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Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street Magazine: Not Just Another Cooking Magazine; New Ideas, New Recipes, & A New Way Of Looking At Cooking – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Chris Kimball, President & Founder, Milk Street Magazine

November 22, 2016

Print

“You can cook off of a screen or a Kindle or an iPad, or whatever you want, but most people don’t. And so print is extremely useful. It’s like everything else, certain areas of print are perfectly suited, and cooking is one of those things. That’s why 97 percent of all cookbooks bought are printed on paper. So, I don’t buy this whole notion of print is dead; it’s not dead at all. Bookstores are making a comeback; they’re smaller and more community-oriented, and they’re doing other things to make money, but they just had to reinvent themselves. So, I’m perfectly happy and there’s a lot of support for a print food magazine.” Chris Kimball

“I don’t think the digital world is a particularly good place to develop a long-term relationship for obvious reasons. But if you pick up a magazine or a cookbook, and you look at the paper and you experience the feel of it and actually spend five minutes with it, I think that’s the best brand ambassador that you can create. If you go online people can jump around; I mean, you can go to our website and we have recipes up for Thanksgiving, and I think we’ve done a very good job with that, but online is not the first place I would go to explain to people who you are and get them to spend time with you. The whole thing that you really want to do is to get people to spend time with your brand and with you. And that’s done best I think in television, radio and print. The legacy media is where you’re going to get that time.” Chris Kimball

Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street is the new home cooking. It’s a unique concept on how we create those fabulous flavors and smells that permeate our kitchens and tantalize our taste buds every time we pull out a pan. And of course, Chris is no stranger to the kitchen or the world of magazines, having founded and launched Cook’s Illustrated magazine in 1980.

Today, he is reinventing the art of cooking with his Milk Street brand; from the print magazine to the cooking classes; from the road tours to the upcoming non-profit partnership with Big Brothers Big Sisters of America to teach kids how to cook; Chris is making sure that Milk Street is on every corner of America and not just in Boston.

I spoke with Chris recently and we talked about his new venture and how important and unique these new cooking ideas and methods are when it comes to ease and flavor in our kitchens. This is something that Chris believes in wholeheartedly and is a passion that could only be realized through actually becoming a brick and mortar entity that takes the brand to new levels when it comes to extending Milk Street’s message and mission. He is adamant that teaching people a new way to think about cooking and to also help them in their daily lives is one thing that he will never ease up on or change. The magazine is also ad-free and Chris loves it that way, ensuring that with every font or designed page the magazine is all about what the reader wants.

So, come along with Mr. Magazine™ inside the kitchens of Chris Kimball’s Milk Street and enjoy reading the interview with a man who certainly knows his way around them.

But first the sound-bites:

christopherkimball

On the genesis of Milk Street magazine: That’s my thinking. I want to reinvent or change the way people cook, not by brilliantly reinventing it, but by looking around the world and getting new ideas and trying them. Every culture has chicken soup; American chicken soup is probably the dullest version. You can go anywhere and get really interesting chicken soups, so that’s the idea.

On whether he felt hesitant about launching a print magazine with no advertising in this digital age: I feel quite the opposite. If you look at, and I’m sure you have, at circulation figures for magazines; advertising is hurting certainly, no question, but the circulation isn’t hurting as much. And in fact, cookbooks for example; three percent of all cookbooks are digital, 97 percent are on paper. And I believe a few weeks ago there was a report that said digital books were down 21.7 percent, so I think a magazine for cooking is actually a great idea, because if you want to cook in the kitchen, cooking from a piece of paper is actually very useful and easy to do.

On when it was that he recognized that he didn’t have to depend on advertising to survive in the world of magazines: It was in 1993. I founded Cook’s Illustrated in 1980 and The New Yorker came in in 1983 as a partner. Newhouse bought The New Yorker in 1985 and in 1986 The New Yorker’s share of the magazine was bought out by a Swedish company, Bonnier, and at the end of 1989 I sold out my last interests. And then in 1990 Bonnier sold Cook’s to Newhouse, who folded the magazine at that point into Gourmet and combined circulation. By 1993, the trademark had expired and I bought it back and I folded it into what I was doing in Boston. I was publishing Natural Health magazine at the time. I decided at that time, after modeling it out on spreadsheets for a couple of days, that if you got rid of the advertising, which was something I never liked, then you could design the publication entirely for the reader. I could get rid of the travel and the restaurants and all of the other things and just focus on cooking, which I felt would give it a better pricing structure and also a better renewal rate. And it would be designed entirely for the reader and that would support the kind of circulation numbers that I would need.

