etween a digital cooking school, two magazines, an 18-year-old publicly broadcasted television show, and upwards of 100 cookbooks, America’s Test Kitchen (ATK) could have exhausted the exploration of cooking innovation. But culinary creativity has found its home on the second floor of the Boston Design Building, located in the Seaport District. In ATK’s 25,000 square feet of space, approximately 200 employees—including 60 test cooks, editors, and cookware specialists—all collaborate to prepare fresh, alternative, and appealing ideas for home cooking.
The company’s mission is manifold: ATK sets out to generate new dishes, refine classic recipes, and understand the science behind why and how specific combinations of ingredients taste so good. Formulation is only a part of the process, though—the ATK brand is also concerned with the presentation of its work product. Through various media, including cook books, magazines, and TV shows, ATK accomplishes its ultimate goal: to deliver appetizing innovations to your kitchen.
ATK first opened up shop in 1992 with its original publication, Cook’s Illustrated, a magazine dedicated to sharing practical recipes with at-home cooks. Still in circulation, the magazine releases a new issue bimonthly, each containing approximately 10 recipes adhering to its seasonal or thematic category. The magazine focuses solely on foolproof recipes, clear-cut instructions and graphics, and equipment reviews. Notably, Cook’s Illustrated is free of advertisements, and it was originally printed almost entirely in black and white (save the cover designs).
The back exterior of each Cook’s Illustrated edition is embellished with illustrations by artist John Burgoyne. The ATK office space also incorporates Burgoyne’s artwork into the interior aesthetic. Conference rooms embody the quirky and convivial character of the company, each detailed with tasteful Burgoyne designs. The room labeled “Greens” is garnished with drawings of kale, spinach, and watercress, whereas the “Cake” room is decorated with a delicious assortment of baked goods.
The “Cheese” room is where I sat down with Stephanie (‘Steph’) Pixley, the deputy food editor of books, at ATK. The Vermont native attended The New England Culinary Institute in her home state where she earned her associates degree in culinary arts and chef training. Pixley spent six months working in the kitchen at the State Street Pavilion, fulfilling one of the two six-month “stages” that were part of her experiential training. Her second “stage” led her to ATK, where she joined the team working in an intern position and never left. She has now been working full-time at ATK for seven years.
n that time, Pixley has borne witness to and taken part in the rapid development and expansion of the ATK brand. In the early days of ATK, many employees were responsible for working under multiple job titles—for instance, test cooks also served as dishwashers and editors. And when Pixley started at ATK, the company was still running all of its operations out of the crowded location in Brookline.
“The Brookline location was cozy and neighborhood-like. It allowed us to focus on what we do best, which is make recipes for at-home cooks,” Pixley said.
These close quarters eventually became a hindrance to the company’s trademark “test-kitchen” experimentation, as the space couldn’t accommodate an open kitchen while filming a show. And so, in 2017, ATK made the move to Boston’s Seaport district. In its new 15,000 square feet of impeccable kitchen space, there is enough room for the simultaneous creation of new recipes and the production of ATK’s popular TV shows, cookbooks, magazines, and recipes.
Pixley’s job as deputy food editor of books puts her in a unique position of overlap with the other departments. The cookbooks are comprised of recipes from the ATK archives, as well as newly tested recipes freshly approved by the Test Kitchen. Pixley’s editorial team draws inspiration from wherever it first comes: whether that be an idea for the title, content, or the target audience.
Pixley leads the brainstorming process, which is ongoing because, unlike the magazine’s pre-set circulation schedule, the books department has free reign to produce as much content as it desires. To control for the self-competition that ensues, ATK has settled on publishing a number between 10 and 14 books per year.
“We try to space out the release because at some point if you are producing more and more books they will begin to compete with each other,” she said.
merica’s Test Kitchen, the company’s namesake TV show, has been successfully sharing “recipes that work” with PBS viewers since it first aired in 2001. ATK’s Cook’s Country (also the name of ATK’s second magazine) followed in 2008 as a TV platform for the cooks to look at food traditions through a historical lens.
In addition to presenting entertaining and mouthwatering “how-to’s,” ATK cooks use their air time to provide viewers with reviews of household cookware and supermarket ingredients. America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Country are both filmed in-house in the company’s kitchen filming studios. The studios are surrounded by soundproof walls that allow the rest of the office to function as usual during filming.
The ATK work space has all of the sophistication of a professional film and photography studio, the focus of a culinary think-tank, and the heart of Grandma’s kitchen. Employees of all disciplines seem to relish in the artistic freedom and organic flow of the office. Working for ATK is rewarding, especially if free gourmet food is your idea of a palatable reward.
ATK employees never go hungry on the job, as taste testing is always involved in the work day. Pixley describes the struggles of working in a kitchen and the ease of succumbing to weight gain during her first year working in the test kitchen as “a bit of a ‘freshman-fifteen’ effect.”
The temptations follow employees outside of the kitchen, too. In the heart of the office sits a large refrigerator known as the “Leftovers Fridge.” Inside is all the extra food from a day’s work in the Test Kitchen. Pixley’s advice is: “If your day is revolving around food, it should also revolve around exercise in some way.”
Luckily, the Reebok exercise facility is conveniently located next door—the perfect place for employees to take active breaks in between meals. ATK appreciates the value of maintaining a healthy work-life balance—especially when working hours require mandatory snacking.
o share the wealth of delicious food, ATK opens up the taste testing experience to the public.
“ATK maintains a network of around 40,000 home ‘tasters’ who are signed up to receive, test, and report back on new recipes,” said Madeleine Cohen, ATK’s public relations coordinator. “We rely on them for feedback, and they are an integral part of our unique and thorough recipe development process.”
By way of its food truck that sits outside the office, ATK interacts with Boston foodies on a daily basis. The company also hosted its third annual “Boston EATS” Festival from Oct. 24 to 26, which included a celebration of 20 years of production for the America’s Test Kitchen show. Local foodies attended this event featuring samplings from Boston food vendors and cooking demonstrations performed by America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Country stars.
While always looking for the next-best recipe, ATK stays loyal to ingredients that work. Within the company and through its community outreach, ATK strives to foster new ways of bringing people together through food.
Even after the food-centric workdays, Pixley still loves to go home and cook with her husband or bake a batch of ATK’s “Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies” to bring to a family gathering. In what seems to be an ever-increasing “eat-on-the-go” society, Pixley appreciates the communal nature of a meal—the love that is shared in breaking homemade bread.
“Cooking at home is about nurturing, about family, and about feeding the people that you love and yourself,” she said.
Corrections, Nov. 4, 7:51 p.m.: This article originally stated that Cook’s Illustrated is currently printed in black and white and that the ATK food truck travels through Boston. While the magazine was formerly printed in black and white, it now prints entirely in color. The food truck remains stationary at 21 Drydock Ave. This article has been edited to reflect these changes.
Featured Images by Isabel Litterst / For The Heights