Just over two years ago I received an email from Steven Stern, a food writer, who asked if I was interested in being featured in an article for Saveur magazine. The proposed story would take a behind-the-scenes look at how I use my kitchen to prepare the foods that I post here on Playing With Fire and Water.
Over the past two decades, Saveur has inspired and fueled a passion for world cultures through the lens of food, consistently delivering quality content without relying on trends. In this shifting landscape of cuisine in a rapidly shrinking world, it has been a source of stability and perspective.
Of course I was interested!
As luck would have it, my kitchen was in the process of remodeling and it would take months to be presentable. I explained to Steven and he assured me that the story would wait.
Then I worried about his expectations— was he hoping to find a kitchen, a laboratory, or a hybrid?
Although the new kitchen's footprint had doubled in space, there was still no room (or budget) for a chamber vacuum, CVap, rotary evaporator, or any other laboratory-cum-kitchen equipment. My cooking had always relied upon a few basic appliances that could be found in any serious cook's kitchen and, for the time being, would continue that way. I hoped that was not going to be a deal breaker.
Predictably, the remodel ran behind schedule, but Steven was patient and finally came to my home in early summer. We passed a lovely afternoon chatting about food. I cooked for him, eager to introduce him to some of the fermented foods that I was working on. His questions, backed by genuine curiosity, felt like getting acquainted with a new friend, never like an interview.
Months later, I received a message from Penny De Los Santos informing me that she was coming to photograph my kitchen. It felt like I won the lottery and was acutely aware on the morning that she arrived of how fortunate I was for the opportunity to observe her at work and to pick her brain. She is as sweet and real as she is talented.
The story was written, the photographs taken, the waiting began. Right from the start I understood that the article, because it had no seasonality, could be published at any time. Or not at all. Even if it never saw the light of day, I was beyond grateful for the opportunity to have met two immensely talented people whose work I admired.
In November of 2012, word came from Saveur that they had decided to feature Playing with Fire and Water in their Saveur 100 issue with a blurb from Steven's story. I was delighted that its release would coincide with the 5 year anniversary of this blog and honored by the recognition of the love and work that went into it.
If I have any regrets, it's that I never got to read Steven's full story, or see more of Penny's images, and that you, dear readers, never got to see my new kitchen. Just like this blog, I put a lot of thought and love and work into it and it deserves recognition, too. I'd like to share it here— not to show it off (OK, maybe a little of that)— but with hopes that it will inspire you in organizing your own workspace.
To introduce you to my new kitchen, it would be fitting to begin with a backstory and images of the old kitchen, but that seemed redundant since those were already published in a previous post that you can read/view here.
Design: giving form
When I cook casual meals at home for my family, food is often served directly from the stove or oven, and everyone helps themselves. For formal meals, or when I'm being paid (or paying) for food, I spend more time on presentation, making it as significant as the flavor. In design terms that translates to form equals function.
My years of working as a private chef and caterer have placed me in countless kitchens, both residential and commercial, that have exposed me to the full spectrum of form vs function. On one end are the picture-perfect home kitchens where, upon closer inspection, functionality took a back seat to aesthetics. At the other end are the commercial kitchens, optimally organized for performance, but in the cold light of day appear sterile and soulless. Both of these situations have redeeming features, the challenge in designing my new kitchen was finding the sweet spot where these two elements intersect.
One example of form equals function is the sink faucets that were chosen both for their look (modern profile/vintage patina) and commercial features (pull down head with one-touch spray/stream control, and single temperature lever). I liked them so much that I bought two— one for the main sink, and one for the island sink that is indispensable for foodhandling tasks such as washing hands, produce, and filling and draining pots.
Another example is the 'apothecary' that utilizes the wasted space between wall studs by framing it and fitting with shallow shelves that make ingredients accessible. While I love to see collections of things on display, open storage can often look cluttered. Using uniform jars and labels makes them look cohesive and tidy.
Aesthetically, the goal was to assimilate my predilection for modern design with the character of my 93-year-old house. To achieve this, I relied on contrasting shades, textures, and surfaces, juxtaposing contemporary with vintage. A lot of contrast can become jarring to the eye— to soften the effect, the color palette was limited to warm earthtones, and pattern to the granite countertop. I couldn't be happier with how it turned out.
