Full Exclusive interview with Julia Collin Davison
Longtime PBS cooking show viewers will have noticed there are now two female co-hosts – Julia Collin Davison and Bridget Lancaster – helming “America’s Test Kitchen” and “Cook’s Country.” As the only other Julia on a PBS cooking show, also based in Boston, in this next installment of our KLCS celebrity chef series, we talk to Julia about her new role at the show, her favorite recipe to cook at home, cooking shows she’s currently indulging in, Boston burritos, places to dine in Los Angeles, and her thoughts about the Julia that started it all for TV chefs.
As a longtime viewer of America’s Test Kitchen, at first it was a bit of an adjustment to see not only a change in hosts but two hosts now, how was the adjustment for you from supporting player to one of two hosts?
It’s been awesome. It’s nice to be forced to learn something new. Being a host, it feels like it should be very similar, but it’s quite different. I’m the person between the viewer and the cook, I’m that microphone. It helped reinforce the perspective of America’s Test Kitchen for me – is that the whole point is to get people to cook at home, “Here’s the best way to do it.” Just to help people cook people dinner at home. Stop going out, stop eating junk food, cook it yourself. So it was nice to be reminded – that’s the end game. The other thing I’ve had a lot of fun with, is pulling more people onto the show, because with Bridget and I leaving spots open, it meant we could more put more people on the show to show really what it’s like in th test kitchen. There’s a cast of characters back there, 40 test cooks we have working everyday in that test kitchen developing recipes, focused on the aspect of how to make the best version of whatever it is, and how to get it across to people at home, so they can make the best version. And that’s a really unusual job and a lot of people in that kitchen are just funny as hell, and interesting. Before, I felt like the people in the back, you didn’t get to see them much and Bridget and I are really excited to pull back the curtain and show this is what the test kitchen’s like, it’s just a cool place. Now that we’ve got the hang of it a bit more, now were trying to work that into the shows coming up.
What’s your favorite part of the job now as host?
I get to eat a lot more of the food (laughs). It’s that simple. And I’m not often in the position where people cook for me. To taste a lot of things – that’s fun. And I’m also really enjoying watching and helping to do test cooks on TV learn that role. I did it for 17 years, and I learned how I did it and it’s fun when I see someone new at it. It’s fun watching everyone have a new role.
In the current season we’re watching does the show have a certain theme or objective?
The objective and the theme has always been the same – is that we’re totally nerds in the kitchen, we’re unbiased and the end game is to be able to get people at home to cook, but also to understand why it’s important to do different techniques, buy this gadget, not that gadget, why that’s important, what the difference is. So all of our recipes – our recipes takes about six weeks to develop. A test cook will make it anywhere from 30 to 50 times. We start by asking our readers and viewers – what do we want? We have no advertisers, we’ve got to make sure we put on the show what people really want. We ask people what they want. So that’s how we come up with what goes in the magazine and what goes on the show, because our magazines have no advertisements either. So we have to be careful to keep our finger on the on the pulse of what people are interested in. Our first step is in our library. We have over 4000 or 5000 cookbooks managed by library science interns from a local college down the street local college intern. If we say we’re going to do roast chicken, we give it to one of 40 test cooks and their first stop is the library and look up every roast chicken recipe they can find and they’ll spread them out and look for the biggest differences and method, and they’ll pick five recipes and make them in a side by side test, and all the editors and all the cooks on the team taste these recipes and they figure out what works and what didn’t. And then we cobble together a working recipe from that and start testing the variables independent of one another. So we can see the effect of oven temperature on roast chicken and so forth. And then before we publish it, we send that recipe to readers and viewers for free in an email with a survey. Thousands of people make our recipe, fill out a survey and tell us what worked, what didn’t work. It’s really valuable for us.
Do you have a favorite dish in this current season airing that you got to work on and help test or share with the audience?
There’s a New Mexican chili Carne Adovada, it’s pork simmered in a very simple New Mexican chili based sauce. They have to be grown inNM, developed at UNM and they’re not very spicy. So its very mild and – recorder back.
You have pork butt and you make this simple sauce with chilis in the blender and you put it all in the pot and you put it in the oven for two hours and magic comes out. It’s just flippin’ magic. Every time I make it. It’s supposed to serve six people, my husband and I hunker down and basically eat the whole pot because you just can’t stop yourself. So that’s a game changer, absolute game changer.
Speaking of your husband, you had your husband once or twice on the show as a fishmonger. The show’s changing now, you don’t do that as much anymore, a kind of Mister Rogers neighborhood, where people would visit and give lessons.
