“You have to be able to argue and discuss way past the point of reason,” Lisa McManus said of the type of person who works at America’s Test Kitchen.
And as the kitchen’s executive tasting and testing editor McManus does just that, whether she’s pulling apart crockpots or measuring the size of the salt crystals on a particularly good potato chip.
America’s Test Kitchen, a real 2,500-square-foot test kitchen located just outside of Boston, is home to more than three dozen full-time cooks and product testers whose mission is to develop the best recipes possible (using the best equipment possible) for the company’s magazines, Cook’s Illustrated and Cook’s Country Magazine; television series, “America’s Test Kitchen” and “Cook’s Country”; websites; and cookbooks.
To do this, America’s Test Kitchen employees test each recipe 30, 40, sometimes 70 times, until they arrive at the combination of ingredients, technique, temperature, cooking time, and equipment that yields the best, most-foolproof recipe.
McManus acts as the premiere judge of all ingredients and kitchen goods that are used and recommended across the company’s many platforms — and she takes her job very seriously.
Once McManus casts her judgment, the product is not only featured in the company’s magazines and cookbooks, but also is used by all of the employees of America’s Test Kitchen. One poor decision could leave her under the withering gaze of a disgruntled chef. Which happened one time, with a garlic press.
Boston.com met with McManus recently to find out what drew the former journalist to a career of dissecting spatulas and spoons, and what it’s like weighing the merits of five different mashed potato recipes.
Describe your job.
I review kitchen gear and ingredients. I’m like the Consumer Reports of kitchen equipment. I sort of try and get the consumer point of view on kitchen equipment and ingredients. Now, when I go to parties, people tell me about their knives and barbecue grills and we’re all just geeking out. I feel like a doctor with people telling me about their ailments.
People who work here, no one wants to cook for cause they think we’re fussy but I’m always interested in cooking. When I’m happy, I’m in the kitchen, and when I’m sad, I’m in the kitchen.
How did you fall into the role of executive tasting and testing editor for America’s Test Kitchen?
I was working for the Patriot Ledger as the entertainment features editor. I always loved food and did the food section myself because I liked it. I had heard about Cook’s Illustrated obviously, so I knew their whole thing was to have recipes that work. I had even done a story for Valentine’s Day about not going out to eat but cooking yourself, and I featured America’s Test Kitchen recipes.
So I knew about it and I didn’t 100 percent realize where it was, but was looking on Craigslist talking to my husband about how newspapers were losing classified ads to Craigslist. And I said, “It looks like there’s even real jobs here!” And then I said, “Wait a minute!” There was my job. That’s me. That’s how I found it.
I applied while running the features department with two kids under the age of 10, but I wrote a tryout story in my spare time on apple cider vinegar. That’s what they told me to do. And I had never thought about apple cider vinegar but I interviewed about 25 people, did four tastings, came up with results, and sent them off for lab work to see what was in them, like how much sugar or other ingredients. Then I wrote a 2,000-word story on apple cider vinegar. America’s Test Kitchen has a very distinct editorial voice, so I tried to write in the the correct style and I nailed the tone and got good results from my tasting. To this day, I know anything you’d want to know about apple cider vinegar. It was fun. It was so great to really plunge into something.
Did you always know you wanted to work with food?
I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I loved to cook. I always watched Julia Child on television and made myself fancy snacks as a kid. I’ve always been involved in food somehow, like trying to bake bread at 13. It’s normal now, but my parents were mystified.
I went to Brown University for my undergraduate degree. I was an English major there and I lived in the French House, a big mansion of mostly international students, and we were all obsessed with cooking. The people who lived there with me are still my best friends. Everyone was crazy about cooking and eating. We weren’t in the meal plan, so we pulled our money and cooked food for each other every night from Sunday to Thursday, competing for a fictional award we created called “The Golden Spoon”
My other friends would come over and be like, you eat like this every night? The French House had a big kitchen in the basement with a long table and chairs. That’s where I learned how to cook for big groups and not be afraid.
What did you do after Brown University?
I went to Columbia Journalism School, but not for another 10 years. I got out of school and my main skill was writing but I was usually cooking. So I moved to New York and was working for a consulting company, mostly as a writer doing customer service manuals, and eventually I started doing freelance magazine stuff. Then I moved to Palo Alto in California, and later I was inspired to go back to graduate school to learn more about investigative reporting.
What’s a typical day like at America’s Test Kitchen?
It changes all the time depending what you’re working on. Each of us is always working on a bunch of different stories. We write a full proposal for a story saying what we think the story should be, and then it goes through an approval process with our editors. Then we plan our tests, and write out long protocols for testing so that we know exactly what we’re going to do. We read each other’s tests and weigh in on them. If you’re not into collaboration, you will not live here. Everything is very much challenged.
Other times, I could be in the kitchen testing a product or recipe, or running a tasting. I just finished a story on soy sauce so I was cooking all of the soy sauce into teriyakis and trying chicken recipes.
When we have a winning product or recipe, it’s what the team thinks, not what I think. When something wins, I try to figure out why it won. I’ll work with experts to figure out how things are produced and how certain products are typically made. I’m always trying to figure out what’s going on and why people like what they like.
How many products do you test per year?
In the high hundreds to thousands? I don’t know. I’ve never really thought about it.
Do you ever hear back from manufacturers, like if you say a product is horrible?
Every now and then. I’ve heard back twice. Once they thought I tested an older model, so I checked. We keep every testing copy in storage for three years so that if there’s any question, we can check, and we got it out and it was the newer one so there was no mistake. Another time they thought I had used something upside down and I checked. I didn’t.
We’re not out to “get” anybody, we’re just trying to help people find good products.
What is the hardest part of your job?
When you don’t know why something did well or didn’t do well. When we can’t explain something, it drives us nuts. We can’t sleep. We drive our spouses nuts. Sometimes, we’ll have a winner but we can’t explain why. We will pull stuff apart to figure out why.
Like potato chips. If we figure out what we like best, we will look at the bag and ask, what makes that potato chip best? Does it have foil lining or another kind of lining? We measure its thickness. What kind of potato was used? What kind of oils were used? What temperature were the chips cooked at? How big are the salt crystals?
What is your favorite product you’ve tested?
Oh my god. It’s like picking between my children. I love my stainless steel All-Clad 12-inch skillet. It has a really great layer of aluminum between two layers of stainless steel and everything comes out perfect. You feel like Jacques Pépin browning chicken. That thing is amazing and indestructible.
What is the most meaningful part of your job?
Sometimes we get letters or emails and stuff from people who really melt you down and make you say, wow, this is why I do this.
I just got a call from an older guy trying to make his own vegetable stock and he told me his wife had passed away, and he had never been in the kitchen. He started watching our show and reading our magazines and making things. He liked it and started inviting people over for dinners, and now he was trying to make his own vegetable stock. He said his life had opened up from cooking. It brought me to tears.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
I hope I’m still here doing this. This is my dream job. I believe in what we do and it’s always growing and changing. When I started, there was no radio show and now I’m on the radio show, and I even test equipment on the radio. Sounds weird but it works.
What do you do to unwind?
I go home and cook.