You know Jack Bishop from his taste test segments on America’s Test Kitchen. But Jack is more than just the man who hides samples of pantry staples underneath black bags and watches as unwitting tasters suffer through half a dozen sips of soy sauce. While he’s not indulging in this special sort of schadenfreude (his admission!), Jack is busy in his role as Chief Creative Officer of America’s Test Kitchen. I caught up with Jack to chat about his childhood affinity for Betty Crocker, his favorite taste test segment a recent season (hint: there’s something fishy about it), and his more than two decades working at America’s Test Kitchen. (Editor's note: This article has been updated since its original publish date in October 2016.)
What’s the first thing you learned to cook when you were younger?
I had a Betty Crocker for kids cookbook. I can still picture it—it had a yellowish-orange cover. It was one of those comb-bound books, and I learned how to make pancakes. I really knew I wanted to cook when I was about 12. My mother started working, and I’m the oldest of three, and suddenly I was in charge of dinner. I mastered my mother’s repertoire very quickly—it was a very limited repertoire—and then I realized I actually didn’t have to make these same dishes, I could make whatever I wanted. So I grew up cooking all throughout high school, making dinner for my family.
What’s your background in the food world pre-ATK?
The thing that’s the most unique about me is that I’m a non-professional in a sea of professionally trained cooks. I have a lot of years of cooking experience, but I’m one of the few people on the show or in the editorial department of America’s Test Kitchen who didn’t go to cooking school. And I never worked in a restaurant. I did have a summer job in a deli, but I’m not sure if that really qualifies. I made the potato salad and the coleslaw.
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Do you have a favorite dish to cook?
My friends are obsessed with my polenta. I think it’s mostly because people don’t know how to cook it. Mine is really good—but I’m not doing anything except cooking it well. The tricks are low heat and a lid so you don’t have to stir. And you just cook it for hours. So, that and my salad. My wife is an amazing cook, but our daughters do not allow her to make salad. It’s to the point where it’s a family joke: The nights when I don’t make salad and she does, the girls won’t eat it. They’re like, “Well this isn’t dad’s salad.” By the way, my wife out-cooks me in most food categories.
What’s your favorite part of being on the show?
The thing that I love the most about the show is the fact that you’re on camera with somebody else, and for better or for worse you never know what your onscreen partner is going to say or do. That’s what keeps it interesting. Toggling back and forth between doing a segment with Bridget and doing a segment with Julia feels totally different. I’ve known them both for almost two decades, and for me it's interesting to see their very distinct personalities come out in their approach to how they do a taste test.
Julia is all about getting it right; she’s very “just the facts, please.” And Bridget is like, “We’re going to have a good time right from the get go. And then we’re going to chat, we’re going to talk, and then we’ll get to the taste test.” Julia just wants to start because the sooner she tastes, the sooner she's going to get to the right answer. If you know Julia, Julia is very competitive. She's going to go through this in a particular order. It's fun; she doesn't fall for any attempts to throw her off the trail.
What do you think sets America’s Test Kitchen apart from other cooking shows?
When people ask me, “How on earth has this show been on the air for so long?” [Editor's note: America's Test Kitchen TV's 20th season premieres in January 2020.] I think the thing that makes us unique is that most cooking shows are an individual talking to a camera, and our show is always two people who actually know each other and haven’t been put together in some Hollywood arranged marriage. They bring that relationship and all of that combined knowledge on camera. The show is also unscripted, we’re not using teleprompters. I have an idea of how I think it’s going to go, but I think I learned early on that—especially in my segment where there’s tasting involved—you never can predict how somebody is going to react to a particular sample. You think they’re going to love it and they hate it. That sort of uncertainty drives the structure of my segment. All I can do is try to remember the names of all the products, the prices—the key details. That stuff I try to cram into my brain, but how we’re going to navigate through the tasting is a work in progress every time.
The first year I tried to script all of the segments, which was a complete waste of time. We spent all this time, and we totally did not follow the plan. And then I realized, well, there isn’t really a plan for this. I mean, I get to choose which samples are being tasted. I’m selecting three or four of the samples—there could have been eight or 10 samples that were actually part of the larger tasting—so I have control over that. And I’ve chosen them so that there’s always the winner, and then there are often things that are bad in different ways; sometimes I’ll put a really familiar brand in there that may not be a winner or a loser, but people always want to know if you’re doing a ketchup tasting, “How did Heinz do?” But once we start tasting, all bets are off.
You’ve been working with Bridget and Julia for so many years, but you were never on camera with them before the 2017 season, right?
Never. I’ve done events with them and obviously I know them very well, but I had never been on camera with either one of them. We’d all never really been on camera with each other. It’s been fun and interesting to see how that changes things.
What was your favorite segment to film for a recent season of ATK TV?
Fish sauce. I take an unhealthy delight in watching my partner suffer a little bit. There’s no good way to do a fish sauce tasting other than to just sip it. So that was by far the most fun because it was kind of ridiculous. Who else is going to sit there drinking glasses of fish sauce? No one. The entire set smelled like fish sauce, and it was really hard to convince Bridget that it was going to be okay. She knew from the get go this was not going to be much fun.
When you’re not delighting in watching Bridget suffer through a fish sauce tasting, what’s your day to day role at America's Test Kitchen look like?
I’m the Chief Creative Officer. Basically that just means I’m in charge of the teams that create the content. And so whether that’s in the book area, magazines, television shows and videos, websites, online cooking school, or newsstand special issues, my job is to help chart a course with the key people on each of those teams about how we create and then display that content for our viewers, our listeners, and our readers.
You’ve been at America's Test Kitchen since the beginning. What keeps things fresh and exciting for you?
The fun thing for me is, because I’ve been here so long, I’ve done lots of other jobs here along the way. I used to develop recipes for Cook’s Illustrated, I used to write tasting articles and equipment reviews, I’ve edited books. For me that’s the fun part—I get to leverage those experiences in a different way, where I’m not really necessarily getting my hands dirty and developing a recipe or writing something, but I can draw on that experience when working on these different projects.
Is there anything surprising about the filming and production process that might not come through to our audience as they watch the polished episodes from the comfort of their own living room?
Because the whole schedule is driven by the lighting, we film all of the tastings back to back. Usually Adam [Ried] and I will alternate, but we’re shooting all of those segments in the course of a day and a half. I’m talking all day, from very early to very late. And my partner is tasting. All day. There are days where we’re doing chocolate and soy sauce and red wine vinegar and cheddar cheese and microwave popcorn. Not only do I have to remember all that and talk about all that, but someone’s going to have to taste all of that. As hard as my part is, I admire the physical stamina of my partner doing all of those back to back tastings.
What about the evolution of the show—what’s it been like to watch it grow from season 1 to season 17?
Having been on the show for so long, it’s really been fun to watch the things that have remained the same and the things that have changed. Our wardrobe and our lighting is way better than it was in the first few seasons. If you’ve seen any of those episodes, you just think, “Okay, we should actually wear pressed shirts, and maybe have a little bit of lighting on them.” But what’s remained the same is that we have this amazing content. Whether it’s the recipe content or the review content—equipment or ingredients—it’s really strong. I feel like my job is easy here because the team is doing such a great job creating all of these amazing stories that I then get to tell on television.