This week’s post is from a guest: our dear friend, author and cook, Mark Leslie.
“That chandelier is very phallic. Or maybe it has just been a long time for me!”
“Wait, someone actually wrote that?” Joanna, a writer, asked me during a recent interview for a USA Weekend article.
“Yes, when my not-so-usual kitchen was published in House Beautiful magazine’s February 2010 issue, it exploded on several popular design blogs with lots of buzz—some good and some rather off-color,” I replied. “It was amazing to read people’s reactions and started me thinking about what a kitchen means to me.”
I grew up in a blue-collar Midwestern household where my mother cooked three meals a day — “from scratch” breakfast, packed our school lunchboxes, and dinner was ready when my father walked in the door from work. And, no, I was not raised in the 1950s. It was the 1970s.
Summer vacations always included a trip to my great-grandmother’s house in Ohio where, waiting for us when we walked in the door, was each of our individual favorite cookies and pies—all homemade by my “Big Gram.” Whether it was chocolate chip cookies for me, peanut butter for my brother, oatmeal raisin for my father, or my mother and sisters’ favorites, each of the six of us knew we were special and loved before anyone ever said “Hello!” or hugged and kissed us. Early on, the equation of “food = love” made a huge and lasting impression on me.
My great-grandmother’s house was built in the 1910s on a railman’s salary. The kitchen was a square, 10-foot ceilinged room on the back of that shotgun house. One wall contained a 5-foot porcelain sink with built-in drain-board and a long built-in hutch with cabinets below, a thin counter shelf and paned glass-door cabinets above. The refrigerator filled the space between two windows on wall two, while wall three was a series of doors leading to various rooms including up toward the attic and down to the coal furnace in the basement. On the fourth wall, the non-descript white stove, with its flickering fluorescent light in the back console that buzzzzzzed and huuuuummmed, gave you the impression it was part work surface light and bug zapper all in one. And besides an oilcloth-covered circular kitchen table in the middle of the room, that was it—a utilitarian workspace of no design. But that room was the soul of that house.
As a cookbook author and TV food personality with a food blog, the kitchen and family table are very important to me. In our American fast-paced life, we are marketed to to believe that we have no time to cook, though food television tempts us with quick recipes and food competition shows. I want to encourage and inspire people to get back into the kitchen, to cook for the people they care about, and then gather them around the table to share in the meal and share of themselves.
The kitchen is where you wait with a cup of coffee for your child to come home late after being out past curfew, where you help your grandchildren decorate cupcakes, where you make a dinner for your spouse’s boss, where the kids do homework, and where the hustle and bustle of life coincides with moments of peaceful reflection.
Here is where good kitchen design comes into play.
No more a space relegated to the rear of the home, kitchens are increasingly being placed toward the front of the house and, in doing so, are becoming more designed living space than just a place to house appliances. A kitchen should be where you want to spend time to live your life—not a place of scullery punishment.
My kitchen now occupies the room that used to be the home’s dining room. In fact, in designing it, the “dining room” aspect of the room was the inspiration for the kitchen design itself:
The island is a large, uninterrupted elliptical-shaped piece of marble reminiscent of an oval dining table, which now provides ample space for me to test recipes of my invention, roll out pasta, or prepare a meal while friends and family hangout.
I first fell in love with the idea of a large work surface island in one of Greg Tankersley’s previously owned homes. His kitchen contained what I still believe to be the longest and widest maple butcher block island in Christendom. At least 4-feet wide and about 14-feet long, it provided Greg a huge workspace, while affording the rest of us a place to hangout and socialize with him as he whipped up a culinary masterpiece or just a grilled cheese sandwich.
His island also convinced me to discard the notion that the sink, stove and refrigerator had to be within close proximity to become the “triangle” of perfect cooking efficiency. Greg’s sink and refrigerator were both located at the opposite end of the room from the stove—meaning he had to walk more than 3-feet, breaking the “triangle” rule, to wash a plate or grab some butter. My great-grandmother walked in her kitchen and now I do, too, since my refrigerator is on the opposite side of the island from the sink.
My stove has a large 19th-century mirror above it, reminiscent of a dining room’s sideboard, which affords me a view of the backyard reflected through the bay window behind me as I cook.
“A mirror behind the stove?” asked Joanna, “Isn’t that a nightmare to keep clean?”
“Well, no. If it gets dirty, you simply pull out the glass cleaner, give it a couple of squirts and wipe it off. Besides, I don’t fry a lot of things and I don’t fling stuff around when I cook, so I don’t have to clean it often as you might think—and, when did having a kitchen that would hide dirt become a desirable thing? Would you want to eat in a dirty kitchen?”
“Oh no! I see your point,” she said.
Chris Tippett, one of McAlpine Tankersley’s architects, designed the sink cabinet, a “buffet” piece of furniture as well as the “china cabinet” which houses the Sub-Zero, but also provides food pantry storage on one side and everyday dish/glassware storage on the other.
It is interesting that in the “Rebels” chapter of House Beautiful Kitchens, released this past April, four of the five kitchens featured, including mine, have a connection to McAlpine Tankersley Architecture. MTA’s idea of “home” extends to every room of the house including the kitchen, which is evident in their book, too.
I have a very functional kitchen with some style—it is a place where we all want to hangout. Two sconces were attached back-to-back to create the over the island chandelier. Bobby McAlpine designed the “bongo drum” stools which are easily moved about to sit with a morning bowl of cereal, an afternoon cup of coffee shared with a visiting friend, or to “hold court” as I cook for a dinner party. And the stools tuck under and out of the way for a large party—where the island becomes a serving surface for the food.
“It is okay to think out of the box—to let your kitchen be a room—your room—and not a cookie-cutter version of everyone else’s desires,” I told Joanna.
Make your kitchen the place where you want to spend time, fill it with things of remembrance (the zoological bat prints over the sink were purchased in a crazy little shop while on vacation in Siena, Italy), and use it to connect with friends and family—real cooking from the heart gives us the opportunity to transcend just feeding the body to feeding the soul as well.
“And that is good kitchen design?” she asked.
“When design enhances your life for the better, it isn’t just ‘good,’ it is brilliant!”
Mark Leslie, seen cooking on NBC’s The Today Show, loves to cook for anyone with an appetite, vacations in Italy every year and lives to eat his way through every plate of pasta and cone of gelato placed before him.
His first book, Beyond the Pasta: Recipes, Language & Life with an Italian Family, tells of his life in Italy while cooking with an Italian grandmother. He shares his food experiences on his blog at beyondthepasta.com and has led cooking classes in California, Minnesota, Texas, and across Alabama. On his recurring cooking segment for NBC-affiliate WSFA-12, Mark stresses the importance of fresh, locally sourced ingredients and seasonal cooking.
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