kimball should realize is that sometimes the wisdom of many cooks is as good or better than any so called "scientific" method for determining the best way to make any recipe, if there even is a "best" way.

I am half Sicilian on my mother's side and inherited several tried and true family recipes for Italian classics, and it always amazes me how Chris and his test kitchen sometimes have to resort to all strange methods and ingredients in an attempt to achieve the same results my grandmother achieved with just a little common sense and ingenuity. Bread soaked in milk to thicken and soften a quick meat sauce? Why? If you know how to cook Italian food you wouldn't have to resort to such strange and questionable measures to achieve them. Plus, we Italian Americans don't like our soul food bastardized. You don't have to thicken a quick meat sauce with soaked bread to achieve great results. Just lower the flame and keep stirring and mashing your meat as it browns and it won't get dry and tough. If you can't figure out how to achieve this, that's your lack of talent showing through.

I say that cooking is often as much or more of an art than a science and it often takes intuition, not testing and so-called "experts" to achieve excellent results. That's not to say that I have not gotten some great tips from Chris and his test kitchen, it's just that his is not the only way to go about making great food. Sometimes that's better left up to the home cooks with lots of experience and good instincts.
pierino October 18, 2009
Chris Kimball is a total gum ball. The notion that there is a "best" anything in the food world is ridiculous. Is the fried chicken in Durham more "best" than the the fried chicken in Biloxi? Look at little bit of food history please. A good start might be Mark Kurlansky's FOOD OF A YOUNGER LAND. I'm not participating in Food52 because I make the best anything. Rather I enjoy its collegial quality. Real cooks talking to other real cooks.
zeus October 17, 2009
totally agree with alejandra. these are 2 different [and non-competitive ] forums. christopher kimball is very knowledgeable but is about exciting as watching paint dry. he's a pro [sic] then take on the other pros.
this forum [in my humble] is a shared resource to expand our culinary interests not to churn out the same 'best of' thousands of times.
its more rewarding to me to have my family tell me that a certain dish was the best i've ever served. not to meticulously follow some paid ocd hack.
btw : does he sound worried ? just sayin'
Cheryl A. October 16, 2009
I love this whole mess of words. Of course, I'm not connected directly and I'm a fan of both CI and Christopher Kimball as well as blogging and projects like Food 52.

My question is how this sort of thing would get judged? On taste or response? Goes to the common difference between the internet and the test kitchen.
Teri October 16, 2009
Amanda and Merrill, you are too kind.

I think Mr. Kimball needs to take a weekend, retire to the farm, make some of his perfect pancakes and cool off. He's missing the point, and soon he'll be missing some readers. I'd pick Ed Levine and his posse any day, namely because they write about food like excited adults rather than pimply teenagers. I will deeply miss Gourmet, and I am going to take up Saveur. I will not miss Cook's at all, which I only got for the beautiful art. Mr. Kimball, no renewal for you.

p.s. I love that you put "dependable" in quotes.
sweet E. October 19, 2009
I'm with you Teri. He's totally missing the point. Amanda and Merrill --- Take him on.
Kelsey B. October 16, 2009
I have been fascinated with this ongoing debate since reading Mr. Kimball's NY Times piece. Of course, like most people, I agree that he was wrong on many points - especially that the internet was the downfall of Gourmet. If someone had paid attention to the ad revenue streams things would've been quite different. I do agree that CI would win a recipe contest against a WIKI. CI has strict controls while WIKI's are subject to the personal opinions of thousands with no real leader. But, Food52 does have leaders, both of you. We submit recipes for everyone to enjoy and you, using your knowledge and expertise, guide us through the process of testing and enjoying the food that has been shared. It is fun and interesting, and (as far as I can tell) the Food52 kitchen is a real kitchen, not a laboratory.

