Q & A With Lisa McManus, America's Test Kitchen's Gadget Guru: OXO Tongs (Yes), the Garlic Rocker (No) + Why 9-Year-Old Girls Should Have Strawberry Hullers
Some know Lisa McManus as the senior editor in charge of equipment testing at Cook's Illustrated and Cook's Country magazines. Others have seen her as the Gadget Guru on America's Test Kitchen TV.
Peter Tannenbaum/America's Test Kitchen Lisa McManus
But we were first introduced to McManus by her information-packed "Hot and Not" segments on the podcast "America's Test Kitchen Radio." Her voice rising amidst the clatter and bang of a working kitchen, McManus will endorse an accessory so heartily that you start to feel like having one would make your life complete. And that gadget McManus tests and it falls short of her expectations? Suffice it to say that anyone who heard McManus dryly dismiss the Royal VKB Cutting Board with Chopped Food Sliding Guide -- and still bought it -- gets what they deserve. ("It looks sleek and modern -- like something out of an art museum," she said before delivering the ultimate kitchen gadget dis. "Cutting on it is like a funhouse mirror at an amusement park ... Don't waste your money.")
Recently we got in touch with McManus. To read our conversation -- which covered everything from how much she loves her OXO tongs to why you probably should not invest in gadgets with the Joseph Joseph label -- turn the page.
Squid Ink: We are imagining that you are speaking from a strange and magical candy-colored lab with long tables piled with high-tech geegaws, knickknacks and doohickeys. Describe your surroundings please.
Lisa McManus: We're in Brookline [Massachusetts]. If you're not from around here, you couldn't tell that you were not in Boston. Basically, it's a separate city -- just as Cambridge is a separate city from Boston. It's kind of a leafy, upscale city suburb, which is a weird concept. We're in an old 19th-century brick factory building near Brookline Village. There's no signage on the outside. At all.
SI: America's Test Kitchen is the MI-5 of food. That is even more exciting: You are speaking to us from a top-secret location.
LM: Exactly like M1-5. We sort of hollowed out this building and have taken over more and more of it as we've grown and expanded. On the top floor, there are actually working artists in studios. My team -- the equipment team -- has some storage in an artist's studio. So I have to knock on the door and she's in there, painting. Her work is in the Museum of Fine Arts. She's a real artist. And I have to go into a little corner of her studio that she's blocked off and that's where we store the equipment that we're not using right away. As people give up leases, we take them. We tunnel into the next building. There are people stuck everywhere. It's amazing.
SI: Now it is beginning to sound like you work in a rabbit warren. Speaking of which, what was that we heard in the background when we first called?
LM: We all taste all the recipes in development until they're foolproof. We'll tweak one little factor and try it again. When we start recipe development, we'll test five different recipes. It's called our Five Recipe Test and we'll test five different versions of whatever it is and try to come up with the range of what it could be and pick a direction. What we like, what we don't like.
SI: Give us an example of a typical announcement you'll hear.
LM: [shouts] "Wild rice soup. In the big kitchen." That means that one of our test cooks is working on wild rice soup and we don't know what permutation of this recipe this is because we've had it 40,000 times in the last three weeks. So we're all going to stop what we're doing, troop down to the kitchen and taste one or more versions of this soup. She might have tried different preparation for the rice or other vegetables in there. Changed the salt level. You don't know what. You just go down and you try it and fill out a form. Or it's verbal. You give your impressions of them. Then you go back to your desk and try to remember what you were doing before.
SI: How many people are on the gadget team?
LM: Four including me.
SI: It's time for us to admit something to you: We are pretty much anti-gadget.
LM: Me too. Which is hard when you're the Gadget Guru on the TV show America's Test Kitchen, and the Hot/Not gadget person on the radio. It really has to earn its place if I am going to buy it or recommend it. It HAS to be something you need.
SI: Why spend good money on a thingamajig when a sharp paring knife will do the trick?
LM: I hate spending money on something that doesn't work. I'm so cheap. If I buy it, then I think, "Oh, I can get some kind of use out of that," and then every time I open the drawer and that thing is in there, I'm mad again. I take it very personally when stuff doesn't work. Most of the time you don't need all this extra stuff. You just need a few things. There are a gazillion gadgets for avoiding using your knife. Choppers, slap-choppers, slicing things. It's like, "Just pick up your knife!"
SI: And yet...
LM: ... Most people see a gadget and they go, "Oooh. What is that? I want to play with that! Do I need that? I want that?" There are a couple of brands that really capitalize on that reaction. They specialize in eye candy -- the packaging, the colors. They're very, very appealing.
SI: An example of such a brand is ... ?
LM: Joseph Joseph.
SI: You are referring to the company run by British twin brothers Richard and Antony Joseph. The company that sells the Garlic Rocker? Does that even work?
LM: Not really. It sounds awesome, right? I tested it. I did not like it. They also have this grater that's like a box grater that folds flat that's made of silicone. Incredibly uncomfortable. You have to squeeze it to keep it open while you're grating and it pinches your hand. They have a scoop colander that isn't very good.
SI: So what keeps them in business?
LM: More than half the stuff we've tried is so cute. Gorgeous. The problem is the function doesn't always follow the form. We have a theory that one of the Josephs is really smart and the other one ... well, hmmm. [laughs] You totally want their [gadgets] when you see them. They totally fly off the shelves. But when you get them home, they're always disappointing.
SI: Then what?
LM: Most people wouldn't bother going to the trouble of taking something back. Most of the time you don't find out until you've brought it home and gotten it dirty. At that point, it takes a special kind of person to pick it up, wrap it up again and go, "This doesn't work." Most people will eat the $15 or less and say, "Well, that was a mistake." I'm trying to prevent that.
SI: That should be your mission statement.
LM: That is my mission statement: I prevent those regret purchases. The things you wasted your money on and that you have hanging around until you have a yard sale. This whole industry spends time trying to figure out what will catch your eye that you will buy before you regret it and that you won't take it back.
SI: How many "nots" do you have to go through to get a "hot"?
LM: Honestly, a lot of this stuff originates in Cook's Illustrated, where we have the Equipment Corner page. It's five or six gadgets, usually small one-offs. We have to come up with at least five we like. [Host, editor and publisher] Chris Kimball does not believe in bringing something up just to knock it down. He thinks, "Why dig up some obscure thing and then publicize how terrible it is?" Unless it's something that is literally everywhere and we want to say, "The emperor has no clothes. Don't buy this thing unless you're really tempted."
So we test three or four things for everything that gets in there. We're always thinking, "What's catchy? What's out there? What's seasonal? What solves a problem?" So many of these gadgets just don't work, though. Or they don't do anything that you can't do with something you already have. That's a really strong thing for us: It has to be really worth it before we can even print it. We get only one slot to publicize something we didn't like. [laughs] It's like, "C'mon! It's so much fun to say that something doesn't work!"
SI: What's an emperor-with-no-clothes example?