Keeping it Real in Rupert
BY CHRISTOPHER DAVIS | PHOTOGRAPHY BY BRENT HARREWYN
This bucolic Vermont town, a stone’s throw from the New York State line, in the shadow of the Taconic foothills, feels a world away from the manicured lawns and outlet stores on display in Manchester, just 15 miles down the road. This is a place where Old Home Day and the Firemen’s Carnival are seriously big deals, events where it would not be extraordinary to see all 714 residents lining the streets or marching in the parade.
Here, the General Store (Sherman’s) is the authentic article—a necessity, not a quaint relic. The Congregational church—in need of a little paint, perhaps, but a dignified New England beauty notwithstanding—serves as everything from meeting room to chicken ’n’ biscuit supper hall to charity auction house to quilt showcase to food pantry to, well, church.
In short, Rupert is a place where you would least expect to stumble across a professional production crew filming one of the most popular shows on television. But for two weeks each of the last eight summers, the 200-year-old Carver House, a gleaming white postcard Vermont farmhouse with requisite red barns and cornfield, has been transformed into the set of “Cook’s Country,” the broadcast incarnation of the namesake magazine.
“I bought this house, which was falling down, and fixed it up,” says Christopher Kimball, the program’s host and executive producer. “I felt that if the show were here—if you had a real place with its own feeling, instead of just being a TV set—viewers would respond.”
Kimball’s is a familiar face from 14 seasons of “America’s Test Kitchen” on PBS, rated the fifth-most-watched food show on all TV. He is also founder and editor of Cook’s Illustrated magazine, boasting an enviable circulation of well over one million subscribers, and the print version of “Cook’s Country.” Kimball has written numerous cookbooks; authored Dear Charlie, a surprisingly endearing collection of letters to his kids; and writes a food column for the New York Daily News. He’s also a fixture at Sherman’s and the Firemen’s Carnival.
Kimball is quick to admit, wistfully, that he is a “part-timer.” But while he plays flatlander much of the year, Kimball’s no carpetbagger; he comes by his Vermont bona fides honestly.
“I started coming here in 1955,” says Kimball, who is 63. “We built a tiny cabin on 20 acres and then in ’61 or ’62 we bought a farm on the other side of town. We raised pigs and Angus [cattle] and had someone take care of them when we weren’t there. But we were up all summer and most weekends and sold the meat out of the back of a car. We were still weekenders, not Vermonters.”
His disclaimers give you the sense that Kimball is very respectful of what constitutes the “real” Vermont, and especially, a true Vermonter. Like the French reverence for their idealized la France profonde, there is a Vermontness that his qualifiers suggest can only be earned through a lifetime spent on its farms, hills, rivers and woods.
“I love Rupert . . . It has the firehouse, it has the chicken dinners. It’s really a town. I would say over half the people here were born in their house. There aren’t many out-of-towners in Rupert—I’m one of them. You talk to the old-timers and they know almost every house and who lives—and used to live—in them.”
In his regular online Letters from Vermont, little countrified musings that are riffs on the Cook’s Illustrated editorials, Kimball describes the pastoral serenity of the region with something approaching devotional fervor, and treats the quirky local cast of Lake Wobegon-esque townies with palpable affection. His beloved “old-timers” (a yardstick less of age than of roots) show up regularly in the Letters to offer homespun observations and advice—or just plain weirdness. Among them appears “Old Henry,” a vaguely foreboding wraith of a neighbor who may or may not actually be there: “Have you seen Old Henry yet today?”
Kimball’s on-air personality, which uniquely fuses this “aw shucks” folksiness with an egghead knowledge and curiosity, delights his fans, who find in him and his low-key cast welcome relief from the overproduced “BAM!” of much cable food programming. But he has his detractors, too: “smug” and “condescending” are descriptors that pepper the foodie blogs.
Kimball tacitly concedes that he may come off a little dour on TV: “I am still trying to learn how to smile,” he confides, betraying the hint of one. But on this sparkling morning in the last week of “summer,” all glorious frosty sunshine and glimpses of red in the sugar maples, Kimball is relaxed, gracious, warm, voluble—and very funny. Sure, the signature sarcastic wisecracking is on full display, but the show’s critics would be sorely disappointed to encounter this guy, who doesn’t seem to take himself all that seriously. When told that the New York Times recently called him “the most influential home cook in America,” Kimball shoots back, “They did? Obviously the editor didn’t see that before it was published!”
Maybe what rubs some viewers the wrong way is a perception that Kimball appears just slightly irritated much of the time. But this is precisely the point of “ATK” and “Cook’s”: recipes that don’t work, with ingredients you don’t have and can’t find (a pinch of amchur powder? Really?), “toaster ovens that don’t toast,” schlocky kitchen gadgets that fall apart—the things that drive home cooks crazy—are his bread and butter. Kimball and his staff work hard at messing up, to help you avoid it.
“I’m easily annoyed,” he declares, chuckling. “I get very annoyed when people say, ‘You can make a wonderful dinner for eight in 20 minutes.’ Well, you can’t. Forget it!”
By contrast, the not-so-secret secret to the remarkable success of his shows is what Kimball describes as their “authenticity.”
“We try to show people the reality,” he says. “What really happens in home kitchens is so different from what happens in a chef’s kitchen or what happens on TV shows: totally different worlds. This idea that you can stand up there blithely and give them a recipe that works . . . because most of the time they don’t work.” That observation strikes a chord in those of us who often wonder, “So who chops all the onions and parsley and peels the garlic and lines up the utensils and sharpens the knives that allow a TV cook to make a ‘30-minute meal’—and who cleans up?’”
