Disagreement over Christopher Kimball’s new show boils over into litigation

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Christopher Kimball and his former employer, America's Test Kitchen, are at odds over his new venture, Milk Street Kitchen. (Photo: Melissa Baldino, via Wikimedia Commons)

Bow-tied America’s Test Kitchen founder Chris Kimball and the show’s current producer are engaged in a contentious legal battle over Kimball’s new public TV program.

The dispute unfolds as Kimball prepares his show Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street, initially titled Milk Street Kitchen. America’s Test Kitchen contends that Kimball “literally and conceptually ripped off” his former program.

The complicated public breakup involves public broadcasting distributors American Public Television and Public Radio Exchange as well as WGBH in Boston, former presenting station for both ATK and Milk Street.

ATK’s lawsuit accuses former CEO Kimball of stealing confidential information and convincing the public “that his new venture is a revamped and enhanced version of America’s Test Kitchen.” ATK seeks damages as well as an injunction to prevent Kimball and his new company, CPK Media, from using “information, assets and opportunities” that ATK claims were stolen. Several of Kimball’s staffers who previously worked at ATK are also named in the complaint.

Kimball answered Dec. 1 with a countersuit denying the accusations and seeking damages. In addition, Kimball contends that ATK is defaming him with the charges, particularly through its website whywearesuingchristopherkimball.com, which invites visitors to “read how Chris Kimball plotted his exit from America’s Test Kitchen.” The site presents ATK’s side of the dispute and links to press coverage, documents and emails from Kimball cited in the complaint.

“ATK has exploited this litigation, using it as an excuse for its nationwide media campaign to defame Kimball by improperly imputing criminal conduct to him and otherwise impugning his character and integrity,” Kimball’s countersuit said. Each side is seeking a jury trial.

Kimball left ATK in November 2015 following a contract dispute. The program, which experiments with recipes, cookware and ingredients in a large test kitchen, named new co-hosts in March. ATK also produces cookbooks, newsletters, magazines and digital content from its headquarters in the Boston suburb of Brookline.

Kimball announced his new business venture, Milk Street, in June. The Boston-based Milk Street will offer a public TV show from a test kitchen as well as magazines, a newsletter, cookbooks and digital content.

Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street premieres on public television in fall 2017 through distributor American Public Television, which also distributes ATK. Milk Street Radio premiered in October; America’s Test Kitchen Radio ends production this month.

Spokespeople for Kimball and APT declined comment.

A spokesperson for ATK said the case “is ultimately about Kimball’s breach of trust and loyalty, and Kimball’s own words, contained in his emails, will demonstrate that breach of trust and loyalty.”

‘Another great cooking show’

The ATK lawsuit, filed Oct. 31 in Suffolk County Superior Court in Massachusetts, comes as Kimball is courting public TV programmers to carry Milk Street.

Kimball appeared onstage at APT Fall Marketplace last month. “For 35 years I’ve been cooking food mostly of Northern Europe,” he told the crowd. “There are a lot of great recipes there. But that region had 13 spices instead of 88 in the Ottoman Empire. French recipes call for a sprig of thyme; go to Ukraine, and they use handfuls.”

“We want to travel the world, to be inspired by how other people cook, learn from them and bring those techniques back to our kitchen and try to adapt them to the home,” Kimball said. “Easier food with big, bold flavors.”

America’s Test Kitchen cooks experiment with recipes and equipment. (Photo: Daniel J. Van Ackere)

America’s Test Kitchen cooks experiment with recipes and equipment. (Photo: Daniel J. Van Ackere)

Several programmers at the meeting were pleased about the chance to carry both ATK and Milk Street. “For my schedule, it’s another great cooking show,” said Susie Hernandez, program director at KQED in San Francisco. “Our market loves those.”

“Viewers get twice as much of what they want,” said Steve Graziano of programming service P3 Public Media in Lincoln, Neb. He’s heard of several stations scheduling the two programs in a block.

“Fans love both America’s Test Kitchen and Kimball,” Graziano said.

