The Great American Kitchen Myth
Also, notes from Paris. A fantastic spice resource. And a vintage menu.
I’ve been traveling, but I’m home now and extremely happy to be back in my kitchen. Walking into this room always gives me a jolt of pleasure. But if I’m being honest, I’ve loved the kitchen in every house I’ve ever lived in.
A few years ago Real Simple asked me what it is about those kitchens that has made me so happy.
At the moment I’m standing in the gorgeous kitchen of the airb&b I’ve rented for a few weeks in Los Angeles. It has every imaginable bell and whistle: dark marble counters, computer-equipped stove, European dishwasher, a cool sculptural vent. There’s a huge refrigerator with freezer drawers that is so tastefully camouflaged by smooth wooden panels you’d never know it was there. Every nook and cranny of this kitchen has been carefully designed so that even the usually inaccessible corner spaces have pivoting shelves to hold the many machines -food processors, spice grinders, mixers – hidden beneath the counters. On top of that, it has a view of an immaculately groomed garden much loved by a neighboring cat who resembles a tiny tiger.
There is not one thing wrong with this kitchen…except for the fact that I hate it.
Despite its glamorous efficiency, this kitchen and I have yet to produce a delicious meal. I am not surprised: all the money that’s been poured into this room have made it cold, clinical and unwelcoming. “Go away!” it seems to shout each time I walk in the door.
It is living proof that the Great American Kitchen Myth is utter nonsense. You know, that one that says it’s impossible to produce a decent meal unless you have a battery of arcane appliances.New and supposedly necessary gadgets are constantly entering our lives. Last year it was a sous-vide machine, a rice cooker or an induction cooktop. This year it’s the Instapot. Next year it will probably be the anti-griddle (such an object really does exist; it is to cold what ordinary griddles are to heat). The people who produce these things want you to covet computerized refrigerators that warn you when you’re about to run out of milk, intelligent ovens that tell you when the roast is done, and countertop cookers eager to produce an entire meal at the flick of a button.
I’ve been breathlessly introduced to each of these items. But I don’t want them. I know that in real life I need none of these things. The truth is that, given a few excellent ingredients, a reliable source of heat, a sharp knife and a couple of pots anyone can produce a great meal. What she can’t do is cook that great meal in a kitchen that makes her (or him) miserable.
The first kitchen I could truly call my own occupied the corner of a bare bones loft on New York’s then ungentrified and fairly scary lower east side. We built our counters by scavenging wooden pallets that had been discarded by our industrial neighbors (back then downtown New York was still filled with factories). Our stove was a cranky old creature someone had discarded and left on the street. There was, of course, no dishwasher, which has left me with a lifelong appreciation for washing dishes. (I find creating order out of chaos extremely fulfilling.) And back then we were so poor that when I needed a rolling pin it made more sense to buy a bottle of cheap wine and use that to roll out my pastry. (The wine was terrible, but it went into a terrific stew.) And I’m convinced that I invented the microplane: when I needed to grate Parmesan I rifled through my husband’s tool box and borrowed his rasp.
That kitchen may have been shabby and small, but it was always filled with music and I danced joyfully around as I taught myself to make good meals out of cheap cuts, bake bread (in discarded ceramic flower pots), and feed the hungry friends who showed up whenever mealtime rolled around. I was so happy in that kitchen that I ended up writing a cookbook. (If you can find a copy of MMMMM: A Feastiary you will discover that it contains not a single recipe requiring anything as arcane as a food processor or stand mixer.)
I moved on to a communal house in Berkeley California where we rarely sat down to dinner with fewer than a dozen people. We still had no dishwasher and not a single fancy food machine, but that kitchen was always filled with people talking, chopping, drinking wine, rolling out pasta on an old-fashioned chittara, and stretching a single chicken to feed a crowd. I don’t think I’ve ever served better meals than during the ten years I lived in that house.
My next kitchen was in Los Angeles, in an old house with a scarred linoleum floor and a single electrical outlet. Once again, no dishwasher. But it was an airy space with a view of distant snow-capped hills and bougainvillea that came twining through the window. Despite the antique stove and scarce electricity I managed to cook Thanksgiving dinner for thirty people every year, and no one ever complained about the food.
For most of human history, feeding your family was backbreaking work. You had to raise the animals, tend the garden, butcher the meat. You had to fetch water, light fires and preserve enough of summer’s bounty to see your family through the winter.
