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What’s the story behind Christopher Kimball’s PBS departure?

Christopher Kimball, former host of “America’s Test Kitchen” on PBS.
Christopher Kimball, former host of “America’s Test Kitchen” on PBS.

Q: What has happened to Christopher Kimball on PBS’ “America’s Test Kitchen”? He hosted that show forever, but when it returned last month for its new season, he was gone with no explanation that I ever heard. Same for “Cook’s Country.”

G.D., of Waterloo

A: Too many cooks may indeed spoil the broth — especially when there’s money at stake.

That’s what foodie fans of Christopher Kimball may have been thinking last fall when they discovered their bespectacled, bow-tied hero had fallen out of the frying pan and into corporate-world fire.

In a nutshell, Kimball parted ways with Boston Common Press, the shows’ parent company, in the fall of 2015 after taping his 16th season, which you saw last year. Boston Common Press said it tried to negotiate a new contract in good faith and failed. Kimball, who turned 65 last June 5, said he in essence was fired because of his age.

Then, as sort of icing on this fallen cake, Boston Press hit Kimball with a 39-page lawsuit last fall when Kimball started a new venture called Milk Street Kitchen, which debuted a magazine entitled Milk Street in October. The suit alleges that Kimball stole customer lists and trade secrets, even though he still has a fiduciary responsibility to his old company, because he, his former wife and children own stock. In reply, Kimball told the New York Times that the lawsuit was a publicity stunt and that everything he did to start Milk Street was above board.

Boy, talk about a juicy food fight! Now, let’s put some meat on these bones:

If, like me, you’ve never heard of Christopher Kimball, he started devising his recipe for a successful career in food when he began taking cooking lessons shortly after graduating from Columbia University. He then talked family and friends into giving him $100,000 to start Cook’s Magazine in 1980, when he was just 29 years old.

Kimball sold the magazine in 1989, but he was only starting to dust off his toque blanche. Kimball launched Cook’s Illustrated four years later and then added Cook’s Country magazine in 2004. Both derived their revenue from subscriptions rather than advertisers, which set him apart in the world of cooking publications, because he didn’t have to worry about offending, say, Kraft or Prego in his articles.

The pièce de résistance came in 2001 when he convinced PBS to carry his newest idea, a half-hour cooking show called “America’s Test Kitchen,” which Kimball himself would host. In his 16 years at the helm, it became public television’s most-watched cooking show, eventually drawing nearly 2 million viewers a week. Kimball added “Cook’s Country” in 2008.

But insiders told the New York Times that the cookie began to crumble in 2013 when the Boston Common board and investors suggested that Kimball start planning for his eventual successor. The company also wanted to increase its footprint in the digital world. Then in September 2015, just after Kimball had taped his ninth season of Cook’s Country at his Vermont home, he found that David Nussbaum had been hired to fill the new job of chief executive officer. It was a post that outranked Kimball, who was one of the company’s partners. New board members also wanted to see more profit generated.

“Quite frankly, the owners realized Chris is about 65, and they had to think of a long-term succession plan,” Nussbaum told the Times. “These owners were very clear they wanted someone to come and run the business for their heirs.”

They suggested Kimball continue to host his shows while writing a memoir. Kimball gagged.

“You end up as the guy in the white suit standing in front of the bucket of chicken,” he replied. Unable to reach an agreement, Kimball left or was fired, depending on whom you believe.

But matters were only starting to boil. After leaving his shows, Kimball announced last spring that he was starting Milk Street Kitchen with $6 million from backers who thought Kimball still was prime rib in a world filled with too much ground chuck. He began remodeling Boston’s Flour & Grain Exchange building at 177 Milk St. to start another empire that would include books along with a new magazine and TV show. Instead of cooking techniques that employ extended cooking (like roasting a chicken), Kimball said he was going to promote dishes that relied on texture, spice and freshness. He also said he was planning a cooking school, a national tour to launch the endeavor — even a chef’s knife.

But last Halloween, Boston Common stirred the pot by filing a lawsuit, alleging that Kimball and his third wife, who is a longtime show assistant, conspired to “literally and conceptually rip off” America’s Test Kitchen. It seeks unspecified monetary damages, including repaying part of his wages as host. (In 2015, he earned $1 million in salary and bonuses, according to the suit.) They also accuse him of stealing customer lists and at least 15 former ATK employees.

Kimball called the allegations false and/or twisted overall, but told the Times he did not want to get into a “pissing contest” over specifics. So while the matter simmers in court, you’ll have to keep up with Kimball at www.177milkstreet.com.

Today’s trivia

It’s a good bet that few people who try to do a John Wayne impersonation can resist using the word “pilgrim.” But according to Wayne’s film fans, in how many movies did the Duke actually utter the word — and can you name them?

Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: In 1969, Jack Cover began to develop a new weapon that would enable law enforcement officers to subdue criminal suspects by using an electric current. The device fired two small dart-like electrodes which delivered a usually non-lethal shock that caused extreme pain and disrupted muscle control, resulting in “neuromuscular incapacitation.” Cover called his invention a Taser, which is an acronym for the title of one of Cover’s favorite childhood books — the 1911 “Tom (A.) Swift and his Electric Rifle.” Cover, who once studied physics under Enrico Fermi and later worked on NASA’s Apollo moon landing program, died of pneumonia in 2009 at age 88.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer

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