The Stunning Transformation Of America's Test Kitchen Star Bridget Lancaster

She may stand before cast and crew as a co-host of "America's Test Kitchen" now, but Bridget Lancaster wasn't always standing in the spotlight. Her career with the long-lived brand began with a smaller though still-significant role and evolved over decades of dedication and hard work. All the while, she held a steady hand over the pot and stirred in reassurance as she helped reveal the secrets of preparing pitch-perfect dishes on PBS stations around the U.S. When the head spot was vacated by Christopher Kimball, the man who helped to create "America's Test Kitchen," Lancaster was promoted and brought her easygoing confidence to a new space in the kitchen.

Anyone who's watched the older episodes then tuned into the new ones has likely detected an undeniable alteration in the overall spirit of the show thanks to Lancaster's promotion from back-of-house to front-and-center. As a long-time viewer of "America's Test Kitchen" in both the Christopher Kimball and post-Kimball eras, I've seen the changes take place in Bridget Lancaster as much as the show itself. She's always been one of the hallmark members of the crew, asserting her knowledge as it applied to her recipes. 

But after taking on her new responsibilities, there was a welcome shift in her personality, one that gave her a chance to shine. Significant features of her transformation may have come in response to Kimball's departure, but her growth into a confident host is surely the next step in a career that seemed to be leading there all along

Lancaster was in the food industry before America's Test Kitchen

Though her visibility on "America's Test Kitchen" has so far proven to be her longest-lasting gig, Lancaster was already an established culinary professional before she started work with the organization. She was employed as a pastry chef in a restaurant in addition to serving as a stock clerk at Williams-Sonoma. Part of her responsibilities with the catalog giant was to handle drop-ins from big names on the celebrity chef scene. One of these visits was from none other than the original home television chef herself, the legendary Julia Child. This proved to be an oddly prophetic meeting that Lancaster had no idea would portend her own rise as a broadcast culinary expert.

Coming to the table with a food-centered skill set provided an easy transition for Lancaster. She had the knowledge and background of a professional chef thanks to her years of training, and she had experience engaging with well-known culinary figures, a transition point that was hopefully posted at the very top of her resume. Once Lancaster was in position as part of the greater company, it was only a matter of time before she began garnering attention for her skill, her relaxed professional persona, and her winning personality.

Her climb began as test cook for Cook's Illustrated magazine

Even before joining up with Christopher Kimball's televised endeavors, Lancaster had earned a place for herself on the crew as part of Cook's Illustrated, the company's flagship magazine publication that afforded her an entrée into the company. In the very beginning there, Lancaster first served as a test cook, where her job required her to fine tune recipes in a similar fashion to what she would end up doing on the set of "America's Test Kitchen." Today, the magazine arm of Cook's Illustrated continues to publish both in print and online, sharing recipes and techniques to elevate the home cooking experience. However, it's worth noting that Lancaster is no longer a part of that particular side of the company.

Beyond Cook's Illustrated, Lancaster was also tapped to help launch and serve as the lead of the recipe development program for the more rural cuisine-focused Cook's Country magazine. This was so successful that she eventually became a host on the televised version of "Cook's Country." Her presence expanded quickly, and she surely became a source of comfort for viewers who needed insight from a trusted expert. Changing from a behind-the-scenes role to having a more starring role in the production itself gave Lancaster a leg up on the television aspect of her career. This change in path would last for decades and help to turn her into an icon for public television viewers all around the nation.

In 2000, she became one of the show's featured cooks

After two years of working for the organization, Lancaster made her debut onscreen as an "America's Test Kitchen" featured cook. It wasn't long before her calm, confident demeanor and easy way of explaining kitchen processes made her a common and soothing presence on the show. Her behind-the-scenes explanations of how she came to her finished recipe were a peek inside the brain of a working chef and a source of insight that home cooks could easily understand. Lancaster's ability to communicate clearly and concisely regarding the intricacies of making a better pot roast or turning out handmade pasta that doesn't stick surely helped many viewers feel more confident in their own kitchen exploits.