As for this contest, I would accept his challenge as long as the expectations are set from the start. What is he trying prove, exactly? That Amanda & Merrill, or Food52 users, can come up with a better recipe for Chocolate Chip Cookies than CI? Or that none of us can give you good ideas for CCCookies - CI's will always be superior? I enjoy CI and am a subscriber, but I don't swear by everything they make. For example, I adore their Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe, but also love Dorie's, one from Martha, Ina's, Jacques from the NYTimes, etc. There is no one perfect recipe for any dish in the whole wide world, regardless of the amount of time and research put into it. As you noted, CI is dependable, but Food52 offers variety and versatility. Frankly, I think Food52 could win a contest against CI based on the fact that all of the users here have some fantastic recipes at their fingertips. I would be interested to see the ground rules that are suggested by CI. Would "all things being equal" mean a strict list of ingredients? Be careful what you wish for Chris - bring it on!

breakawaycook October 16, 2009
Hope I'm not picked as a judge -- would love to see the bowtied one covered in mushroom compost!
witloof October 16, 2009
here is my reply to his challenge:
Dear Mr. Kimball,

I’ve been a subscriber, and before that a buyer, of Cook’s and then Cook’s Country since the mid 90’s. I’ve always found it entertaining, but to tell you the truth, the recipes I’ve made from it haven’t always been that great, and sometimes the opinions of your tasting panels leave me shaking my head in disbelief. Ronzoni pasta is better than Barilla? Artificial vanilla flavoring is just as good as Penzey’s double strength vanilla? Am I actually paying someone to tell me these things?

I am of the firm belief that taste is entirely subjective, and what appeals to your experts, who grew up eating different things than I did and have different ideas about what tastes good, may not appeal to me. For instance, I would NEVER use a canned stock, which your recipes frequently include, under any circumstances whatsoever. Not only do I find the taste objectionable, the thought of what is in canned stock and how it is made scares me. I would never knowingly ingest it. Nor would I ever purchase artificial vanilla flavoring, for that matter.

I thought your editorial in the New York Times was seriously offensive and just wrong headed. What killed Gourmet Magazine was not the writing of amateur bloggers, it was the combination of poor editing and lack of advertising revenue. Gourmet had morphed over the years into something I hardly recognized anymore. I still subscribed to it, mostly out of loyalty to Ruth Reichl, whom I would support regardless, out of sheer admiration and affection. I think she is one of the best food writers in the pantheon. But I sorely missed the old Gourmet, which was not overrun by advertisements nor tons of pointless photographs of beautiful people, and was densely packed with thoughtful, interesting prose by admirable writers. When asked on a “Serious Eats” poll which magazine I’d pick if I could have only one, I instantly responded “Saveur” — because it’s so much like the old Gourmet. And speaking of Serious Eats, I believe you offended Ed Levine, who is now a highly successful blogger. As I hope you know, before he launched his website, he had amassed quite an impressive resume as a writer in print.

Three are thousands and thousands of food blogs in cyberspace, but only a handful of really good ones, and I believe that those are the ones people read regularly. For you to insist that people should only be cooking from recipes that are vetted by committee, a relatively new concept, instead of casually sharing them with each other, which has been done since the advent of fire, is just strange. Have you ever looked at a recipe someone has shared with you and thought, hey, that might work really well with a few changes? Of course you have, but you don’t seem to trust anyone else to be able to do that. To insist that cooking be this formal, hallowed activity when so few people cook anymore anyway, to the point that our physical and mental health as a nation is suffering greatly as a result, is not helping.

Your Times editorial annoyed me so much I’m seriously considering allowing my Cook’s subscriptions lapse. Who do you think you are, to believe that you have the ultimate word on what is correct on a subject that is strictly governed by individual preference? You’re becoming megalomaniacal in your success. The world is not black and white and the world of food certainly is up for endless interpretation.


Loren Shlaes
Kaleberg October 17, 2009
This is almost what I was going to write.

I mourned Gourmet years ago. (And, I let my subscription lapse.)