We moved. We moved from a little place in Brookline, the kitchen went from 2,500 square feet to 15,000. The kitchen got bigger, we got all new sets, so there was a lot of change going on. Like we do with our recipes, we ask our viewers all the time, “What’s important to you?” We’re one of the longest running culinary shows on television and in all of TV, we have the third and fourth most popular television spots. One and two are both Gordon Ramsay. So we’re very careful to understand our position, figure out what people like, and make sure we keep it. PBS is a hard medium, they’re having a really hard go of it right now, they don’t have a lot of money to work with. So to keep it going, we’re careful to make sure we stick to our story, we test recipes, we never kept advertising, we’re after the best way to do them, and we want to explain why and not to change anything to make the show what it is. Our fans are really loyal, they will sit and fill out a survey for 10 minutes and tell us what do they like on the show, what do they want to change.
Since you and Bridget moved up to hosts, it was good to see the continuity of the regular cast members with all the show changes. Do cast members get certain areas they can focus on, like I love Becky’s healthy dishes, her quinoa is still my favorite way to make it. As a clean eater, I would love more out of the box recipes like the ones Becky does. Do certain people come in with those skills?
A little bit. Bridget and I still cook on the show, she gets a lot of the baking things, she’s great with big cakes, that’s her jam. I’m great with meat (laugh). I can cook the hell out of meat. Becky went to a natural cooking school in New York way back when and she is a very clean eater. It’s so funny, I was talking to her about, we strive for five vegetables and she and her husband strive for 8 or 9 a day. I was like, “Of course you do!” She loves ethnic foods, vegetarian foods. Bryan (Roof) on “Cook’s Country,” loves grilling, it is what he does on the weekends. Some people do have bents like that. It’s fun to do what you know, but I also think it is really valuable, if you’re presenting something that’s not your wheelhouse, it puts you in a better position to explain to someone who doesn’t know. If you give a cake recipe to non-baker, they’re going to question everything, the more you question everything, the more you learn.
Mary Ann Esposito did the first interview of this KLCS celeb chef series, and she had Julia Child on her show, the person who led the way for everyone now. As her namesake, do you have any Julia stories or has she inspired you to become a chef and/or a chef on PBS? You’re probably the only other Julia who’s been on a popular PBS cooking show besides Julia Child.
(laughs) It was her books when I was little that I cooked out. Once, I was young, maybe 6. My mother was in bed, she was ill, my dad and brother were out, I was left to my own devices and my mother said I came up every half an hour with a question like, “Do we have any corn meal?” And she said three hours later I came up and handed her a fresh baked baguette, out of her book. She said, “You made this?” “Yeah, well, we’ve made bread before.” And Julia Child tested her recipes, that was her thing – testing to make sure that they work. So yeah, she was a huge inspiration to me as a kid. She came to the set Season 2. Early on our producer Geoffrey Drummond was her producer way back when. She came and said, “Hello.” She wasn’t feeling too well, she sat at my desk and fell asleep, it was really cute. ‘Julia Child fell asleep at my desk!” She woke up and she’s like, “I think I should be going now!” (in a Julia Child voice) She’s kind of a Boston institution around here, everyone has good story about her.
You can tell that you really enjoy your job. While you’re on a PBS cooking show with the legacy of Julia, and with that same name, do ever just pinch yourself you get to do this for a living and follow in those footsteps, educating people on cooking? It sounds you liked cooking as a kid.
Oh gosh, yeah. It’s a dream job. Sometimes the days are long or there’s a lot of travel involved. People are like, “Poor you.” Are you kidding? This is the best job ever. I’d be dumb to complain for even a minute about it. The more you do it and the less nervous you get, because those early years it was really nerve-wracking, I was a terrified public speaker. I was so terrified of public speaking, I couldn’t take a public speaking class in high school or college, so I was terrified to go on TV. But once you get over that, then I realized you could actually be on TV and enjoy yourself. And that was a game changer.
I love PBS cooking shows, and KLCS has an afternoon block on Saturdays devoted to these shows, it’s such a guilty pleasure in a quiet in a noisy world. Do you get a lot of similar viewer feedback?
It’s not politics and religion. It’s so far away from anything that riles people up. Cooking shows always have a happy ending, you’re always left with good food. It’s kind of a feel good show, but you’re learning things along the way. Ut it’s easy education. To learn about science through the lens of food, or learn about whatever through the lens of food, it’s just a fun way to learn.
Do you ever indulge and just Tivo a bunch of PBS cooking shows and watch them?
Yes. Yes. Oh, totally. I’m so into watching old Lidia, because her stories are amazing. Right now I’m in the middle also of watching all the “Chef’s Tables.” It’s Netflix. That show is so inspiring and it’s beautiful and the production value is so high. I love watching food TV. I don’t watch a lot of Food Network. I want things just a bit more calm, I feel like my day’s crazy enough and watching it gets a bit loud for me. But I am a big fan of a lot of the chefs on there, whether it’s Anne Burrell or Geoffrey Zakarian.
Do you have a favorite food movie? I saw it 20 years ago.
(Thinking about her answer) It wasn’t Tampopo, but it was about the same time – “Eat Drink Man Woman.”
What’s the most popular question you get?
They want to know what I cook at home. I think people are expecting me ot have some really exotic meals on a regular basis.
What’s your answer?