On being a journalist, businessman and chef, and how he’s put these three passionate ingredients together to produce the magazines he has: I have always believed that everything is about the content and so we have a system, which I got from boarding school when I was in high school. We’d sit around the table and we’d argue about content and we developed a system to make sure that what we were doing was going to be of interest to the reader.

On whether he feels that print is the only medium where people can be surprised by the content and find something that they didn’t know they wanted at the time: No, I think there are other ways to surprise people. On radio, our weekly radio show and we’ve started filming our TV show for next September on public television; so, no I think you can do that in all areas. I don’t think print is the only place that you can give something to somebody that they didn’t know they wanted. I do, however, and I feel very strongly about this, feel that print is an excellent way to develop a relationship with someone.

On whether he felt that he was biting off more than he could chew with all of the many platforms the Milk Street brand implemented so quickly: At this point in my career, I really felt that it was important to build out all of the platforms quickly because I’ve done television and radio for years; these are all things that we know how to do. And we’ve actually done them. The radio show is up and running; the cooking school is up and running, I’m already teaching classes; I was on the road for a month doing Sessions; all of these things are launched. Did it look like I was biting off more than I could chew? Yes, a lot of people said that, but we did it. In this day and age, if you just have one or two platforms, I think you’re at a huge disadvantage.

milkstreetmagazine_charterissue_frontcoverOn choosing Milk Street as the name of the brand: Milk Street was chosen last December. We had looked at a number of places in Boston and we found this place on Milk Street where we are now, 177 Milk Street; it’s the old grain exchange building and it’s just perfect. We spent time talking about names for the business, actually my wife, Melissa, is my media director, and she pushed for the name. And the reason is because I’ve always wanted to have a place that was real and actually existed, where people could come and take classes, and that it would be on the map somewhere.

On whether he had any stumbling blocks along the way that he had to overcome: There were a lot of challenges. I think the biggest challenge was to figure out the editorial point of view. It took a lot of time and a lot of work and a lot of recipe testing to really figure out how to do this, because we couldn’t afford to be off by 10 percent here. You need to deliver recipes to people that they’re comfortable with, but they have to also be exciting and a mix of different things in our formula. And getting that formula down and figuring out what works and what doesn’t took quite a few months. It wasn’t until this summer when we were really working hard on the first issue, that it started to come together. We set the bar high; we only had so many recipes in the edition, so we really had to deliver.

On anything else he’d like to add: I think that it’s really important that when you do something like this that the people here are really excited about the idea. I know that sounds like a lot of promotional hype, but we are all cooking differently now. My cooking has totally changed; it’s better. And so, we really believe in this and think that it will generate a better way to cook. It’s also easier for people. Ultimately, we really think that this is really a good and useful idea.

On what someone would find him doing if they showed up unexpectedly one evening at his home: Not watching TV. Definitely having a glass of wine, and most nights, yes, cooking. I do a lot of cooking on weekends, but I also do it during the week. And it’s simple. But yes, doing all of that. And reading a book; I do a lot of reading. I’d say drinking, cooking and reading are probably the three things you would find me doing in the evenings.

On what keeps him up at night: Probably not much. I go to bed at 9:30 p.m. and I fall asleep in about two minutes. There was a wonderful piece a few years ago that I loved, written by the guy; the scientist, who wrote about mistaking his wife for a hat; just a great guy. And he was turning 80 and he said that he was happier than he’d ever been in his life. And he went on to explain that he didn’t have anxiety anymore; anxiety just kind of disappeared at some point in his life. I have a lot of work to do, but I like that. As I think I said at the beginning of this project in June in a New York Times piece, what’s the worst that could happen, public humiliation? I mean, we’re doing what we like to do and it’s going well. So, I don’t really worry about it anymore.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Christopher Kimball, president and founder, Milk Street Magazine.