I love Cook's empirical attitude, but I don't like its aesthetic. The food is always too homogenized, too consensus driven for my taste. You get the same problem with music. There are goals beyond perfection and consistency.
mrslarkin October 16, 2009
Yes, Cook’s does all the leg work for us, what with the grueling work in the test kitchens (and a little OCD thrown in.) I love that. But I am so not one to follow recipes exactly, that I usually turn to Cook’s first, just to see how the “experts” do it. And then I do my own thing. Cooks is like the cranky old man who does things the same exact way, every single time (just making an analogy; I’m in no way implying that Chris is a cranky old man.) But Food 52 is so much more creative from the get-go. Which I also love. Food52 is the flower-child (again, just an analogy) who embraces everyone for their unique qualities and contributions. If everyone cooked the same apple pie the same way every single time, it would be a very boring world. I say go for the gusto, girls, and take Mr. Kimball on. Promise you’ll play nice with the other children, though. Keep us posted.
shayma October 16, 2009
though your philosophies are very different, indeed, we are sure you guys can win this contest. buona fortuna!
Sarah R. October 16, 2009
Seems like what he's challenging isn't exactly what you're doing (the recipes at Food52 not being developed collaboratively online in wiki style), but I wholly support demonstrating the prowess of the amateur by accepting (and succeeding). His assertion in the NYT that the only way to be a "real" practitioner of anything is to have rigorous institutional/academic training strikes me as a pretty narrow view of how to exploit one's potential. Why not show him there's more than one way to get there?
JoyManning October 16, 2009
There is one thing I pay money to have access to online and that is Cook's Illustrated. I grew up in a non-cooking household, so Cook's Illustrated is like the food mentor grandma I never had. Today, as a professional recipe developer, I still rely on CI's awesome recipe archive to provide an authoritative example of how to cook American classics and what those dishes are expected to taste like. I don't see myself letting that subscription lapse, ever.

The thing about CI, though, is that the recipes all cater to the mainstream American palate and they assume that readers aren't willing to pay the price or go to the trouble to seek out ingredients you can't find in a typical store. So the range can feel a little limited at times if you are the more adventurous eater and cook that I suspect many Food 52ers are. I don't agree that they are souless, but they are mainstream. But who doesn't like a perfect meatloaf?

And, as Amanda writes, this site isn't exactly a wiki. It has a couple of very experienced writers and recipe developers acting as editors, testing recipes, and making decisions. Against a true wiki, CI would, in my view, win a contest, hands down. But against Food 52, a place where Amanda and Merrill shape the final outcome? That's anyone's game. But I would probably vote for the Food 52 version because its likely that that recipe would value authenticity and flavor over factors like ingredient availability and time commitment--two things that CI seems always to consider.

I think that both Cook's Illustrated and Food 52 should thrive. They each add a lot to the overall food landscape. A contest would be really fun! Bring it on.
JackieK October 16, 2009
Go for it! I'm getting sick of Kimball's ego and would love to see you take him down a notch with recipes that come from real people cooking from their hearts. While Cook's Illustrated is good for some things, like what immersion blender to buy, it's by no means a be-all-end-all answer to making the best of anything.
Alejandra_ October 16, 2009
I find Cook's Illustrated tediously boring and not the least bit inspirational. I totally agree with Giulia (comment below) that they "lack soul" and have no interest in making them. I'm a thousand times more interested in what someone across the country has been making in her kitchen for 30 years than whatever the Cook's Illustrated-deemed "Best" version of it is. So I say, yes, definitely bring on the challenge.
Giulia M. October 16, 2009
I go to Cook's Illustrated for their great little tips (like a spill-free way to get pepper into a pepper mill) or to find out who makes the vegetable peeler or the best canned tomatoes. But their recipes, in their scientific precision, lack soul. I have never made one of them. Food 52 is all soul Take him on!
EdibleUsable October 16, 2009
I'm kind of on the fence with this one. I agree with what you say here - that this site, and many other internet sites that collect user recipes aren't about making the BEST of anything. It's often about sharing, inspiring and discovering new recipes or new ways of doing things.
A lot of it is about intention: do you approach cooking to get things exactly right and perfect, or do you approach it to have fun, learn something and share with others?
But at the same time, I think that the quality of recipes I find on the internet and sites like this are usually just as good if not better than what I have in cookbooks that I own, so I think a in challenge like this, there's a good chance "the internet" would win!
jbzepol October 16, 2009
Bring it bow tie! :-P
Goldilocks October 16, 2009
This is SO neat! I hope you guys win!
Lu October 16, 2009
Absolutely! But who is going to be the judge of "better" or "best"?