Roast chicken, I love roast chicken. I make it once a week. There’s lots of recipes for it, even in our own archives. I’m still tweaking what I like. There’s one we do where we turn the oven off half way through, that’s amazing. The skin doesn’t get as crisp as I like. There’s a new one where you broil the chicken the entire time, it’s butterflied and broiled. That one’s pretty cool. Now I’m mixing the two. I don’t brine, I don’t salt. I come home with a whole chicken, I have a pair of scissors, I butterfly I t, I do it fast.
You guys should have a side note on that same episode of how to clean the oven afterwards.
(laughs) My oven is disgusting.
Is there a tip to clean the oven?
Do you need a clean oven? My oven’s filthy. Yeah, I can clean it with a whole bunch of chemicals, but why? My oven is something else.
You’ve been there since Season One and the world of TV and media has changed so much since then, what keeps it fun for you?
It’s the food, really. It’s a battle of two things. One – people want the same old thing – roast beef and mashed potatoes and roast chicken. On the other hand, the ingredients that are available now to everybody in the supermarkets. The international aisle is now the entire store. Twenty years ago we used to argue about whether people could get chipotle chili. Now it’s like we’re calling for gojujang. I was like, “Who could find that?” And there it is, a whole stack of it at my tiny grocery store down the street. So, the ingredients out there are interesting. I don’t know how to use these ingredients, I didn’t grow up using these ingredients, so, learning how to use gojujang, but how to incorporate it into what I already do – a roast chicken. That’s what keeps it interesting. On the other hand I know how to cook chicken a variety of difference ways, but there’s more ingredients to play with. So it’s the combination of new things and the old things and it’s that tussle that I find relaly interesting.
When you’re in L.A., do you have any favorite places to dine or food shop at?
I love staying in West Hollywood, there’s a little hotel called the Charlie. Charlie Chaplin’s old house and they turned it into a little hotel. I love staying there, there’s no restaurant, there’s no bar, but it’s in neighborhood we can walk around. And it’s walking distance to Lucques. I go there pretty much every time I’m in L.A. and I sit at the bar and I meet so many people. A lot of people go to this bar alone and eat really good food, and are just happy to chat. When you travel you wind up eating by yourself a lot, so sitting at the bar gives you someone to talk to. Recently I’ve been going, because they film in the Universal Studios at Hallmark when I’m in L.A., and there’s a burrito place called Poquito Mas that I love. It’s a chain, but they cannot make Mexican food in New England, it just doesn’t happen. You have to make it at home. The burritos out here are just so bad. They have mushrooms and cauliflower in their burritos. It’s not a burrito, man. There was a place, Here’s Looking At You. Twice I’ve been over to the old Farmers Market by the Grove. I love walking around in there.
Anything tell want to tell viewers about the show?
There’s a new project that we’re working on at America’s Test Kitchen. It doesn’t really have to do with the show, but it might have its own show eventually, it’s America’s Test Kitchen Kids. We’re teaching kids how to cook, and it’s amazing. Like we test our recipes, we send our kids recipes out to kids across the country and they make them and they send us back their comments. My daughter is 10. She’s cooked with me since she was a little kid, she’s my little sous chef, but when we were testing recipes, she was in the kitchen and I had to sit at the counter and watch her. Different kid. And the next day, she took the dog for a walk on her own, because she’s like, “I’ve got this,” I could make dinner. And now she makes dinner every other week, she makes turkey burgers. It’s all we eat, there’s nothing else, you just get a turkey burger. But you get a perfectly made turkey burger with your desired topping, she’ll ask you what you want on it. It made such a difference to her. Teaching kids how to cook will make their lives better. Period. And I’ve witnessed this in my child and seeing it in her friends now that come over and cook with her. This is huge. And it’s just taking what we do and making it for kids, and that’s is kind of the coolest thing. It doesn’t have to do with the show. In terms of the show, the new set is bananas. It’s cool. And as we settle into the new set, I’m just excited to bring even more new faces onto the show. That’s the end game. We’re taking it slow. We’re also keeping the song, but we have a new show opener, which is very cool. Which breaks down recipe development, so that’s cool and that’s coming up.
Anything you want to add about Cook’s Country?
I’m in love with Cook’s Country, I’m in love with the food. The thing I like about Cook’s Country is that, of course the recipes are developed the same way. But they can just be good in their own right, they can just be interesting. There was this recipe, and I was dragging my heels, it was for Caesar Green Bean Salad. I was thinking this is the worst, it’s not even a recipe. I thought it was total BS and then we made it and we ate it. It was one of the best green bean recipes I’ve had in years. It is now requested by my family all the time, I’m now required to make it for all holidays. That’s what I like about Cook’s Country, because you can take a good recipe and it doesn’t have to have provenance, it could just be a really good idea, and we can make it fool proof, and we can make it taste awesome and it can be a green bean caesar salad and it can be awesome. I love the casualness of that. It doesn’t have to be a sous vide steak that rocks your world, it can be something kind of simple and just a little down market.