If, like me, you’re a fan of PBS and its soothing, soft-focus, food-related shows (ahem, Great British Bake-off), you were probably devastated when you heard that longtime host Chris Kimball, was leaving America’s Test Kitchen. If you’ve never seen it, the premise of America’s Test Kitchen (“ATK”) is that a “test kitchen” comprised of several cooks experiments with and tweaks recipes for everything from roast chicken to chocolate cake to figure out which combination of ingredients and cooking methods will achieve the best outcome – the flakiest crust, the most flavorful stew, the perfect chewy chocolate chip cookie. These recipes are then demonstrated to viewers on the show. Kimball was the bespectacled, bow-tied host that brought his brand of quirky, nerdy humor to an otherwise straightforward cooking show. ATK also publishes print magazines, Cook’s Illustrated and Cook’s Country, and has an online cooking school.
Around this time last year, Kimball announced that his employment with ATK was ending, apparently on good terms. Earlier this year, Kimball started a new project called “Milk Street” in Boston, which involves…a television show, print magazine, and an online cooking school. Now it’s gotten ugly.
On October 31, America’s Test Kitchen Inc. sued Kimball and some of its other former employees for misappropriation of trade secrets, breach of fiduciary duty, and breach of contract, among other things. The lawsuit claims that Kimball “literally and conceptually ripped off America’s Test Kitchen” and had planned to start his own competing business using ATK’s confidential information and trade secrets while he was still employed with ATK. The complaint identifies several alleged similarities between ATK and Milk Street’s media content and design aesthetic, and accuses Kimball of stealing ATK’s employees, media contact lists, and magazine subscriber information, and usurping or interfering with ATK’s business opportunities with television and radio stations.
ATK filed its action in Massachusetts, which is one of two states that have not adopted the Uniform Trade Secrets Act. ATK did not file claims under the recently adopted federal Defense of Trade Secrets Act. To prevail on its trade secret claims, ATK will need to prove that the alleged trade secret information is not generally known, has independent economic value and ATK took reasonable steps to protect its secrecy. (See the 1972 Massachusetts case Jet Spray Cooler, Inc. V. Crampton.)
With regards to ATK’s allegations that Kimball breached his fiduciary duty, employees like Kimball are generally allowed to prepare to compete with their current employers, so long as they don’t actively compete by soliciting customers or fellow employees.
In many such actions, employers like ATK promptly seek temporary restraining orders or preliminary injunctions, seeking to prevent the former employee from using the alleged trade secrets. ATK’s failure to do so may indicate that it does not feel it has sufficient evidence, at least at this early stage, to obtain such extraordinary relief.
Kimball’s response to the complaint is due later this month. I can’t wait to see what his attorneys cook up.