Chris Kimball on Gadgets

Three years ago I wrote a short essay on the future of the panini press for the Wall Street Journal. But I still had unused transcripts from my interview with Cook’s Illustrated editor and star of America’s Test Kitchen Chris Kimball. And considering the panini press has not only managed to survive the recession but is now joined by such gadgets as the Viante Pasta Extruder and the KitchenAid Grain Mill, I figured the rest of the Kimball interview is worth publishing.

A phone conversation with Chris Kimball, April 1, 2009:

VM: There was a headline in the Wall Street Journal last week that said “Williams-Sonoma Net Income Plummets 90%”

CK: Jesus.

VM: I wondered if this spelled doom for the panini press—a sort of symbol of a bygone era.

CK: —Is it the SUV of the kitchen?

VM: Or is this something every kitchen should have?

CK: The answer is that, if you use it for making panini, it’s great. And no, it’s not easy to replicate that if you want the grill marks and the whole nine yards. You want really crispy bread and everything else, because you need to retain enough heat, it needs to be very heavy, it has to be set up so that the top sits properly on the thing. So if you actually make panini, they’re great. The problem is, like, for a lot of these gadgets, you do it once a month. So then you have to store it, and then you have to find it, and it’s such a pain.

You know I have one which for 18 months or 2 years which I only use probably twice a year in the summer, you know, when I’m not working as hard, and the kids are there for lunch, and they’re great. But the fact of the matter is, you know…

I think what happens is, Julia [Child], for example, I mean her kitchen over time, it’s reduction. You reduce down to the few things that you really use. And you decide that, I have more gadgets than anybody alive because I’m a gadget guy. But I’ve realized that it comes down to the knife I like and the cutting board and a few pots and pans and not much else. I think they’re great if you actually are going to make them. The problem is nobody makes them very much.

VM: So is this the end of the press?

CK: I’m very suspicious of this idea that we’re all going to go to our yurts and have a victory garden and everybody is going to be driving a Prius and our clothes are made of hemp and everything else.… We stop being consumers because we realize what a stupid thing that was? I think we’re genetically, at least Americans are, genetically encoded to be consumers.

For example, when the price of gas dropped from $3.50 to $2, guess what happened? We all know what happened. So I would suggest that if, now I don’t think the economy is going to improve anytime soon, but when it does, and people have available income, they’ll do stupid things with their money again. Because I think there’s an enormous amount of satisfaction and joy in spending money on stupid things. Because when you spend money on something that’s sober and intelligent, it’s just no fun.

I’m the guy who actually bought a Breville toaster. Breville, I fell in love with, because they have this juicer which we’ve not tested here so I can’t say America’s Test Kitchen likes it, but I love juicers because I actually make my own orange juice in the morning, at least on weekends. And this thing is fabulous. So I said, well, okay, I’ll buy the toaster. So it’s got a special button you press to peek at the toast. It automatically comes up and goes back down. And I’m going, like, “This is great. I mean, this is like this is the good life.”

So I think on the one hand, we’re all sort of simple. I think we on one hand very much appreciate the Vermonter in us, which is just a knife and a couple of things, and I cook anything. That’s enormously satisfying. But you know what? If you have some extra cash in your pocket and you see a great gadget online, you go for it. So I’m totally two-faced…. These [panini presses] are $75 to over $100. I think those are probably endangered species, short-term. But, because you can go out and buy the $25 version, and so, there’s a reasonable alternative. So that makes some sense to me. I think the things that are really endangered are the things that never made any sense whatsoever to begin with.

Well, a lot of these companies did things that actually do work, but you got to wonder whether the $15 model isn’t 85 percent as good. I mean, for example, we’re doing this story now on these high-end knives. And the problem is, every time we test, we find a $23 Forschner Fibrox wins.

VM: You mean I don’t need to have my Wüsthof?

CK: This is beyond Wüsthof. We’re talking about these sort of fusion Japanese things. The MAC knife is $150 and all these other things. And you sort of go, “Gee, well, what about these $250 knives?” And you say, “Well, yeah, but we tested with 25 people over a month, the $25 Forschner, people actually preferred it.” So I think, if anything is endangered, the $300 knife is. On the other hand, I just heard that [Bob Kramer] in Seattle who makes those handmade knives, I actually have one, but he’s got a four-year backlog. And I think they’re up to $500. So I don’t know. I think the problem is, the obvious story is nobody has any money so we’re cutting back, but it depends….

I would probably use a cast-iron skillet and just get a press on top, a weight, or put another skillet on top of it [to replicate a panini press]. That’s what I would do. Unless you buy a good press, it’s not worth it. Besides which, the skillet actually would have other uses.

I think the thing that happened was that guys got into the kitchen. I mean, before guys got into the kitchen, this whole obsession with the tools didn’t exist. And I think Emeril Lagasse—he brought men into the kitchen more than anybody else. We used to have maybe 15 percent of our readers as men, and that’s now gone up to 35 to 40 percent. So that’s what, the expansion of the economy, with the fact that guys like to buy cookware and gadgets more than they like to cook. That’s clearly what did it.

The most outrageous things, like wall-mounted, gas-fired rotisseries for $7,000 at Williams-Sonoma—it just doesn’t get any stupider than that.

What do guys do? They spend all their time getting the Big Bertha driver and three different wedges at different angles and they can’t even use the pitching wedge. So it’s the same thing. And I’m susceptible. I mean, the problem is, some of these things really do work well. So it’s not a function of condemning all of them. Some of them are lovely appliances and do a great job. Breville makes a fabulous juicer. There’s some good stuff.

It’s clearly not improving the food, other than a good food processor and standing mixer, I mean those are the two things you’d clearly think are worthwhile, the rest of it is… To improve the food, you’d learn how to cook. And that probably doesn’t require a big investment of tools.

(Photo by Daniel J. van Ackere)

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