KRCB in Santa Rosa, Calif., already carries ATK and will add Milk Street. “Kimball is the draw,” said Stan Marvin, who programs the station.

ATK’s lawsuit seeks not only monetary damages but a permanent injunction. If one were granted, it wouldn’t stop Kimball from producing a show, according to media attorney John Crigler.

“The injunction isn’t framed in terms of program distribution but in terms of preventing misappropriation or unfair use of ATK assets,” said Crigler, whose firm, Garvey Schubert Barer, is not involved in either case. “If granted, such an injunction would presumably apply to past programs but leave open the possibility that new, non-infringing programs could be designed.”

Pubcasting caught in the middle

ATK and Kimball still have a business relationship; Kimball holds an 8.59 percent partnership interest in his former employer.

Kimball “made a handsome living as the public face and voice” of ATK since being hired by founder Eliot Wadsworth in 1990, according to ATK’s complaint. Kimball has since received more than $30 million in partnership distribution income, the complaint said. His salary and bonuses in 2015 totaled $1,081,231.

Kimball’s complaint suggests that ATK’s new management could endanger that financial success. The filing noted that since CEO David Nussbaum was hired in May 2015, profits fell from $22 million to $18 million and income distribution to partners plunged from $20 million to “only around $12 million.”

Kimball said in the document that under Nussbaum’s leadership, ATK’s profits “have significantly declined in 2016 and ATK intends to distribute significantly less this year to its partners.”

The sides also disagree over business relationships within public broadcasting.

WGBH in Boston was the presenting station for both ATK and its companion TV show, Cook’s Country. Kimball appears as host in repeat episodes of both.

ATK’s suit said Kimball “convinced” WGBH to present Milk Street, “knowing that WGBH could not effectively present both competing shows.” So ATK “was forced to change its presenting station” for 2017 to WETA. A spokesperson for WGBH declined comment.

Each entity also produces a radio program. Kimball stayed on through 2016 as host of America’s Test Kitchen Radio even after leaving ATK. But Kimball also “orchestrated the bait and switch of Milk Street Radio for America’s Test Kitchen Radio,” the ATK lawsuit said.

As Kimball left ATK, he offered to produce ATK Radio through his new company, CPK Media, and assured ATK that his upcoming show would not compete. But by April 2016, according to ATK’s lawsuit, Kimball gave ATK notice that his company would cease production of ATK Radio Oct. 15. Milk Street Radio premiered Oct. 22.

Distributor PRX then opted to drop America’s Test Kitchen Radio, which it had distributed since its premiere in 2012, and instead carry Kimball’s new Milk Street Radio.

ATK’s lawsuit said PRX told ATK that “it would not market both shows.”

Kimball’s lawsuit presents a different scenario, citing a letter to PRX in which ATK  demanded that the radio distributor “not simultaneously promote and distribute ATK Radio and Milk Street Radio.” If PRX distributed both shows, the ATK letter stated, ATK “would hold PRX responsible for any resulting damage” such as station carriage falloff or inability to meet sponsorship obligations.

A spokesperson for PRX declined comment.

ATK will cease production of ATK Radio after this season. It announced in October that it would instead focus on expanding a collaboration with the public radio food show The Splendid Table in January 2017.

That collaboration “is the best way for America’s Test Kitchen to serve public radio audiences across the country, partnering with the No. 1 show in this space,” ATK spokesperson Deborah Fagone told Current in an email. She noted that Splendid Table has more than three times as many listeners as ATK Radio did.

ATK’s lawsuit also names Kimball’s producer Melissa Baldino, whom he married in 2013, as well as publicist Deborah Broide, both for “assisting and encouraging” Kimball’s actions. Each have denied wrongdoing through separate filings.

ATK’s complaint offers as evidence many emails that circulated among the three. At one point, after Broide emailed a media list to Kimball for his use for the new company, he replied: “Hopefully nothing will happen to you — seems like an episode of Mission Impossible!”

