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?
LM: A couple of years ago it was the Alligator Chopper.
LM: It's a thing that looks like an alligator head and it has a grid pattern of blades. You put an onion there and bang it down and it is supposed to dice your onion. They were all over the place.
SI: Can you tell that a gadget is useless even before you try it out?
LM: Sometimes you can look at a gadget and go [skeptical tone] “Yeah.” But we always try it. Sometimes you're really shocked. Chef'n is a company that makes very cute things, very much eye candy. They sell them at the checkout practically next to the candy. You look at it and it's like, “That's adorable. I totally want that.”
But they have this thing called a Strawberry Huller. It looks like a little hypodermic needle shaped like a red plastic strawberry with a little green stem on it. I looked at that and thought, “Oh C'MON. Really????” Why not just take the tip of your paring knife, put it near the stem of a strawberry, whip it around and that's it? It's not that hard. If you have a good paring knife, there's not much trick to it. Do you really need a huller to take a hull out of a strawberry? But you know what? It's $8 … and it really works. It has spring-loaded prongs and it only pulls out the bare minimum and takes off the stem and leaves you with this perfect berry.
These 9-year-old girls were visiting when I was testing it and I said, “Here. Try this.” All three of them were able to hull berries in a few seconds. I would NEVER have handed them a paring knife. I thought, “I could see getting this — this is kind of cool.” This is one case where maybe instead of your knife … sure! That really surprised me.
SI: Gadget Guru? You are so great at your job. Do you know why that is?
LM: I can speculate. Industrial design has been something I have noticed and paid attention to for a long time. I used to be an editor at the Palo Alto Weekly. It sounds rinky-dinky, but it's a great paper. Right there in Silicon Valley and Apple and several of the industrial design companies that really design products. Products like Apple products that have a beautiful interface where the person can pick it up and figure it out. So many gadgets are so fussy. You have to read the manual forever.
SI: Anything else?
LM: Camping, believe it or not. When you are backpacking, everything with you really matters. Everything has to be essential. It has to work. If you are out there with a piece of junk you have to haul up a mountain in a backpack and you HATE it? It's got to work; it's got to be light. Being on a boat? Same thing. You can't have stuff you don't need. It HAS to work; it can't fail you at a critical moment. Getting that right, having your stuff where you need it? Having it feel good in your hand? All of that — it's always been important to me. Just not having baggage. Traveling a lot and seeing people hauling enormous suitcases they don't need and just being burdened by stuff? These are continual themes in my life.
SI: We particularly remember what you thought of the T-Fal Actifry, a french fry maker that uses only a spoon of oil to make soggy, dreadful fries. Oh, the disdain in your voice!
LM: It was horrible. They keep coming back to me and saying, [beseechingly] “Do you want to try it again?” And I keep saying, “No. We tried it all over the place when it came out.” It costs, like, $200. Worse, I've read a report on an English website where it was having problems with the [fryer] igniting. I thought, “I'd rather have real french fries with a few extra calories than charred remains of my home.”
SI: What does the Actifry even look like?
LM: Picture this oversized salad spinner — it's huge. So it's this giant device that costs a couple hundred dollars and all it is is this nonstick pan with a heating element underneath and a paddle that pushes the stuff around this nonstick pan while the heating element heats it. One of the great things about working here is that we have no advertising — it's all subscriber-supported. If I don't like something, I don't have anyone saying, “You can't say that …” I am supposed to tell people it doesn't work.
SI: What's a gadget that definitely falls into the must-have department?
LM: Well it's not really a gadget, but I love love love love my All-Clad 12-inch stainless tri-ply frying pan. And I also really love the 12-inch Lodge cast iron skillet. I think those are great pans and they will last me forever. I'm blanking on gadgets. Wait: I love my OXO tongs. I LOVE them. I always feel cool when I'm using them. They have different lengths. There's a short one, like 9″, that I use indoors. Then I have a 16″ one I use on the grill. They have a really good tip — they can pick up the tiniest thing. But they also lock closed with a catch on the handle. When you put them in the drawer, they're not all splayed out. But you can walk out with a platter of food to the grill with these tongs in your hand and then you just click it on your hip and it opens right up.
SI: It's like you're a grilling gunslinger in the Wild West.
LM: Exactly. Most tongs are really uncomfortable if you don't have big, strong hands, or the tips are big and blunt and won't pick up a spear of asparagus on your grill. These tongs are GREAT. I use them all the time. And they have a lifetime guarantee. I actually had one break on me — which is unusual. You send them back and you get a new one. And I didn't do it as me-official-gadget-tester. I did it as me-at-home and they sent me a brand-new one, no questions.
SI: So Joseph Joseph bad. OXO good!
LM: OXO does a lot of work on their products. They change them constantly. They tweak and tweak and tweak until they're just right. A lot of companies seem to make something and send it out and never look back. But these guys constantly work on it. I appreciate that about them. They will actually go buy their peeler or their garlic press and use it the way it was intended. Most companies don't do that. If they did, they'd realize they have issues. Again, they count on people buying it, bringing it home and going, “Eh, I don't like this one. I'll buy another one.” Or not cook and get take out. I want to say, [consolingly] “No. It's not you. It's the [gadget].”
SI: Before we let you go, a lighting round. Tiny pie makers. Pro or con?
LM: We tested them. Everyone was so interested in them for a while. Last Christmastime, everywhere you looked were all these things that closed like a waffle iron and make two or four little pies. Those things are TERRIBLE. We stood on our heads trying to find one that would work because it seemed so adorable to us. They just don't work. There's some basic problems with the design and no one has solved them. They're a mess. They're pointless.
SI: Mini-cupcake makers?
LM: Pffft. DO NOT BUY A CAKE POP MAKER. All those waffle iron things that you close and cook in? They are all going to be yard-sale items for the next five years.
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