Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Focus Grouping America's Test Kitchen

I think I've made it fairly obvious to anyone who reads my food blogging that I'm a fan of Cook's Illustrated... since practically everything I cook comes from them. My first real cookbook was The New Best Recipe, I subscribe to the magazine, and I pay to access their website. I don't watch America's Test Kitchen, but that has more to do with not having TV than anything else. So I guess it's safe to say I'm a loyal customer... which seems to be why I was asked to join a dozen others in a focus group at America's Test Kitchen in Brookline.

I had never been in a focus group before, so I was pretty interested in the experience... I didn't really care about the cookbook they offered as incentive, but it was only 90 minutes and it's not like I couldn't have walked out if it was an excruciating experience.

The the focus of our focus group revolved around the website, not the TV show, which as I mentioned above you have to pay a yearly fee($30-$35) above and beyond a magazine subscription to use. Nearly everyone there paid for the service and thus were fairly positive on it, as I am... I like the magazine to read through and get inspired, but if I'm actually trying to get ready to do some actual cooking, I go to the website to be able to search the database (to get at back issues I don't even own) and be able to print out the directions. The videos on the newer recipes can be helpful as well. It seems worth the money to me, anyway... though not without some flaws. The long articles describing the process of coming up with the recipe are truncated down to abstract length online, which makes looking at back issue recipes much less appealing than it might be.

What they appeared to be interested in was whether we would be willing to pay more money to be able to access the additional roughly 2000 unique recipes in the the Best Recipe series(with 2 new cookbooks a year). Now, even if you're a Cook's Illustrated fanboi like me, you're probably surprised that the Best Recipe books aren't just compilations of Cook's Illustrated recipes... I was, as was pretty much everybody at the table. As someone who has three of the cookbooks (NBR, International, and Soups and Stews) I've noticed a fair amount of overlap between the cookbooks... a non trivial percentage of the recipes in Soups and Stews can be found in New Best Recipe, for example, so I figured they were mainly repackaging the same stuff that must have come from the magazine. Apparently not... or not completely. It wasn't exactly clear how "unique" these recipes are exactly... the Caldo Verde I'm going to make from the International cookbook is not on the website, for instance, and I'm sure a lot of people would be interested in it. On the other hand, when I made my Brick Chicken I used the website instead of the cookbook because it included roasted potatoes... but does that make it a "unique" recipe or a variation? Assuming it's considered unique, as we start adding more versions, how do I decide which one to cook... isn't the big appeal of Cook's Illustrated the their authority? That you know the recipe is going to work because of how well tested it is? If you now have 5 subtly different ways to roast a chicken, doesn't that sort of defeat the purpose of having a method to come up with THE way to roast a chicken? I would certainly try it out, but I can't say I was quivering with anticipation at the thought of being able to pay them more money... I'm pretty happy with what I've got.

On the other hand, it would be nice to be able to access NBR from work so that I could stop at the grocery store on the way home.