Go Back
Print this page

2000s Archive

Living Kitchens

Part 1

Originally Published January 2000
The promise of dinner.

What’s a kitchen for?” The answers are as individual as floury handprints on a black granite counter and as central to creating great kitchens as the appliances. They are entwined in the way we live. Who has not come home to discover the sink being used as a potting bench, the table as a research center, or the counter as a dressing station for a scraped knee? Something deeply atavistic draws us to the kitchen in search of security, company, and the promise of dinner. Ultimately, however, cooking is what it’s all about.

My fascination with kitchens began early. Aged five, I suggested to my parents’ cook, Elvira, that flouring her pastry board would be tidier if the canister weren’t on the other side of the room. For reasons unrecorded, she didn’t banish this impudent scamp. Instead, she moved the canister and taught me to make croissants.

Adulthood brought ample opportunity to redo my own kitchens—22 by last count. They’ve ranged from a windowless coat closet with aspirations to a 400-square-foot oak kitchen that was terribly House & Garden. Some were in the United States; one was in Mexico; others were in England and France. Addressing the problems implicit in each space, setting, and culture, I made more than one (expensive) mistake.

Meanwhile, I was trailing chefs through premises fascinating for their high-tech marvels on the one hand and utmost simplicity on the other. Once, 15 years ago, I listened to Parisian fish-master Jacques Le Divellec applaud his state-of-the-art steam oven, never expecting such wizardry would one day become available for domestic use. (Dare I admit that I first mistook the stainless-steel oven for a giant microwave or perhaps a front-loading washer?) Years later, I watched spellbound as whirlwinds Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray introduced all London to earthy Italian fare, at the young River Café, from a ten-by-ten space equipped with only four burners and a grill.

Somewhere along the line friends started bringing me kitchen floor plans drawn by their culinarily challenged architects and designers. I revised them, tailoring solutions to individuals’ cooking habits and leaving it for them to decide if the house or apartment called for sleek Italian or German cabinets or country pine, for high-output cooktops or mellow green slate counters.

Now I’m going public, putting that forearm scarred by an unstable oven rack at your service, salving my remembered backaches from too-low counters with a few guidelines that can help spare you.

Julia Child posed the question, when advising the Rhode Island School of Design on its Universal Kitchen Project: Do you want a kitchen for people who are simply feeding themselves or for families who want to sit down together and dine? Increasingly the answer is “Yes—both.”

More and more of us find that our cooking is bipolar. Weeknights we may spend more time dovetailing schedules than cooking. Too many of us can identify with Jane Jetson developing carpal tunnel syndrome (her doctor called it “button-itis”) from using her Food-a-Rac-a-Cycle as we struggle to get something nourishing on the table before 9 p.m. Rather than taking to our beds as she did, many of us resort to take-out roast chicken, store-bought sauces, dried pastas, and the soy-scented contents of little white cartons.

But on weekends or when family and friends gather in a convivial mood, we abandon ourselves to recreational cooking and patiently prepared dishes. The very haste of our Monday-to-Friday lives renders celebratory and ceremonial meals more important and appreciated, especially when the pleasure is compounded by the jollities of collaborative cooking. Many hands do make light work, and all the more so if the kitchen is designed to accommodate them.

Gone are the days when we would plan a week’s menus in advance. Who knows how we’ll feel by Wednesday night? Will we stop for dinner on the way home, or will it be pizza, or those tuna steaks glistening at the fish market? And as casseroles have given way to mesclun and portabellas, a pantry full of tins has been largely supplanted by a renewed respect for crisp produce and a suppler regimen inspired by what is in season in garden or farmers market. Even those who venture into the kitchen only to make a dawn cup of coffee are more likely to grind their own beans. We care more about variety, too, exploiting a larder immeasurably more exotic than that of our parents.

As our culinary refinement has evolved, appliance performance has become more of an issue. Without mega-Btu burners, the only hope for sizzle in a stir-fry is chiles. And the sleek look of professional appliances, popularized by behind-the-scenes photos of celebrity chefs, has become a combined fashion statement and declaration of prowess. One respected designer admitted to me that 80 percent of her work over the past decade has come out of her clients’ desires to have a commercial-caliber range, regardless of their cooking skills.

Kitchens need to respond to the way we live by combining appropriate equipment, workmanlike layout, and personal style. Each of the kitchens pictured on these pages manages that in a very distinct way. One is a real city slicker—small, black, and glossy. One is as country-traditional as the Victorian seaside house it serves. The last is cool and whimsical, with a mesmeric view of San Francisco framed by clouded-blue quartzite backsplashes.

Beneath the individual styles and varied materials and finishes, all three kitchens have fine appliances, intelligently positioned. Each perfectly suits the way its owners live and cook. Most important, the layout of each respects the cooking process, smoothing the moves. There is no need to ricochet about the room assembling a colander here, a pot holder there. Having equipment and ingredients within arm’s reach can generate an unexpected serenity; at the very least it encourages efficiency, reducing stress and bolstering confidence. And all of these kitchens are adjacent to eating or seating areas, enabling their cooks to banter with family and friends or monitor the evening news while they do everything from reheating leftovers to rustling up poached salmon with citrus, from canning peaches to assembling a croquembouche.

None of these kitchens is particularly large, yet Thanksgiving dinner for a dozen or more can readily be prepared in each. Indeed, big kitchens are deceptively difficult to plan. The late James Beard once illustrated this: Asked by restaurant consultant Michael Whiteman for help with the kitchen in his new Brooklyn house, Beard sized up the chosen room and declared it “too big.” He spun around like a top, flapping his long arms, saying, “That’s how big a kitchen’s walk-around space should be. If not, you’ll spend the rest of your life on roller skates.”

The decision to build or renovate a kitchen is, like marriage, not to be undertaken lightly. This room is certainly the most complex, and usually the most expensive, in a household, with a price tag that can compare unfavorably with a Testarossa’s. And you can’t test-drive the kitchen.

In the next five segments of this series—covering everything from bare-bones utility kitchens for the saucepan-averse to showplaces fit to welcome off-duty professional chefs—I will point out design snares and solutions. I’ll walk you through the steps of creating a livable kitchen, whether you are doing it up because you love to cook or because then you’ll have to learn to cook; because it is Action Central in a brimming family life or because you wish to woo the love of your life with eggs Benedict; because you need to cater to your caterers; or simply because a house without one has no hope of being a home.