But modern life has changed all that. Indoor plumbing, refrigeration and supermarkets (not to mention on-line shopping) have turned cooking into something that is no longer a chore. Today cooking can be – should be - pure pleasure. So here’s my advice: forget about all the appliances you think you need. Just turn your kitchen into a space you love; everything else will follow.
I can’t tell you what your dream kitchen should be: we all cook so differently that one kitchen couldn’t possibly please everyone. But I can tell you what makes me happy.
I prefer small kitchens. Standing in the middle of mine I can stretch out my arms and touch the sink on one side and the stove on the other. About that stove….. I invested in a very fancy one and I’m sorry I did. My previous stove was the cheapest 6-burner model on the market and I loved it. Unlike the behemoth I now possess, it shot up to temperature in a few minutes, while my top-of-the-line splurge takes almost half an hour to reach 450 degrees.
I like to bake pies (yes, I now own a rolling pin), so I covered my counters with a stone called serpentine which allows me to roll out dough anywhere I want. This material is not only beautiful, but so sturdy I can plop the hottest pots on top without giving it a thought.
I do have a dishwasher, but I kind of wish I didn’t; it takes up too much room, and if I had it to do over I’d put a central trash bin where the dishwasher now lives. It would be a major improvement.
I’m lucky: at five feet six inches I’m the average height for an American woman, and most standard kitchens are designed for me. But if you’re not, fix it; chopping at the wrong height is exhausting. If you’re short, put in layers of rubber mats; if you’re tall, add chopping blocks so you don’t have to bend over each time you pick up a knife. This is a small thing: it is also everything.
Visuals are equally important. Some people like their kitchens spare. I don’t. I prefer color and chaos, and I’ve covered my counters with bowls of fruits and jars of spices. I have a few antique appliances too; my favorite is an old juicer that reminds me of a friendly elephant. It cost $2 in a junk shop, but it makes me laugh every time I walk into the room.
My kitchen is so cheerful that I never want to leave. I have air and light and music. And although it’s small there’s plenty of room for any friend who wants to lend a hand. And that happens fairly often, because this room is an invitation to cook. The cats like it too, and they come in purring loudly as they twine around our ankles. But even when the room is empty, I am never lonely in the kitchen. When I stand at the stove the ghosts of all the women who taught me to cook are there too, cheering me on.
Most of all, each time I caramelize an onion in butter, or the kitchen fills with the fine yeasty scent of bread rising in the oven, I’m reminded of all the little things that make life worth living. Because that’s the real secret of a great kitchen: one you love is genuinely life changing. It not only makes you a better cook, it also makes you a happier person.
(Curious about my current kitchen? You can see it here.)
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For the past couple of weeks I’ve been writing about the extraordinary meals I found in France. Today I want to pay tribute to an extraordinary meal I ate a few years ago in America.
Chicago’s Next is one of our most exciting restaurants because they keep challenging themselves to move on, do something new. A few times a year they rework the entire menu, going into a deep exploration of a time or a place. In the autumn of 2012 I learned Next was about to investigate the most poetic cuisine I know, the kaiseki tradition of Japan.
I had to go.
I was not disappointed.
(You can read a review, with photographs, here.)
Just a couple of notes on Paris….
This is the bottom of the rue Mouffetard, the oldest market street in Paris - and one of my favorite streets in the world. Wandering along Mouffetard always makes me happy, not least because of this very beautiful old building.
The street is packed with wonderful produce stands, fish mongers, cheese sellers and bakeries. The most famous bakery is Le Fournil de Mouffetard, but when I walked into the 4-year old David Doualan I found a new home.
Best new restaurant find? Soces, way up on the Belleville hill, where Marius de Ponfilly, former chef of Clamato, is serving a simple and delicious menu featuring mainly fish.
The oysters were superb, and I loved the raw cuttlefish with confit celery root
the tuna carpaccio….
and the pollack in Saint Malo sauce. (The sauce is an Escoffier classic, a white wine sauce with shallots, white mustard and anchovy butter.)
The room is small and attractive; the service is friendly and warm. I’ll go back.
If you’re a restaurant and you’re having a party and you want a really unique gift for your guests, what you’re most likely to do is ask the spice master at La Boite, Lior Lev Sercarz to craft a special blend for you.
A friend who recently attended such a party generously offered me the blend from his goody bag. I wish it was for sale because I use it ALL the time. (It’s a bold mix of lemon, fennel pollen and Calabrian chile, and I find myself sprinkling it onto almost everything.)
La Boite has been supplying chefs with unusual spices since 2006. Even if you’re not in the market for new spice blends, a troll through the website is a wonderful way to while away a few hours.