Bridget Lancaster—who, alongside her longtime friend and coworker, Julia Collin Davison, has been the host of ATK TV since 2017—wants to teach you how to cook. If you've been watching the show since season 1, you're more than familiar with the West Virginian's quick wits and affinity for baking. What you may not be familiar with is Bridget's love of lemon meringue pie, or her aversion to kale and beets. I caught up with Bridget to chat about her earliest food memories, her favorite moments from filming the upcoming season of America's Test Kitchen, and her days as a restaurant pastry chef. (Editor's note: This article has been updated since its original publish date in October 2016.)
What's the dish that made you realize you really loved food?
Lemon meringue pie. My birthday is near a holiday during pie season, and I would ask my grandmother if instead of a cake she would make lemon meringue pie for my birthday. So lemon meringue pie was my birthday cake growing up—as it should be everyone’s. My grandmother gave me her pie dough recipe, but it didn’t turn out anything like her’s, because of course she left stuff out. Because that’s what you do: “You don’t need me if I pass on my recipes.” Lemon meringue pie was definitely the thing that made me start baking, and that’s really what I concentrated on while growing up.
What’s your background in the food world pre-ATK?
I was a pastry chef in Boston. At the same time I was also working at Williams-Sonoma, because no one can live on the salary of a pastry chef starting out. And that’s actually how I got the job here—I worked there part-time with someone who was on the editorial staff of Cook’s Illustrated, and she said, “I know you have a background in food and pastry, why don’t you come in and do a bench test, hang out with us, see if you like it?” This was back in 1998.
Things in the test kitchen were a bit different then, from what I'm told.
It was tiny—there were two residential ranges, only a couple of the burners worked on the stovetop. The dish room now was the original kitchen. The ovens didn’t work very well. We only had two wall ovens. We did all of our own dishes in a residential dishwasher. We did our own shopping. I find myself doing a little bit of that, “You kids don’t know what you have today,” when I go into the test kitchen.
I was working as a pastry chef, and I was so tired of going in at 3:30, 4 o’clock in the morning. It was kind of nice because I love the quiet, and I loved getting out of there when it started getting busy, but at the same time it was just thankless. You might make this beautiful creation and no one’s around to see it. So I have no desire to go back into the restaurant industry, unless I own something.
What's your favorite thing to cook at home?
Barbecue, 100 percent. I love to smoke food. And I love any kind of food—a stew, a braise—that's a little bit of effort up front, and hours later it’s even better and you didn’t have to do anything to it. I’m a lazy cook when it comes to that. I don’t like cooking foods that take me away from my family.
I also love to make cakes. The fluffier the cakes, the taller the stack, the better—I always think of the big cotillion dresses, the ones that look like shaggy coconut. I love that.
What's your favorite part about being on ATK TV?
When someone comes up to me and says, “You taught me how to cook,” or, “Thank you for this.” People connect the food they make and skills they learn to the show. That’s very, very heartening.
So people come up to you in the wild to discuss the show?
I have a disguise. If I wear my hair in a ponytail, people recognize me. If I wear my hair down, it’s like Clark Kent with his glasses—he looks exactly the same, it’s just glasses—but I can go anywhere. I used to only get recognized at the grocery store. People would approach me and say, “Oh my gosh, you’re that girl from TV. Will you come help me pick out a steak for dinner?” And I'd always say, “Sure, no problem.”
But my favorite recognition story was when this woman came up to me and said, “My god, you’re that girl on that show…”—it’s always the girl on that show—“…I just love you, but I don’t like that Bridget girl.” She thought I was Julia.
That's hilarious. How did you respond to that?
I said, “Yeah, she’s a real pain.”
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So you love baking and you love barbecue. Are there any foods you don't like very much?
Beets are my kryptonite. I have a lot of food memories with them because my mother used to make Harvard beets, so a lot of pickling—hot, briny, cider vinegar. Beets just taste like dirt to me. People say, “Oh you’d love them, they’re so earthy.” Yes, I know, they taste like earth. Earthy is not a good thing for me. Woodsy? OK, I get that. But earthy? Oh no. And I’ve tried them every way. I’ve grown my own for the last three years, trying to do the same thing I do with my kids: “If you grow it, maybe you’ll eat it.” I got the candy cane ones, the sweet little baby ones. Nope.
Beets are having such a moment, too.
Let's move on to kohlrabi.
How do you feel about kale?
If you have to turn something into a chip to eat it, it’s probably not good. Potato chips? Great, but we also eat potatoes. And we love them.
Do you have a favorite segment you've filmed for ATK TV?
Sticky buns. And also doing the tasting segment for fish sauce with Jack [Bishop]. What doesn't show up on that clip is the fact that we shot that at 7 o'clock in the morning. I also had to do anchovies on the same day, which I usually love, but not just to eat on their own. So I was doing fish sauce and anchovies on the same day while Julia was tasting apple butter. I thought, "Wait a minute..."
You've been on the show since day one, so what keeps it fresh for you?
I think each year we're looking to explore the evolution of what Americans think home cooking is. If you look back at season 1, it was definitely the classics: the fried chicken, the meatloaf. And there's always going to be some of that, because it doesn't matter where you come from: that food tastes great. But I think one of the things that keeps it fresh is these new takes on classics. And as we look forward, I can see us doing more adventurous food, which will be really exciting. So keeping people who love the classics and gaining a new audience who want to see more adventurous cooking, I think that's a big part of keeping it fresh.
Can you talk a bit about what it was like to host the show with Julia?
Julia and I have been on the show since day one, and we've been through a lot together. For me to be able to stand next to her, and either do a recipe together or introduce a show is pretty humbling. I look at Julia, and I see this amazing chef. And even though I've known her for almost 20 years, to be able to stand next to her and share the same company—I mean, pinch me. It's really incredible. I look at what she does and I'm in awe. So, I feel really damn lucky. I keep waiting for someone to pull the rug out. Is this really happening?
Every time we're together, we learn something from one another. We still hang out outside the show. It's kind of like, you get to hang out with your buddy and talk to America. And once we start filming, it really didn't feel like we were on a television show.