At America’s Test Kitchen, up to 35 test cooks develop recipes year-round in our facility in Brookline, MA. We spend roughly half a million dollars on groceries every year. So, how does that much food get into the Test Kitchen five days a week?
Unlike restaurants or professional kitchens who buy in bulk, the Test Kitchen only purchases home-goods sized ingredients; meaning the same cans of 28 oz. crushed tomatoes and boxes of salt that you can get at your grocery store. This is because the recipes we develop are for home cooks, and we want to be able to replicate your experience in our Test Kitchen.
To get that many individual products in the Test Kitchen every day, Assistant Test Kitchen Director Gina Nistico has devised a system where organization reigns supreme to keep test cooks supplied with the ingredients needed to create everything from perfect scrambled eggs to worry-free roast turkey.
Amazingly, the Test Kitchen is able to do this with a turn-around time of less than 24 hours, with each item ordered involving as many as 11 people, from bag boys to food stylists. I spoke with Gina to learn more about the process.
Step 1: Requesting Ingredients
Every weekday, test cooks place their grocery requests into a an online spreadsheet accessible by any computer. This isn’t your typical shopping list. Because of the detail required in recipe development, test cooks will often specify (within ¼ inch), everything from the thickness of the pork chop to the diameter of the potato.
Step 2: Sorting the List
At 2 p.m., Test Kitchen Manager Leah Rovner sorts the giant list into categories and places the orders online and over the phone, depending on where they’ll come from. Because the Test Kitchen also tests (and ranks) grocery items, Leah typically orders the winning brand for each grocery item (i.e. Swanson’s Certified Organic Free Range Chicken Broth). That being said, they will often bring in non-winners to ensure that a recipe will hold up even with different brands.
Step 3: Ordering Groceries
Most of the food is ordered from one of three purveyors – Sid Wainer and Son Specialty Foods, Constitution Seafood, and Roche Bros. While many items may be available year-round, seasonal items can be harder to locate. Because of our publishing schedule, the Test Kitchen may be testing turkey recipes in the middle of spring. Gina relies on relationships with local providers to help her source seasonal items that aren’t always available. Imported and hot-house produce also may be purchased to help create a seasonal recipe, off-season.
Step 4: Specialty Shopping
After Leah finishes sorting the shopping list, Senior Kitchen Assistant Meryl MacCormack is assigned to purchase specialty items. This list includes food that will be photographed and needs to look a certain way, or items that other purveyors can’t deliver. Meryl, who knows every grocery store’s layout like the back of her hand, goes in-person to pick up the needed products. Her daily hit list usually includes Whole Foods and at least two major regional chains, Shaw’s and Stop & Shop.
Step 5: Delivery
The morning after the orders have been placed, the deliveries start shuffling in between 8:30-10:00am. At this time, a crew of eight kitchen interns carefully checks the shopping list against the deliveries, reporting any errors to Meryl, who deftly rectifies within the same day. Getting the exact ingredients is a non-negotiable part of recipe development – while home cooks, in a pinch, may interchange pork loin for tenderloin ingredient, consistency is vital to ensuring our recipes work not just in the Test Kitchen, but anyone’s kitchen. Once the shopping list is checked twice, the interns get busy sorting and storing the ingredients in each Test Cook’s individual cabinet and cold storage areas. In less than 24 hours, all 35 test cooks will have all the ingredients they need to continue developing a new recipe.
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