Samir Husni: What was the genesis of Milk Street?

PrintChris Kimball: American cooking is originally Northern European; it’s changed a lot, but it’s French, English, German, Scandinavian, and for the most part that’s the editorial area that I’ve been in for 35 years. And that style of cooking is very specific geographically to a region that has a lot of fuel; coal and wood, and a lot of meats that were inexpensive; also dairy and root vegetables. It was a certain way of thinking about cooking, which was a sort of melting pot idea that was to use heat for a long period of time to create flavors, and the textures and flavors at the end of the day would be fairly homogenous, like a beef stew.

But if you look around the world, and a few years ago I started cooking out of other books, not my own; Turkish cooking; Moroccan cooking; Szechuan cooking, and I realized that most of the world doesn’t cook the way that Northern Europe does. There’s a very different approach. It’s not just the ingredients that are different; it’s the whole notion of cooking.

And too, the other thing I thought was that there was American cooking and ethnic cooking, but that’s just stupid; it’s not ethnic, it’s just cooking. So, I was thinking something like Mexican cooking is ethnic cooking, but if you live in Mexico City you don’t cook Mexican food. (Laughs) The notion that, and the fashion world and the music world have done this already; they look around the world and get inspiration and they do mashups, and they’re not replicating Reggae from Jamaica, they’re using some of the influence from that style of music to create their own music.

My feeling was let’s get rid of this ethnic idea; let’s get rid of this idea of trying to authentically reproduce something from Mexico or Marrakesh, because you can’t replicate it exactly the way it is for a whole bunch of different reasons. But, let’s look around the world and get ideas. In Szechuan they use hot oil, and they put hot oil on greens with ginger and scallions and it blooms the flavor, so there’s an idea and we can bring that idea back.

It was a matter of looking around at other ideas and seeing that there were a lot of different ways to think about cooking, with a lot of different ingredients and techniques. Let’s go investigate and talk to people and then bring those ideas back here, and try to create a different repertoire, which is a more exciting repertoire of cooking. And this happened to me a few years ago, and I found that you can actually produce and it’s less technique-based. You know, French cooking is very technique-based because you have to do a lot of things in the right order to get the flavor you want. But the French only have fines herbes; they add no spices. Spices and wine don’t go together too often. And herbs; they use a sprig of something. In the Ukraine, they put handfuls of herbs in the stew, and in the Middle East, literally handfuls of herbs; hot chilies, fermented sausage, and strong flavors like ginger.

So, when we’re using all of these different techniques and ingredients, we can get really big flavor, but the flavor isn’t all dependent on heat. And it’s not dependent on slow technique; in five or ten minutes you can get all sorts of wonderful flavors.

And that’s my thinking. I want to reinvent or change the way people cook, not by brilliantly reinventing it, but by looking around the world and getting new ideas and trying them. Every culture has chicken soup; American chicken soup is probably the dullest version. You can go anywhere and get really interesting chicken soups, so that’s the idea.

Samir Husni: The business model that you’ve followed: no advertising, good cover price for a good-sized magazine and good subscription price; did you feel hesitant about launching yet another print magazine with no advertising in this digital age?

Chris Kimball: I feel quite the opposite. If you look at, and I’m sure you have, at circulation figures for magazines; advertising is hurting certainly, no question, but the circulation isn’t hurting as much. And in fact, cookbooks for example; three percent of all cookbooks are digital, 97 percent are on paper. And I believe a few weeks ago there was a report that said digital books were down 21.7 percent, so I think a magazine for cooking is actually a great idea, because if you want to cook in the kitchen, cooking from a piece of paper is actually very useful and easy to do.

You can cook off of a screen or a Kindle or an iPad, or whatever you want, but most people don’t. And so print is extremely useful. It’s like everything else, certain areas of print are perfectly suited, and cooking is one of those things. That’s why 97 percent of all cookbooks bought are printed on paper. So, I don’t buy this whole notion of print is dead; it’s not dead at all. Bookstores are making a comeback; they’re smaller and more community-oriented, and they’re doing other things to make money, but they just had to reinvent themselves. So, I’m perfectly happy and there’s a lot of support for a print food magazine.