Between the magazine work and television roles she's held, Lancaster easily became a fixture in the halls of the America's Test Kitchen company. Having a role on not one but two cooking shows set Lancaster on a course for long-term exposure to a public who appreciated her even demeanor and her ability to distill concepts down to their purest form. She seemed to be a natural teacher, even from the beginning of her expanding career.

Fun fact: With 24 seasons of "America's Test Kitchen" and 16 seasons of "Cook's Country," she's been on television for a combined 40 seasons. What's more, the ongoing production of both shows ensures she'll be a familiar face for the foreseeable future. With so much television presence, it's no surprise that Lancaster has transformed over the years, and done so right before the audience's eyes.

Lancaster stepped forward as full-time co-host when Christopher Kimball departed

After America's Test Kitchen originator Christopher Kimball made a rather surprising departure to start his next endeavor, Lancaster was tapped to step out from behind the counter to take on a co-hosting role. The company announced in 2016 that Lancaster and her fellow longtime test chef Julia Collin Davison would share the apron, taking the series in a new direction. The two debuted in their new roles in January 2017, launching the next era of the America's Test Kitchen enterprise. With a matched set of capable replacements taking the reins, many felt that the kitchen lightened up considerably from the get-go.

The chemistry between the two new hosts was instant gratification for viewers. For instance, Reddit commenters expressed their delight at being charmed by the natural patter between Lancaster and Davison, in a thread that began as a compliment but quickly turned into a love fest for the winsome duo. It's a testament to the executives in charge who recognized the likability of Lancaster and Davison and created a power team. But while Davison's natural charisma always made her feel like a match for someone as bold as Christopher Kimball, Lancaster's lowkey persona was allowed to breathe a bit more, giving her a voice that comes across as authoritative without ever being pushy or commanding. To many viewers, she makes it feel as if her audience has a friend on the inside of the cooking game.

Lancaster's new visibility resulted in a style change

Though Lancaster was a familiar face in the test kitchen, her image was appropriate for a member of a working team and allowed her to blend in with the crew. Once her profile became more prominent, however, her style became a bit more polished as she was able to let down her trademark food-safe ponytail and add a touch of glamour to her wardrobe. Unburdened by the constraints of an apron, Lancaster could now experiment with fashion too, establishing a look that's comfortable, professional, and put-together.

Changes to her style were reminiscent of the wider dining industry, where front-of-house workers are distinguished by their attire and appearance. Lancaster's stepping forward called for a similar stylistic distinction. When red carpet moments became part of the job, Lancaster was able to rise to the occasion with even more glamorous couture and styling.

Being the focal point allowed Lancaster to dress up in a wardrobe more aligned with her hosting responsibilities and providing a softer edge. The looser spirit that came about both visually and personality-wise allowed "America's Test Kitchen" to become a better version of its former self. Thanks in great part to Lancaster's new status and increased presence, the show didn't simply transform; it evolved.

Pairing up with her co-host lets Lancaster share the spotlight

Lancaster and her culinarian cohort Julia Collin Davison were a dependable crew when working out recipes at the stove, figures of equal energy who could banter with their host while explaining how to maximize the flavor in just about any recipe. So when replacement hosting duties were on the horizon, both Lancaster and Davison came to the fore, propelled by power team vibe that gave them a compelling existing rapport. Instead of either serving as a second-tier host, both chefs occupy the frontmost space in the kitchen, trading off segments and lending their respective expertise as the situation requires.

Viewers and critics alike noticed how the new pairing added an immediate playfulness that had been missing from the show's prior incarnation. Lancaster's warm friendship with Davison, combined with their shared professional knowledge, provided home cooks in need of guidance a friendly boost. Moreover, all that feels genuine rather than intimidating. Where ex-host Kimball could admittedly be somewhat prickly when chatting with others on the show, Lancaster and Davison come across as understanding and helpful. It's a welcome change in an environment where trying new things calls for encouragement, not snark.

Letting Lancaster become a leader in the studio was an inspired move that gave the 17-year-old show a much-needed refresh. Partnering her with a co-equal leader in Davison gave her a chance to expand without taking on too much new responsibility all at once.

Being front and center lets Lancaster show off new aspects of her personality

While serving as test chef, Lancaster was convivial and friendly, always explaining the recipes she'd developed and her process with easygoing clarity and good humor. But leading the show affords her an opportunity to speak to a broader array of subjects, prompting other test cooks as they stand in the spot she herself once occupied. Her quietly self-assured spirit presents her as a capable guide who can lead as well as follow.