Even when a set-up question invites the famously opinionated Kimball to tear into the insipid TV stew of “celebrity chef” and contrived cooking competition shows, he takes the high road.
“I used to make fun of The Food Network all the time. But Emeril [Lagasse] brought men into the kitchen—almost singlehandedly. So Emeril and the band seem kind of silly, but if it weren’t for him, I might not be here. Now 40% of my audience are men, and Emeril had a lot to do with that. He made it OK for guys to get in the kitchen. He was a guy’s guy and made everyone comfortable. Food Network television has built this industry. You have to give them credit. Anything that gets people in the kitchen is fine with me.”
If you like flamboyant, watch Batali or Bourdain. For slick, Bobby Flay. If you prefer your grilled chicken with a side of potty mouth, then Gordon Ramsay is your obvious go-to. If you want to learn how to put something tasty on the table tonight, though, Kimball’s your guy.
At six-foot-five, and that’s before the cowboy boots that today propel him toward NBA territory, Kimball towers over everyone in the Rupert house kitchen. Rail-thin, sporting the trademark bright bowtie, he is hardly the archetype of a professional food-taster. Grey-blue eyes hide behind round-rim glasses that beg to be called spectacles. Despite a hairline that reveals a little more forehead each season, Kimball still manages to retain a boyish look.
The perfect foil for that persona is the girl-next-door-ish Bridget Lancaster, one of Kimball’s most accomplished and naturally likeable chef sidekicks (and an executive editor at “ATK”). Standing almost bow-tie height, Lancaster is adept at fielding the host’s jabs and barbs, all the while ensuring that the roast gets caramelized perfectly. Today, as they film their outdoor grilling episode (with a small audience that includes a group of seventh- and eighth-graders from the nearby Dorset School), the two deliver a low-key schtick that manages to come across as both unrehearsed and enlightening.
Kimball relishes explaining that his shows are about “failures” and “bad food.” (You can imagine him pitching this concept to TV execs à la Jerry Seinfeld’s “It’s a show about nothing.”) What he means, of course, is that they explain how your meatloaf got greasy, the reason your croquettes disintegrate in the fryer oil, and why your cake frosting bears a distressing resemblance to grade-school paste. The setup for his punch line: “We really have made this 50 times and the first 10 times it was awful. So here’s all the stuff that goes wrong.”
To illustrate the rigorous, often grueling, and occasionally aborted missions that go into “bullet-proofing” their recipes, Kimball recalls the sad story of one young “ATK” cook: “This poor guy made fudge for weeks—he made 2,000 pounds—and we didn’t publish the recipe.”
Kimball is fussy, but not doctrinaire: he—and by extension his 50 cooks—will try anything within reason, even if the dish sounds preposterous. “Everyone [in our team meetings] has an opinion: some of them are stupid and some of them are smart. People shout me down. I get a voice, but ultimately it’s a group process.”
So is there such a thing as a New England—even a Vermont—cuisine? When asked this, Kimball lights up. “‘Farm to table’ is one of the most annoying concepts. I mean, that’s how people ate for 10,000 years. It’s like it’s this new thing. But farm to table is what Vermont should be best at.”
Though it’s clear that Kimball and his producers run a very tight ship, and the cast and crew are under intense pressure to wrap up an entire season’s episodes in a compressed two weeks, the atmosphere at the Carver House is remarkably collegial and buoyant. This is a team that looks, despite all the work, like they’re having fun. An impromptu chefs’ disco dance in the kitchen sets the tone. And at the end of the workday, they know how to blow off steam: “We go out and paint Rupert red,” laughs Kaitlin Hammond, the show’s engaging and energetic associate producer.
Hammond also manages donation of the daily mountain of leftover goodies that the taping generates to the local Community Food Cupboard. “This is like Christmas for us!” says Martha Carey, a CFC volunteer, as she carries numerous trays of what looks like sliced beef loin with grilled red peppers on fresh croissants. “It’s so much fun to give away such great food to people who need it.”
So, what does a TV personality/writer/self-made publishing mogul do on his day off in his cherished Vermont? Why, chase down his dinner, of course: “The perfect day for me is always rabbit hunting,” says Kimball. “An old friend of mine comes by with the dogs, we have a cup of coffee, we go out (in late December or January), shoot a few rabbits, have a sandwich, come back, start the fire and have a beer. That would be the perfect day.”
But not this day. Too much work to be done. The farm aromas (that’s manure to you city slickers) and flies that have plagued some tapings in the past are mercifully absent and the Carver House starts buzzing before dawn. The living room has morphed into command central, jammed with monitors, laptops and nests of wires. Outside, in the brilliant first daylight, cameras, screens, mikes, booms, dollies and more cables crowd the lawn. A line of grills, each with its own attendant sporting cook whites, gets fired up. Some crew and cast wander across the property in search of elusive cell phone reception. Producers, directors, technicians, cameramen, sound engineers, “runners,” dishwashers (indispensable!), and yet more cooks hustle through their paces, generating a controlled and cheerful chaos, as seductive smells begin to waft from the phalanx of fires.
The occasional baler chugs by, coughing up diesel fumes, the driver intent on his destination. A bicyclist, a couple of hikers—likely making their way to the Merck Forest trails—turn their heads briefly, bemused by the activity. But mostly folks take no notice of the hubbub at the farmhouse. In time-honored New England tradition, they’re minding their business. Yet another thing to like about Rupert.
Chris Davis is a freelance food and travel writer who jumped at the chance to interview Christopher Kimball, “a remarkably warm, charming, and very funny guy—in a low-key, Vermont kind of way.”