an open letter to christopher kimball

Christopher Kimball is the publisher of Cook’s Illustrated magazine.  He recently wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times which suggested that the demise of Gourmet magazine was related to the groundswell of (inferior) content on the internet.  He also just threw down a challenge on his blog that proposes pitting a recipe developed in the test kitchen to a recipe developed “Wiki-style”, with lots of contributors.  The following is my reaction and response to his comments and to the debate of what I’ll call “experience vs. access”.

Dear Mr. Kimball,

As you may know, many food bloggers and other users of the internet are indignant about your recent article on the demise of Gourmet, because of remarks you made suggesting that the general public on the web (bloggers et al.) is unqualified to be acting as any kind of “authority” on cooking or recipe publication. 

Although I am an amateur food blogger, you may be surprised to hear that I agree with you up to a point.  Certain things are better than others because people have taken time or had training to get them right.  I personally do not often search randomly on the internet for a recipe; I prefer, if at all possible, to get my recipes from cookbooks or sources with whose authors I’m familiar, to ensure a degree of success.

I also take issue with bloggers who assume a position of “instructor” when it is not warranted.  I recently read an online article on how to be a better food writer.  When I looked at the author’s own blog, the writing was completely banal, with sentences such as “The [food items] were very good”.  (Incidentally, this person was one of the folks expressing their outrage about your article… oh, the irony!) This is certainly one of the drawbacks of the free-for-all that is the internet.  On the flip side of that coin, though, the internet gives access to others’ experience that can be extremely useful.  When I wanted to make chicken sausage this summer, for example, I did a web search and came across a blog called Saucisson Mac.  I found a recipe as well as a lot of helpful information, and got a great result.  The author is not a professional charcutier, just someone who’s made lots of sausage at home and knows the ropes.

Your remarks also fail to acknowledge that many food blogs, perhaps even the majority, are written for a different reason other than to give instruction.  The primary focus of my blog, like many food blogs I read, is meant to share and chronicle my personal experiences in the kitchen.  I do know a bit more than the average person, not through formal training but through lots of cooking and reading cookbooks and recipes, so I do include “tips” when applicable (some learned from the pages of Cook’s Illustrated!).  But I don’t claim to be an expert on cooking techniques, and my posts make it very clear (I hope!) that “this is the way I prefer to do it, but it’s not the only way”. 

Another problem with your focus on professional expertise is that it implies that a home cook can’t spontaneously (i.e. without a tested recipe) create something fantastic.  I think people with training/ experience like to think they will always create a superior result, because it validates the time and hard work they’ve put into something.  But I’ve made lots of wonderful dishes just riffing on a recipe, or with no recipe at all.  It’s elitist to suggest one needs specialized training (or to follow a recipe to the tee) to produce good food.

Even if one does choose to follow recipes from prominent chefs and experts, the results are far from guaranteed.  A great illustration of this point is a blog written by Luisa Weiss, aka The Wednesday Chef.  Luisa cooks recipes culled from the New York Times and the L.A. Times, and blogs about the results.   In a recent post, she describes a disastrous coconut barley dish that was all but inedible.  This was a recipe written by a “professional”, printed in a major newspaper!  And yet, that was no guarantee of success; far from it.  This is what I love about blogs: the interaction; the feedback.  Luisa’s kitchen is a test kitchen in the truest sense, and when readers leave comments about their own experiences with the same dish, it enhances the content even further.  Lastly, I defy you to read Luisa’s latest post (about Gourmet, coincidentally) and tell me the internet lacks its share of “thoughtful, considered editorial”.

Ultimately, I wish the curmudgeons and the upstarts could all just get along.  I feel that there’s room for everyone, and that people will ultimately seek out the type of content that is most useful or meaningful to them.  I’m tired of the sniping from both sides of the debate.  Can’t we just stop brandishing our rolling pins and get back to what we all love- making and eating good food?


Noelle Lothamer

9 responses to “an open letter to christopher kimball

  1. Agree that it’s best to remember we all want delicious things to eat. I’ll miss paging through Gourmet while soaking in a bubble bath after getting filthy in the vegetable garden. I can’t do that with my laptop.