Lancaster always had a ready sense of humor when working in the kitchen, but becoming a host gives her an all-encompassing opportunity to charm both audiences and her fellow chefs. It's a trait that even comes through in print and online with interviews – such as an exclusive with PBS — that detail her rise through the ranks. This ready warmth and good cheer may well have been percolating when Lancaster's exposure was limited to her cooking segments; now she gets to share it as a foundational element of the show's spirit. It's an aspect of the show's transition that serves to reinvigorate a long-running series and gave it a new lease on life.

The shift allowed her to become the co-star of her own cookbook

Though being a contributor to the America's Test Kitchen cookbooks came with the territory of serving as a test chef, the reality is that, for a long while, Lancaster never had a chance to assemble a cookbook of her own. That changed with the introduction of a partner project with co-host Julia Collin Davison and the launch of their 2017 book, "Cooking at Home with Bridget and Julia." The title is an extension of what the two present on the show: a down-to-earth guide for making great food that cooks of all abilities can sink their teeth into.

Aside from sharing the co-hosts' favorite easy-to-recreate recipes, the volume also gives a sneak peek of their lives away from the camera. The two share personal stories and take readers on a behind-the-scenes tour of their off-screen activities. Even with their long-term connection, Lancaster is very expressive about her gratitude at being able to stand beside a talent like that of Davison's. After so many years as part of the Test Kitchen crew, Lancaster reports that she is still able to learn new things from her co-host and dear friend. 

Seeing their decades of experience wrapped up in book form is a piece of the transformation that gives fans and viewers more access to their trusted television cooking teacher. It doesn't hurt that the book expands the brand into even broader territory, too.

Her professional partnership with Davison bolsters her easygoing confidence

Pairing Lancaster with fellow test chef Julia Collin Davison allowed the team to expand the fun interactions they displayed while working on recipe refinement together. While Kimball may have seemed a bit harried as the solo star of the show, at least to some viewers, what's more clear is that these two provide a soothing balance. It certainly feels better suited for a show trying to convince an eager audience that cooking great things isn't as difficult as it might seem. Considering both Lancaster and Julia were part of the show's original television cooking crew, it also made for a smooth transition that helped show off Lancaster's strengths.

This emerging confidence makes more sense in light of Lancaster and Julia's long-term friendship, a bond that began when they were the original two-thirds of the test cook team for "Cook's Illustrated" before they shifted over to "America's Test Kitchen" together. Having a decades-long connection gives the two a sisterly sort of sweetness that comes with its own touches of fun mischief, all of which feels baked in rather than contrived. Hosts that have been forced together without knowing one another beforehand can portray an awkward, off-putting energy. Yet, Davison seems to bring out aspects of Lancaster that help her shine. Lancaster, of course, has the same effect on Davison, though Davison's outgoing personality has always felt a bit more lively.

Lancaster has grown to become a focal point of America's Test Kitchen

The role of host comes with opportunities for Lancaster to step outside the studio to represent both herself and the America's Test Kitchen brand in a variety of formats and forums. With a few public speaking engagements on her calendar, Lancaster often becomes the in-person face of the Test Kitchen world, chatting about her experiences and vast culinary knowledge with hosts and fielding questions from audience members. It's a chance for viewers to see this talented host up close and personal, sharing a less formal side than her co-lead role on the show allows.

Lancaster has also taken on roles with some distinctly 21st century offerings from the America's Test Kitchen empire. She's the lead chef in the America's Test Kitchen Cooking School, an online academy that offers novice chefs access to instructional videos for self-paced learning. Lancaster also founded and co-created "Proof," a podcast available on the company website. Episodes take deep dives into regional dishes and the history of specialty foods and beverages from around the world.

With so much exciting activity bubbling all around her, Lancaster has made a stunning transformation that has taken her professional life ahead by leaps and bounds. It isn't surprising, given her long-term dedication to the brand. And with more than 20 years' time invested in helping America's Test Kitchen succeed on all fronts, it's refreshing to see Lancaster's work pay off.