Samir Husni: You were one of the early adapters to this new business model, which is 100% circulation-driven. When did you recognize that you didn’t need to depend on advertising to survive in the magazine world?

milkstreetmagazine_charterissue_frontcoverChris Kimball: It was in 1993. I founded Cook’s Illustrated in 1980 and The New Yorker came in in 1983 as a partner. Newhouse bought The New Yorker in 1985 and in 1986 The New Yorker’s share of the magazine was bought out by a Swedish company, Bonnier, and at the end of 1989 I sold out my last interests. And then in 1990 Bonnier sold Cook’s to Newhouse, who folded the magazine at that point into Gourmet and combined circulation. By 1993, the trademark had expired and I bought it back and I folded it into what I was doing in Boston. I was publishing Natural Health magazine at the time.

I decided at that time, after modeling it out on spreadsheets for a couple of days, that if you got rid of the advertising, which was something I never liked, then you could design the publication entirely for the reader. I could get rid of the travel and the restaurants and all of the other things and just focus on cooking, which I felt would give it a better pricing structure and also a better renewal rate. And it would be designed entirely for the reader and that would support the kind of circulation numbers that I would need. And also you don’t have to print 200 or 300 pages; I was printing 32 pages both covers, so the physical cost of the magazine was much lower and the price of the magazine was higher.

Someone said to me, one of the Bonnier people actually, told me something that I thought was brilliant, which was, “It’s not how many recipes; it’s which recipe.” So, the idea that you needed to give someone 150 recipes every month was crazy. You don’t. You only need to give them like 10 or 12 good recipes. A lot of magazines are about quantity because they’re advertising-driven and they publish a lot of pages. You have to get that idea out of your head and realize that less is more. Google is the biggest recipe search database in the world. Nobody needs more recipes; more cheesecake recipes or whatever. People want the right recipes for them, so it’s not about pages; it’s about the content.

Samir Husni: On one hand you’re a journalist and on the other hand you’re a businessman, and then you’re also a chef or a cook, so I’m assuming these are three passions that you have. What’s your recipe for putting these three ingredients together to produce the magazines that you have and are still doing?

christopherkimballChris Kimball: I have always believed that everything is about the content and so we have a system, which I got from boarding school when I was in high school. We’d sit around the table and we’d argue about content and we developed a system to make sure that what we were doing was going to be of interest to the reader.

You know that great story when Newhouse bought The New Yorker, I think Steve Florio, who was the publisher then had lunch with Bill Shawn. And he asked Shawn how do you decide what you put in The New Yorker; how do you know what the readers want? And Shawn said that he didn’t really care about that, he chose stories based upon what he was interested in.

My feeling is always if you’re going to have advertising, it’s your job to really understand what the reader’s want, not what the editor wants. So, you have to be very, very disciplined about understanding your brand and what that brand promises, and make sure that you deliver on it.

My former life at America’s Test Kitchen; I did that very scientifically to make sure that I was giving people what they wanted. At Milk Street I’m not doing that. I’m changing a little bit. I was always behind the curve for 25 years; that is I’d figure out what people wanted and I’d give it to them, because I felt that made the most sense. I think where I’m at now is quite different because we’re a little bit ahead of the audience and so we’re going to have to give them things they don’t know they want because these recipes are somewhat familiar, but somewhat unfamiliar. So, we’re about a half step ahead hopefully of the audience. We’re taking a bit more risk because we’re depending on our own experience to decide what we think people want.

But I think that we’re at the moment where you can’t play that game anymore. I don’t think that you can just give people stuff they say they want because people are much more sophisticated about food; restaurants have changed tremendously; supermarket aisles are very different; TV shows are all over the place; the web. You’re dealing with people who are much more interested in a lighter variety of recipes, instead of different styles of cooking. And so, they know they want more, but they just can’t figure out how to get it. And that’s the problem. Our job is to say, OK, here’s how to get what you want in a way that’s going to work for you. Instead of the classic: here’s an oatmeal cookie and we’ll tell you how to make the best one, which is still of interest, we’ll say, look around the world, there are hundreds of cookies and they’re all very different. So, let’s step back and think about what a cookie is and come up with some different solutions for you.

