Friday, August 10, 2012

America's Test Kitchen Behind The Scenes

We recently had the great opportunity to go behind the scenes at America's Test Kitchen and we're more than happy to share the highlights of what proved to be a really fun and interesting tour.  ATK produces two PBS-TV cooking shows and a number of publications aimed at home cooks. This was a particular thrill for me as I am not only a big fan of their shows but also of their entire research-based, scientific approach to recipe testing.  They test both products and recipes.  We arrived in the morning where, each day, the interns gather to sort and store that day's grocery delivery. 

Since America's Test Kitchen is geared toward the home cook, all of the products used must be readily available in the very same grocery stores that you and I shop at.  So, pretty much everything that you see in the storage pantry and on the shelves is very familiar and probably exactly what you have in your own cupboard.

It didn't take long for us to realize that there are pretty much two sets of everything here.  One, of course, is the working set, the other the presentation set.  Even some of the pots and pans and freezers are reserved for items that will be used for TV or photo shoots only.  The other stuff is more for everyday use.

I just had to stop and ask what this "abuse" sign was for.  Here's the scoop.  In order to find the very best utensils, equipment and tools for the kitchen the staff will test many products for ease of use, cost and durability.  Once the very best product is selected that will be the product they will use as part of their kitchen equipment.  The "abuse" equipment will be used the very most to see how it stands up over months, even years, of constant use.  It will then be reevaluated to see how it survives.

Next, it was onto the cooking.  Recipes undergo extremely rigorous tests.  The process can takes months to refine a recipe to it's absolute perfect taste.  Check out this link for the details.  Believe me, it is exhaustive but fascinating.

This is the tasting table, where any member of the staff is free to sample the latest tested recipe and provide feedback.   This morning it was brioche and I have to say it was fantastic.  (Right before we walked in we did happen to catch Chris Kimball having a little nibble himself.)

Of course, once the food is prepared it must be presented.  Any food blogger who has ever styled a dish would be envious of all of the beautiful trays, platters, plates and table settings on hand for their photo shoots.  ATK has some of the most mouth watering photos I've ever seen.  They are total pros at food styling, no doubt from years of experience and thousands of photo shoots.

Some of the hundreds of  place mats available for styling photo shoots.

A peek at the hundreds of color coordinated plates used for presentations on the TV shows and for photos.  All of the plates are wrapped in heavy plastic to prevent chips.

Then it's on to the actual photography.  This was really great to see as a large part of the fun of food blogging, to me, is producing beautiful shots of food.  What a dream job!

We then moved right on and into the test kitchen.  All of the ATK TV shows for an entire year are shot in one month in the spring.  It's non-stop work with all hands on deck, as you can imagine.  After a grueling month of cooking and taping constantly they will have a year's worth of shows to edit and be done until next year.  Then, for another month in the fall they will pack up the entire operation and staff and head to Vermont where they will produce a year's worth of shows for Cook's Country, their other PBS-TV show.  In between it's all of the magazine work.

And there it is!  That is the very cooking station you see on the TV show where all of the dishes are prepared and taste-tested. 

Last but not least is the overflowing cookbook library featuring over 4,000 volumes on cooking from every region and era.  And it's still growing.  A treasure trove of research for the staff and cooks to rely on as they take classic American food and make it the best that it can possibly be.

Thanks America's Test Kitchen for an informative, interesting and entertainingly delicious peek into your amazing (and incredibly well-organized) operation!

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