Read ATK’s lawsuit and Kimball’s countersuit:

ATK Lawsuit (Text)

Correction: An earlier version of this post referred to Kimball’s new venture as Milk Street Kitchen, which was its initial name. It has since changed to Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street.

Kimball Countersuit (Text)

26 thoughts on “Disagreement over Christopher Kimball’s new show boils over into litigation

  1. Kimball has since received more than $30 million in partnership distribution income, the complaint said. His salary and bonuses in 2015 totaled $1,081,231.

    Yeah capitalism. Good on Kimball and every entrepreneur trying to make a buck. That said, “public broadcasting” sure does pay (reward?) well.

    • Perhaps KImball was making most of his money off of his capitalist enterprise–a magazine that doesn’t take advertising and is supported by reader subscriptions. And when he decided to try out television, maybe he figured out that public broadcasting was the only place where a serious cooking program could thrive. You have obviously not watched the Food Network lately. You probably also think that Bravo still shows Fellini and Bergman movies and TLC is still the Learning Channel.

      • Well said. I fear for ATK now that the bean counters that populate the board, and the suit they hired to get rid of Christopher, have won. And they seem to be sore losers too.

        • I keep seeing people say ATK are sore losers/ sour grapes in this lawsuit, but I think it’s just common sense to defend your business when a former employee/ partner steals your email subscribers (a really important resource), solicited employees, and used your name to form business relations for a competing business… Seems reasonable to me, and from the lawsuit details, it’s a compelling case. Kimball is also still getting income from ATK because of “partnership interest” so he’s the one leeching ATK’s profits

          • Hi Gedot: From Kimball’s countersuit: “Kimball never agreed in writing or otherwise not to compete with the Partnership in his capacity as employee or limited partner of ATK.” So that appears to indicate no non-compete clause.

    • I see it this way: if someone was an honest businessman and made millions of dollars in profit, then good for them. However, what Kimball did was really low because not only did he get paid handsomely, while STILL ON ATK payroll, he was pilfering ATK assets to start Milk Street. So he’s knowingly and possibly intentionally trying to ruin ATK to put his new venture on top. The case for the stealing seems strong from the emails cited. That isn’t “entrepreneurship”, that is illegal. At this moment, Kimball is still getting money from his stakes in the company… What ATK wants, from reading their suit, is for Kimball to give up his remaining stakes in ATK and to stop misappropriating his connection/ past work for ATK.

  2. Wow, has anyone seen the Facts vs Fiction page on ATK’s website about this lawsuit? https://whywearesuingchristopherkimball.com/fact-and-fiction/

    They have evidence against all the major counter-claims and lies told by Kimball. It seems like Kimball’s basically been caught red-handed with all the email histories backing up ATK’s case. Learned some eye-opening details about how greedy and power hungry Kimball was… He really tried to demand a no-cut contract (basically a contract that lets him do anything and never be fired….yeah right, superiority complex, much?…) and more money even though he already earned 25% of ATK’s revenue. Sounds like he wanted absolute control and flipped out when he couldn’t have his way.

  3. I stand by Chris. Looks like someone wanted to boost profits, and they brought in some tyrd to shake things up. I cancelled all my affiliation with ATK when they got rid of him. He was the show. I like the girls….. but, it’s not enough.

  4. We just watched the first episode without Chris. Didn’t know about any of these issues going on. Not impressed! We missed him in the show very much! It wasn’t at all the same. Won’t be so inclined to tune in from this point on! We also just picked up a Cook’s Country, and most likely would not have if we had known! Actually the husband said when we saw Julia on Dr Oz the other day, it looks like ATK, must be in trouble, because she is showing up all over the place.

    • I’ve seen the first handful of episodes this season and I totally agree. It’s not the same without Chris and NOT in a good way! Saw the first episode and it was painful, and it hasn’t gotten any better. I liked Julia and Bridget as chefs presenting how to make the dish, but as co-hosts it just feels like they’re trying to be too cute interacting with each other. And when they try to be like Chris, such as during a taste test with Jack when there’s a particularly bad item in the bunch and he would be pretty blunt about it (which is what made it humorous) it just falls flat. I don’t foresee a bright future for this program, and looking at reviews on their Facebook page, pretty much all fans are being turned off by this season.

