Take two at Cook's Country'

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Friday, Oct. 3, 2008 

RUPERT — From the outside, the quaint white farmhouse across the street from the Methodist Church on Route 153 is eye catching mainly for its classic wraparound porch. It could be tucked neatly into almost any Norman Rockwell painting.

But once inside, at least for the past two weeks, it's been a different picture.

Hunched over a series of high tech video consoles and peering intently at a large flat screen monitor perched on top of a fireplace mantelpiece are a group of six technicians and television producers. The large monitor is divided into four sub-screens, each for a television camera in an adjoining room where a film crew is working its way through 13 episodes — one half of an entire season — of "Cook's Country," a television show first broadcast on PBS in 2005 that features the celebrity chef and part-time local resident Chris Kimball.

It's not an accident that quiet Rupert would be the location of choice for Kimball, who is also the host of another PBS show, "America's Test Kitchen." He's been a property owner and frequent visitor to Sandgate and Rupert for many years and loves the place.

"We had a place in Sandgate, then started coming to Old Home Day in Rupert and just fell in love with the town," he said.

The farmhouse had fallen on hard times and required a lot of renovation, and designing a modern kitchen and a studio to use for filming the episodes was in many ways the simplest part of the project. They filmed 13 episodes here last year, and are planning to be back for the next season, he said.

On screen, in the adjoining room which may have been the dining room in year's past, Kimball is discussing the best recipe for red velvet cake with Bridget Lancaster, one of the culinary specialists on the show. It takes a few tries to get it right.

"So here we go — ready, rolling, action!" one of the directors says into his headset in the converted living room.

"So the secrets to red velvet cake — some of it is historical — acidic batter, buttermilk, vinegar — it's not chocolate — an ounce of red food coloring, then on top you put cream cheese, butter and confectionary sugar — a fabulous combination of frosting and cake with a plush velveteen interior — so there you have it from Cook's Country, a fabulous recipe for red velvet cake — with no beets," Kimball says, dressed in his trademark yellow bow tie and red apron.

Only one problem — the red velvet cake flops awkwardly onto the plate, and the scene has to be re-shot.

Kimball and Lancaster run through the closing of the episode a second time, and this time the cake cooperates.

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"That was a keeper," says the director behind the console.

But that was only one segment of a show that will feature gooey, delightful and apparently calorie-laden cakes and desserts. Off stage, next to a spanking new kitchen that fits neatly into the corner of the renovated farmhouse where about a dozen kitchen assistants in their white chef's jackets are in constant motion, preparing food for the next episode, Erin McMurrer, a test kitchen director, waits her turn to go on.

She'll be going over the fine points of a recipe for hot fudge pudding cake, which will fold into a segment on fudgy desserts. Usually she's in charge of the preparation in the kitchen, but did a screen test and is now part of the on-camera personalities that present the recipes. It can be nerve wracking, but after awhile you get used to it, she said.

"Chris just keeps it going and I forget I'm on camera — it's just like a normal day at work," she said. "You just try to stay focused on the right things to say and not stumble."

"Cook's Country" is an off-shoot of "Cook's Illustrated," a magazine Kimball has published since 1993, and "America's Test Kitchen," the PBS television show he has hosted since 1999. "Cooks Country," as the name suggests, focuses on home-style country cooking and recipes, and filming it in Rupert helps add the down-home feeling.

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Relaxing on a sofa in the temporary studio that was once and will be a living room again when all the episodes are filmed and the equipment packed up and hauled away, Kimball said there was no real mystery to successful food preparation — like everything else, you just have to know what you're doing. And you don't need to buy the most expensive brands either, he said.

"We think cooking is mostly objective," he said. "We'll do a recipe 50 times — even over a 100 times — and we'll scientifically isolate the variables to come up with what we consider to be the best version. I wouldn't say it's a foolproof method, but compared to other recipe methods over a period of time, it's reliable. The objective is to get a recipe that works at home."

In other words, they test and test so the amateur — or even advanced amateur cook who enjoys cooking — doesn't have to. But there's more to it than just coming up with the right combination and mixture of ingredients, because would-be cooks are independent and rarely follow recipes, Kimball said.

"You have to build into recipes visual clues, variable times — you have to give people more information so that in their house, on their equipment, on their stove, they have a good chance of not messing it up," he said.

And the most common mistakes people make with cooking?

"They don't salt their food properly, and they don't taste food just before they serve it, especially with stews or soups," he said. "They don't use enough heat for sautéing, the skillets are never hot enough. They're scared of heat or smoke. They assume that baking or cooking times are accurate — the fact of the matter is you can never trust baking times because ovens can be off by 50-100 degrees, so they're totally a guesstimate."

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By the time Kimball and the rest of the cooking staff and production people arrive in Rupert for their two-week stay, they have already tested all the recipes and know what they are going to do. It's just a matter of getting onto film what they have already spent months developing back in their test kitchen in Boston, where America's Test Kitchen and Cook's Illustrated are based.

The taping of the 13 episodes finished up last Thursday, and the final couple of days featured a gathering of about 30 or so residents and friends from Rupert and surrounding towns for a taste test, to see how their preferences stacked up against Kimball's and the crew from the kitchen.

"I try to get local people, people I know here," said Melissa Baldino, the show's producer. "You want people to feel involved — I call friends of friends of friends — they always trickle in at the last minute."

They are seated in folding chairs in a large open room that might have been a dining room in the old farmhouse. Today, the taste testers will pass judgment on an array of items, one of them being coarse-grain mustard.

On the set, Kimball and Jack Bishop, one of the show's editorial directors, run through a blind taste test with Kimball, to see how his opinion matches with that of the kitchen staff and the local taste testers. Three kinds of course grain mustards have been selected: Grey Poupon, Inglehofer and Maille, a French mustard.

"Let's go ahead and roll the tape," a voice from the living room studio commands.

Bishop explains the ingredients that go into making coarse grained mustard, and then Kimball tastes the three brands of mustard, not knowing which is which. He's not a fan of hot mustards, it turns out, which eliminates the Grey Poupon, the favorite of the kitchen, who apparently do like it hot.

The audience has found a favorite in the Maille brand, but Kimball opts for the Inglehofer, a milder mustard made in Oregon.

Bishop and Kimball banter back and forth about the merits of hot and mild mustards, and it's all spontaneous — there's no script. But that comes off looking effortless because of the nearly nine months of preparation that have gone into planning out each of the episodes before they got to Rupert, Kimball said.

And there's plenty more material where all that came from, he said.

"We could be up here for a year and never run out of recipes," he said. "We just keep coming up with stuff — it's like summer camp."


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