America's Test Kitchen Was Never The Same After Christopher Kimball Left

Anyone who has dedicated years to watching a show knows it's never the same when a key member of the cast departs. This is just as true for cooking shows as for scripted series. The long-running recipe development and home cooking series "America's Test Kitchen" underwent such a change when main chef Christopher Kimball left unceremoniously in 2015 after a contract dispute with the show's owner company, Boston Common Press. With much of the show depending on Kimball's snarky presence and culinary expertise, it was a shocking move that could have signaled the demise of the entire production.

Not only was Kimball the familiar host of "America's Test Kitchen," but he was also the show's creator, launching the series as an offshoot of the magazine Cook's Illustrated. Departing didn't mark the end of the show's run; production continued, with chefs from the cast stepping in to replace Kimball in new episodes. Though the gears kept turning, the difference was immediate and notable. The show pushed forward despite the disruption, but not all changes worked in favor of the Test Kitchen legacy.

The show's new hosts were great chefs but not as personable

It would, of course, be a challenge to replace such a distinctive personality as Kimball and take the reins in his absence. Instead of bringing in a brand-new figure, the show wisely promoted developmental chef and long-time series regular Julia Collin Davison as a focal point to guide the show's various segments. Bridget Lancaster, another familiar face behind the Test Kitchen counter, became something of a cohost, helping Davison present and create recipes. Both chefs had been with the Cook's Illustrated and "America's Test Kitchen" organizations for many years before helming the show, and they had the expertise and onscreen poise to step into their new roles naturally and comfortably.

But something felt off without Kimball heading up the cast. As the creator of the show, his authoritative voice and confident manner helped tie the segments into a cohesive package. Episodes felt as much like a critique of home cooking as demonstrations of test recipes. Though Kimball's sometimes-prickly demeanor and acerbic wit occasionally failed to land, it always came with an air of leadership. Once Davison and Lancaster stepped out from behind the counter, the sharpness mellowed and the show began to feel more like just another cooking show rather than a consumer's guide to kitchen craft.

Direct competition came from Kimball's Milk Street television show

Kimball's departure from "America's Test Kitchen" didn't mark his disappearance from the world of culinary television entirely; the reason he left was to start his new project, "Milk Street," a direct competitor to the Test Kitchen market and audience. Though not an identical formula, Kimball's new show was enough of a clone to reintroduce his familiar schtick to an audience that could either migrate with him or watch both. Rather than perfecting existing dishes through exacting food science, "Milk Street" focused on making kitchen work easier for home cooks with tips and tricks, as well as recipes that were easy to execute. The similarities were close enough to inspire a lawsuit from his previous workplace claiming Kimball ripped off the original Test Kitchen concept.

Kimball diehards were sure to follow him to his new environment, but the new show doesn't seem to have attracted the same level of interest as "America's Test Kitchen"; the show boasts 1.7 million Instagram followers and over 200,000 followers on X, formerly known as Twitter. In contrast, "Milk Street" has close to 500,000 Instagram followers and around 20,000 followers on X. These numbers suggest that Kimball's Test Kitchen appears to be holding steady and enjoying longevity years after his departure.

The show lost employees to Kimball for Milk Street

Loyalty may have been a prime ingredient that led some members of the "America's Test Kitchen" production to leave their positions and follow Kimball to his new project. The lawsuit launched against Kimball by Test Kitchen's owners accused him of taking 15 employees with him to "Milk Street," the project that prompted his dismissal. Following a figure you enjoy working for to their new endeavor may not seem so controversial, but in light of the accusations that Kimball also stole the entire idea for the new show from the framework of the previous one, it isn't a good look for someone hoping to continue his career in the culinary industry — especially in such a visible role.

Three years after the poaching and intellectual theft morass, Kimball and his former employers settled their suit, allowing both parties to move forward with their respective businesses, as well as their lives. "America's Test Kitchen" was lighter by more than a dozen employees by then, but didn't appear to miss a beat.

Viewers had mixed opinions about the show post-Kimball

Fans of "America's Test Kitchen" didn't hold back with their opinions about the feel of the show once Kimball was no longer a part of the enterprise. Reddit user rabbifuente offered what might have been seen as an unpopular opinion, stating, "He wasn't perfect, but the dynamic between the hosts was better and less kitschy." Another Redditor took a slightly different stance, offering, "He seemed to take more of a smug, know-it-all attitude toward the end and I got the vibe that the cooks did not like working with him." Other fans like Mister-E-Writer weighed in on the idea of a show without the original host, saying, "Kimball has never bothered me as a host, for the most part, but with or without him I take away sooo much more from ATK than Milk Street."