  2. Oh brother…Kimball’s at it again. From personal experience, I’ve tried some CI recipes and they flopped and not mention their renditions of Greek dishes are atrocious.

    I wouldn’t expect anything less from Kimball than to dismiss myself or others as inadequate or unskillful in the kitchen.

    Care factor? Zero.

  3. Sometimes being pretentious even if famous is really annoying. There are times where I would not trade my mother’s home cooked food for any gourmet dish in the world.
    Some people forget that food is about taste and that this is something personal.
    I hope that I have taken a little after my mom in cooking, I love cooking, I love experimenting and I think along with experience we tend to get familiar with tastes that go together, without being professional.
    I read the post from the gentleman and if anything it is pretentious.
    I too have tried recipes by chefs who work for 5 stars hotels and that totally flopped. One of them was a Christmas Turkey recipe, where everyone just thanked me for the effort more than the taste…

  4. Mr. Kimball responds with the following (via a comment left on his own blog post):

    “Thought your letter was right on and thoughtful. I don’t disagree that there are lots of ways to get good cooking information — but everyone has to play by the same rules — your stuff, my stuff, and anyone with a Facebook page, Twitter account, or blog, has to deliver the goods! Just because you or I have an opinion, it doesn’t make it useful or worthwhile and there is, indeed, a lot of useless chatter along with some very good content as well. As for getting along, jeez, I like to mix it up. Maybe all of this will actually lead to something interesting besides a silly food fight!”

  5. great post!! kimball is annoying. he’s hated food bloggers for a very long time. not sure if you heard but about 2 years ago he got his panties in a bunch about a blogger using a cooks illustrated recipe that she modified and even credited it to cooks ill. some lawyer contacted the blogger and told them to immediately remove it b/c it was their recipe for potato salad. whatever, i’m with peter and have zero patience nor care for what he has to say. he’s old and needs to get with the times. things are changing. people are actually learnign how to cook very, very well b/c of TV and blogs. i think he’s got a point that there is alot of really bad, bad food blogs out there b/c there can be. those bad food blogs can sometimes overshadow the good ones. the good ones take alot of thought, time, effort to produce something good. they have passion. he doesn’t want to see this.

    anyways, great post. well said!

    • Oh crap, really? I hadn’t actually heard about that! What a funny coincidence, I posted a potato salad recipe recently that was a modification of theirs. No one has contacted me to remove it… yet! It’s always been my understanding that recipes, if modified, can be posted as your own, as long as you credit the author of the recipe you modified. I didn’t think there were any problems unless it was reproduced word for word, and even then, if you give credit it’s usually kosher. But seeing as how you have to pay to access their site, they probably don’t want people just copying and pasting stuff from there and putting it on a blog. Still, a lawyer is a little heavy-handed!

  6. I often see a similar division between chefs who are professionally trained and those who learned by working their way up – I’ve worked with a guy with a Johnson and Wales degree who needed me to show him how to poach an egg, and with brilliant chefs who have learned everything the hard way. It isn’t just that cut and dry.

    Feed me the other argument I hear all the time in my library world, that electronic media makes print obsolete, and you might see me reluctantly nod in agreement. I don’t like to see it happen, but these companies need to find ways to increase their relevance in online media. So much online is free, where print costs, and I’m not sure they’re capitalizing where they could and should.

  7. I came to your blog via the comment on Christopher Kimball’s. I agree with so much of what you say. Nice job on crafting a great response. After I read his Op-Ed piece and then went to his blog I honestly felt bad. I am a home cook and baker who is blogging to share my experiences in the kitchen, practicing photography, and also carrying on the memory of my Mom who was an incredible baker. I don’t claim to be a chef or baker. I just enjoy my time in the kitchen, want to learn more, and hope I can inspire someone to try a recipe or two while they do the same for me. If I want to learn techniques (of course I do) I will go to the appropriate outlets to do so. I don’t need someone like Mr. Kimball telling me I suck. Again, thanks for taking the time to write this post.

  8. I’m with Peter, in my experience CI recipes are far from perfect and very often the procedures are endlessly tedious. I think it’s also foolish for him not to admit that one person’s “useless chatter” could be very entertaining or helpful to some one besides himself.

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