So, we have to be more editors than we were before. We have to actually take a little bit more of a risk, but I feel that’s what the market is now. It wants to move on. It’s moved on in restaurants and supermarkets; it’s moved on in television and it’s moved on everywhere; it just hasn’t quite moved on yet in home cooking. And I think home cooking is ready for a whole new approach, because we’ve sort of run the course of where we came from.

Samir Husni: As I look at the magazine and listen to what you just said about that element of surprise; can you find that surprise any other place besides print? In digital, I know it from my own wife and children; if they want something there, they Google it. But they never find anything that they’re not already looking for, unless they’re reading a magazine.

Chris Kimball: No, I think there are other ways to surprise people. On radio, our weekly radio show and we’ve started filming our TV show for next September on public television; so, no I think you can do that in all areas. I don’t think print is the only place that you can give something to somebody that they didn’t know they wanted. I do, however, and I feel very strongly about this, feel that print is an excellent way to develop a relationship with someone.

I don’t think the digital world is a particularly good place to develop a long-term relationship for obvious reasons. But if you pick up a magazine or a cookbook, and you look at the paper and you experience the feel of it and actually spend five minutes with it, I think that’s the best brand ambassador that you can create. If you go online people can jump around; I mean, you can go to our website and we have recipes up for Thanksgiving, and I think we’ve done a very good job with that, but online is not the first place I would go to explain to people who you are and get them to spend time with you. The whole thing that you really want to do is to get people to spend time with your brand and with you. And that’s done best I think in television, radio and print. The legacy media is where you’re going to get that time.

Samir Husni: I noticed that in addition to launching the print magazine, you’re also doing the cooking school, the Milk Street Sessions; the Milk Street Tours; the radio show; the television show; Milk Street on the Road; are you biting off more than you can chew for such a new project with all of these venues, or do you think you can have your cake and eat it too at the same time?

Chris Kimball: At this point in my career, I really felt that it was important to build out all of the platforms quickly because I’ve done television and radio for years; these are all things that we know how to do. And we’ve actually done them. The radio show is up and running; the cooking school is up and running, I’m already teaching classes; I was on the road for a month doing Sessions; all of these things are launched.

Did it look like I was biting off more than I could chew? Yes, a lot of people said that, but we did it. In this day and age, if you just have one or two platforms, I think you’re at a huge disadvantage. I once talked to a guy in major league baseball who was in charge of their marketing. He told me that his job was to make sure every time someone turned around that major league baseball was prevalent and everywhere. And I feel that my job is that every time someone turns around they can find Milk Street. You can find it on TV; on the radio; you can get your Podcasts, we’re up on iTunes and Stitcher now; we have the magazine; you can go to the bookstore and get the book. You can find us everywhere and I think that has a multiplier fact. In this day and age, with all of the noise out there, if you don’t do that I think you’re hard-pressed to really launch a brand. I wouldn’t just launch a magazine, it would be too hard.

Samir Husni: When did you decide on the name Milk Street? And it’s the first time that you’ve actually used your name as part of the title: Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street.

Chris Kimball: Milk Street was chosen last December. We had looked at a number of places in Boston and we found this place on Milk Street where we are now, 177 Milk Street; it’s the old grain exchange building and it’s just perfect. We spent time talking about names for the business, actually my wife, Melissa, is my media director, and she pushed for the name. And the reason is because I’ve always wanted to have a place that was real and actually existed, where people could come and take classes, and that it would be on the map somewhere.

I did that with Cook’s Country; I bought a house in my town and fixed it up and we used that for the TV show. And I felt that investment was important because it was a real place. And so having a real place for me is really important. It goes back to years ago when I did the public television special on Fannie Farmer and we cooked a 12-course meal on a coal stove in Boston, replicating a Fannie Farmer dinner. The Fannie Farmer Cooking School; the Boston Cooking School, was obviously a real place in Boston, and I have always wanted to recreate that. I think Boston having a real place that you can go and take classes is part of a bigger brand and it’s important.