Whether viewers liked Kimball leading the show or preferred having a less spiky figure guiding the test chefs, it's undeniable that his absence was the source of distinct reactions. The idea that fans continued tuning in once the show transitioned into a Kimball-less format speaks to the staying power of the series, even without its chief chef in the picture; his departure may have even improved the format.

The show hasn't won an Emmy since Kimball left

As a top-notch production, "America's Test Kitchen" has been nominated for several Daytime Emmys in its more than 20-year history. In addition to several nods for the show in the Outstanding Culinary Program category, Christopher Kimball himself was nominated as Outstanding Lifestyle/Culinary host in 2011, an accolade neither of his replacement hosts has received. The show won its only Emmy in 2012, given to Herb Sevush for Outstanding Directing in a Lifestyle/Culinary Program, a category the show has been nominated for twice since Kimball's departure. Even with a rich history of nominations in the years following, the show hasn't brought home the hardware in any category since Sevush's 2012 win.

By contrast, "Milk Street" has been nominated for Outstanding Directing three times in its much shorter life — garnering wins in 2019 and 2020 — as well as receiving nominations for Outstanding Culinary Series and Outstanding Culinary Host. Sharing the same category means the shows have gone head-to-head in awkward — er, award season for years. While "America's Test Kitchen" has held onto its prestige position, it's definitely gotten a run for its money from Kimball's newer project.

Show production has continued on successfully without Kimball

Despite the sudden loss of its leader, "America's Test Kitchen" was still a fully functioning organization and had no trouble continuing production in Kimball's absence. It helps that the show already had 16 seasons in its catalog when it parted company with its creator, providing the cast and crew with years of expertise to draw from. Though it couldn't have been a happy time for the staff to move on after Kimball left, viewers were able to watch the show without interruption through Season 16. 

Starting with Season 17, new hosts Julia Collin Davison and Bridget Lancaster had assumed their new positions, with no mention of Kimball's departure in the Episode 1 shift. Though the leads had changed, the show soldiered on without a hitch, maintaining production of full 26-episode slates up to the current season. Even with Kimball's creative presence initiating the show, "America's Test Kitchen" had enough steam of its own by the time he moved on to ensure plenty more assistance to home cooks all around the country.

Spin-offs have been generated from the original show

A spin-off is usually a sign of a show's popularity, and with "America's Test Kitchen" post-Kimball, new shows began to emerge, signaling survivability beyond the original host and creator's departure. Beyond the central show, viewers can also tune into "Perfectly Seasonal," a series detailing recipes that use seasonal ingredients. Each show is shorter than a full "Test Kitchen" episode, and familiar faces from the original cast are onboard to demonstrate unique creations. Viewers can find limited episodes on the company website, as well as a larger selection on the America Test Kitchen YouTube channel.

The sister show, "Cook's Country," also launched as an offshoot of the ATK magazine Cook's Illustrated. This show takes a homier approach to teaching aspiring home chefs the secrets of creating better food with a special focus on the history of cuisine, with hosts Julia Collin Davison and Bridget Lancaster guiding the episodes as well. More than 15 seasons of this denim-hued cast cooking lovely-looking dishes exist in the library. For viewers who can't get enough of the way the Test Kitchen makes television, there's plenty of material to make Kimball's absence feel like a speed bump rather than a full derailment of an already-good thing.

America's Test Kitchen keeps attracting interest post-Kimball

If Reddit users have anything to say about "America's Test Kitchen", the show continues to be a source of helpful information and advice long after the post-Kimball era. In early 2024, a Reddit note posted in the America's Test Kitchen thread remarked on the user-ship increase of 6% in a single day, attributing the leap to a potentially viral post for a spicy coconut chicken noodle soup recipe. Other users report buying the show's cookbooks and seeing ads on their feeds that lead them to the site. All of this is a great sign for a show that's 20-plus years old and still kicking up its heels long after losing its creator and original host.

Social media for ATK shows similar excitement. Nearly two million followers on Instagram also share love for the series, years after the change. The concept of watching professional chefs develop and create the best takes on familiar recipes, and product experts share their picks for kitchen gadgets, seems to strike something in the imaginations of viewers, regardless of who's wearing the red apron.