  5. Chris Kimball was the show, period. While all the true legal ins and outs may be murky, bottom line is that they brought in bean counters/suits to slide him out (the STAR of the show on whom its success relied), and he did what he did to survive in response to that. I don’t blame him at all. Why should he have just taken that lying down? I’m not impressed with the new ATK and doubt it will thrive as it did in the past with Kimball.

  6. I just saw the new Milk Street show for the first time.
    Old ATK without Chris: just fine with me. Always found him to be “unnecessary” and pretty self-impressed anyway.
    But, my best wishes to both shows and let the courts sort it out, but I am still a fan of ATK and don’t tend to watch much “Meh…” if I don’t have to.

  7. I was really upset wwhen I didn’t see him on test kitchen. Now I’m happy with his show cause I get to see him. He is what makes the show.

  8. Disappointed to learn that Chris Kimball would no longer be involved with one of my favorite cooking shows (ATK), but was delighted to discover that he would be starting a new venture. The food depicted on the Milk Street website is visually stunning and the back stories are interesting – a winning combination that makes me want to try all of the recipes. While I’ve only managed to watch one episode of Chris’ new show, I look forward to seeing many more. From my POV, ATK lost its heart and soul when Kimball left, and as hard as the ladies try – perhaps TOO hard, it’s just not fun or enjoyable to watch any longer.

  9. Long time ATK viewer. Never liked something about Kimball – “Those that can do, do. Those that can’t ,teach.” That dominating air of superiority and posturing tainted nearly every episode almost to the end. That said, I do watch both cooking shows when I can. Kimball has masked the about mentioned behavior perhaps because guest chef’s arrive at his kitchen confident in knowing if they are made to feel if their skills are challenged or uncomfortable they won’t accept further invitations. Milkstreet has yet to gain the loyalty I have for ATK.

    • Quite a bigoted and uniformed view of teachers of which I am one (Professor at Northern Illinois University).

    • How mean spirited. Just remember, no one would be where they are today without teachers. You were not born with innate knowledge of mathematics, reading, science, and history. All skills necessary for becoming lawyers, doctors, bankers, CPA’s, etc. I invite you to spend 1 week teaching in a classroom, write lessons, grade papers, call parents, process paperwork, and meet requests of administration. Then maybe you won’t offend an entire profession. Oh, and we watch tv whole grading papers. I am a proud middle grades, 20 year veteran, math teacher.

  10. Kimball may be an acquired taste, but without him I find the show tedious. Waaaay to scripted. I keep hoping Julia and Bridget settle into their roles, but after a year, I see no improvement. I find we are watching it less and less.

  11. How about my free recipe?…I could not get any free recipes from ATK…and now Kimball’s Milk Street…or am I not connecting…right on line….how about it…my free recipes…like Zucchini Salad..and the Pizza show…enjoy the shows..but cannot afford to buy every cooking book the cooking channels show….like I said..if you don’t want to give out the ‘free’ recipes..then don’t advertise it.as being free……maybe only advertise your books..!! too bad…

  12. Pingback: Don't Cry Over Spilled Milk Street Lawsuits - Anali's Next Amendment

  13. I think if you don’t plan on placating your lead (in this case Chris Kimball), then you can’t be surprised when he moves on. They made him a star and now they don’t understand how he can move on. That’s the nature of the business. I didn’t realize they had split. I just assumed Milk Street was their new venture. I do agree that the last season of ATK was too stilted and stiff. Love the ladies but they need a better, more comfortable host.

  14. I still watch ATK but the women annoy me to no end with their phoney laughter (hoe hoe hoe) and hightened speech. While can’t they speak in their everyday normal voices? When C.K. was there they sounded sincere and professional. Now all the female cooks are overly dramatic. I may be the only viewer on the planet to be annoyed, but I’ve been a loyal viewer since ATK started and that’s my opinion.

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