Organization: making it function
The first thing I do when working a private kitchen is to clear the countertops and organize the space to function like a restaurant by defining stations for prep/mis en place, cooking, plating, and cleanup. Ideally, the first three are staged within reach of each other and the cleanup area is segregated to hold the dirty dishes and clutter that can't be dealt with while the clock is ticking.
Using this model as the starting point for the new kitchen's floor plan, I placed the main sink and dishwasher at one end of the room, and located a second sink on the island for food handling. In the cleanup area, it made sense to store dishes, glassware, and flatware near the dishwasher and dry goods near the refrigerator.
With the cleanup area situated at one end of the kitchen, and the dining area at the other, there was no question that all of the food preparation would take place in the center of the room. For this, I designed a nine foot long island with a stove and sink, and separated them with a span of counter workspace. I spent a considerable amount of time on the cabinet layout so that all of the necessary tools and equipment would be stored where they were most needed. The island storage provides cutting boards and knives for prepping, and utensils and pans for cooking, all within arm's reach.
I find it hard to function or think around clutter— it disrupts organization and focus. Eliminating countertop clutter, particularly on the island, was mandatory. But, then, where to put the small appliances and paraphernalia that are needed when prepping?
I gave them an accessible home in a cabinet, located directly behind the island, where the appliances are always plugged in and ready to use, then quickly tuck away behind a folding door. To accommodate the inevitable spills and splatters, I finished the inside surfaces with four coats of polyurethane for easy cleanup. (Note: all of the paints, stains and finishes used were water-based. Generally, they are more expensive and harder to work with because they dry so quickly, but the payoff was less fumes and toxic emissions).
The wall unit also houses a trio of baking drawers, situated beneath the mixer, that make baking a breeze. The middle drawer was designed for two flip-top containers (each holds a five pound bag of flour or sugar) whose lids snap shut when the drawer closes. Having everything at hand, I can whip up a batch of pancake or muffin batter in the time it takes to brew coffee.
Next to the appliance cabinet is the skinniest spice rack (I've) ever seen and one of the design features that delights me the most. It was meant to be dead space that enclosed a support beam, but at the last minute I re-imagined its potential and changed the faceboard to a door and fitted it with shelves. It's only 5" wide and half as deep, but it stands floor to ceiling and holds 28 jars of spice!
Designing a wall cabinet to be flush with the refrigerator gave the appliance a built-in look that made it less prominent in the room and made the storage more accessible. Divided vertical storage is the most efficient use of space for storing flat and shallow wares such as cutting boards, sheet pans, platters, and racks.
Construction: making it a reality
Long before the design and layout were finalized, I began looking for the most important element that would become the kitchen's backbone of both form and function— the cabinetry. After years of searching and indecision, our cabinets found us when our good friends Phil and Roxanne generously offered a set that they ordered for their own kitchen and then decided to go with another finish. They were perfect, really— well constructed with clean simple lines— but they were only enough to fit the cleanup area. The remaining cabinets (the island, refrigerator and wall units, and bookcases) had to be custom made to match and fit. For these we relied on another good friend, Ron Pronovost, master cabinet maker, whose impeccable craftsmanship we knew would bring them to life. In fact, the entire kitchen was built with help from a circle of friends and acquaintances with the specialized skills that extended beyond our own.
When we were ready to proceed, the demolition began. Curiously, this was the only stage that my sons wanted to be a part of. Over the course of a few days, we removed the old cabinets and windows, stripped the plaster walls and ceiling to bare studs, and took down a wall that divided the kitchen from the dining room. It was simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying.
With the kitchen gutted, my husband and I ran electrical wires, installed new windows and ductwork for the exhaust. We sub-contracted the aforementioned friends and acquaintances to make electrical connections, run plumbing, put up sheetrock, and refinish the wood floors. After the cabinets were installed, I spent weeks painstakingly staining and painting them, putting up the tile backsplash and light fixtures, and stripping, refinishing, and installing the original millwork. It was truly a labor of love.
I'm often asked if there is anything that I would have done differently. It is then that I consider the things that I wished I had more space for: a larger refrigerator, a CVap oven, and always, always more storage. But those desires pass quickly when I think of the life-changing efficiency and profound pleasure that it has brought to the thing I love most— cooking.