In this day and age, being real is very important. Just being digital is too ephemeral. I think if you really exist it means more. We had people this summer, during construction, who would just stop by. And they would ask if that was where Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street was going to be. They were interested. So, I think that’s just part of being a real place and inviting people into the brand. It feels right to me, so that’s why.

Samir Husni: Did you have any stumbling blocks along the way that you had to overcome?

Chris Kimball: There were a lot of challenges. I think the biggest challenge was to figure out the editorial point of view. It took a lot of time and a lot of work and a lot of recipe testing to really figure out how to do this, because we couldn’t afford to be off by 10 percent here. You need to deliver recipes to people that they’re comfortable with, but they have to also be exciting and a mix of different things in our formula. And getting that formula down and figuring out what works and what doesn’t took quite a few months. It wasn’t until this summer when we were really working hard on the first issue, that it started to come together. We set the bar high; we only had so many recipes in the edition, so we really had to deliver.

We killed a lot of recipes because they just didn’t do what they needed to do for us. It’s much more difficult than doing a really good recipe for roasted chicken, or whatever. We have a number of other things that we have to do, so getting that formula right and knowing when we’re on target and when we’re not is important. Recently, we just killed two or three recipes in development because they didn’t really meet our standards, in terms of what we wanted to do. So, I think that was the hardest. When it comes to doing a TV show, a radio show; we know how to do that. Crafting the editorial content so that’s it’s consistent with Milk Street was another matter. That took the most amount of time.

Samir Husni: Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

Chris Kimball: I think that it’s really important that when you do something like this that the people here are really excited about the idea. I know that sounds like a lot of promotional hype, but we are all cooking differently now. My cooking has totally changed; it’s better. And so, we really believe in this and think that it will generate a better way to cook. It’s also easier for people. Ultimately, we really think that this is really a good and useful idea.

The woman that runs my education part; she comes from a lot of non-profit work and in January we’re launching a non-profit with Big Brothers Big Sisters of America to teach kids how to cook and it will be for free. And that’s part of our mission. We’re really excited about this because it is very different; it’s not just another cooking magazine. I think there is a better way to cook and part of our mission is to reach out and help people. Again, I know that sounds a little promotional, but we do really believe in this, and I think that’s really important.

Samir Husni: If I showed up unexpectedly one evening at your home, what would I find you doing; reading a magazine; watching television; cooking; having a glass of wine and just relaxing; or something different?

Chris Kimball: Not watching TV. Definitely having a glass of wine, and most nights, yes, cooking. I do a lot of cooking on weekends, but I also do it during the week. And it’s simple. But yes, doing all of that. And reading a book; I do a lot of reading. I’d say drinking, cooking and reading are probably the three things you would find me doing in the evenings.

Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?

Chris Kimball: Probably not much. I go to bed at 9:30 p.m. and I fall asleep in about two minutes. There was a wonderful piece a few years ago that I loved, written by the guy; the scientist, who wrote about mistaking his wife for a hat; just a great guy. And he was turning 80 and he said that he was happier than he’d ever been in his life. And he went on to explain that he didn’t have anxiety anymore; anxiety just kind of disappeared at some point in his life. I have a lot of work to do, but I like that. As I think I said at the beginning of this project in June in a New York Times piece, what’s the worst that could happen, public humiliation? I mean, we’re doing what we like to do and it’s going well. So, I don’t really worry about it anymore. I have a wonderful cabin on top of a mountain in Vermont and I’m leaving soon for hunting season; so I always have that.

If you visit here, which I hope you do someday, we genuinely love doing this and the people here are enthusiastic and it’s fun. So, I don’t worry about it.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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One comment

  1. […] “Today, he is reinventing the art of cooking with his Milk Street brand; from the print magazine to the cooking classes; from the road tours to the upcoming non-profit partnership with Big Brothers Big Sisters of America to teach kids how to cook; Chris is making sure that Milk Street is on every corner of America and not just in Boston,” writes Samir “Mr. Magazine” Husni in his blog. […]



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