On the end of my America’s Test Kitchen days

Back in March, I finally told some of the story of what happened to propel me from my full-time gig as a test cook for Cook’s Illustrated magazine into my current freelance recipe developer-writer/newsletterer/mediocre food photographer gigs. I talked about how I felt that, after 12 years there, I was ready for something new, but that I didn't make the move without regret, since I did still love much of the work I did and the people that I did it with. And I mentioned how grateful I was to get to continue to work with my former Cook’s Illustrated team in a freelance capacity, especially since it meant I got to develop a series of Armenian recipes, something I didn't get to do enough of while there full-time.

Well so much for that. As of last week, that gig came to an unceremonious and abrupt end, when I was informed that America’s Test Kitchen had established a rule that former employees would no longer be eligible for freelance work. (At least I think that that is the rule. What I was actually told was that "former employees with paid newsletters” are ineligible for freelance work, which seemed weirdly specific to me. But since then I’ve heard from other former ATKers that it applies to any and all of us, newsletters or otherwise.) I had been slated to develop two or three more recipes for the magazine later this year (and planned to continue to do more, so long as they wanted me to), but I was told those projects were all now canceled. 

It’s hard to see the logic behind this move. ATK has hired former test cooks as freelancers since forever, because they know the work. The way that recipes and stories are developed and edited there is quirky and complicated, and not the sort of thing easily picked up by an outsider (it took me years to get the hang of it myself). Relying on someone with no previous ATK experience to do freelance work just makes life harder for those who have to help them prepare these recipes and stories for publication. And all the more so while everyone is working remotely during the lockdown. 

I have no idea what motivated this decision, but it certainly reads as punitive toward those who decided to move on, for whatever reasons they might have had. I didn't get any more information myself beyond being told "sorry, we can't work with you anymore”, so maybe there is some secret logic to it that makes sense internally. If not, and it is punitive, then whoa, that sure is a weird way to do business. 

All I know for sure is that the move has pretty much drained away the good feeling I had toward the place (and here I do mean the place, and not my former colleagues, who remain in my estimation as some of the best people I know). Which is quite a feat, because I loved my 12 years there, and it no question helped make me into the cook and writer I am today. 

The souring of my feelings toward my former employer is bad, but that’s something I can learn to live with. What’s worse is that that now ATK won’t get to publish any more Armenian recipes from me, which is a loss for their audience. No doubt there are other excellent Armenian recipe developers out there that can and should work for them in my stead, but none of them are alums who know the ropes.

It’s also a loss for the many Armenian fans of America’s Test Kitchen who were proud to see one of their own represented there. Over my years at ATK, I received tons of correspondence from Armos who were delighted to see the -ian of my name in print, and who were excited to see their foods given a spotlight in front of a huge audience largely unfamiliar with them. (Representation matters!)

In fact, just last week I got the two letters pictured above, one from someone who was excited to see in the pages of Cook’s Illustrated my recipe for lahmajun, a dish he had fond childhood memories of eating with his grandfather, who died just months before the recipe appeared. The other from someone who was inspired by seeing my name alongside a recipe for vospov (red lentil) kofte to enquire whether or not we were related, since a late uncle of his used to speak fondly of a Janjigian from the Boston area. Both correspondents closed their letters to say they were looking forward to seeing future Armenian recipes from me in Cook’s Illustrated (one of them even made a request for the very next recipe I was slated to develop!) 

The good news for these folks—and everyone else, Armenian and otherwise—is that I have other venues for my Armenian recipe projects (including Serious Eats, where I have two new ones about to drop), so I’m definitely not done bringing the foods of my people to a wider audience. 

The bad news is that it just won’t be happening at America’s Test Kitchen any longer.