There’s no denying that Chris Kimball, founder of America’s Test Kitchen, is a unique character: he commutes from his 1850s townhouse to the office on a custom Harley, he has over a thousand maple syrup taps on his Vermont farm, he’s almost never seen without his signature bow tie, suspenders and spectacles. But underneath it all is a brand of perfectionism that borders on the obsessive.
His entire media empire — two magazines, two TV shows, a cookbook department — is built on the precept that no recipe is really complete unless it’s been tested hundreds of times by his 30 test cooks. But really, that’s nothing compared to lengths he went to for his latest project, a book called Fannie’s Last Supper: Re-creating One Amazing Meal from Fannie Farmer’s 1896 Cookbook
The book recounts, in detail, the two years spent researching, planning and cooking a traditional 12-course Victorian Christmas feast, using only equipment and ingredients (calf’s head, homemade food coloring derived from vegetables) from the time period and an army of servants (in this case, his test cooks). In a recent NPR interview, Kimball revealed the unforeseen challenges of cooking on a traditional 19th-century coal stove: “Erin McMurrer, my test kitchen director—her pants actually started to melt. We, in one case, actually wrapped aluminum foil around her pants to keep the heat off of them.” The actual dinner was cooked over five days and held in the Kimball’s Boston home
Kimball, who’s appearing in Chicago tonight as part of his book tour, also produced a documentary about the meal; it’s scheduled to air on public television this November and December.