September 4th 2012

an author’s kitchen

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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.

8 comments

  1. MaryBeth says:

    It is one of my favorite kitchens, ever.

  2. The signature picture of this kitchen – the wall sink with the art above it – is one of my favorite kitchen pictures, and one that I looked at often when thinking about creating a wall sink for my own kitchen in the house that I recently built.

    I loved reading more about this special kitchen, and related to so much of what Mark wrote. When we designed and built our house, I hired a special kitchen designer even though I had a top notch architect and designer on the team. I wanted the kitchen to be beautiful, but I needed it to be functional above all else, as someone who cooks on a daily basis. Although I have somewhat of a work triangle in my kitchen, my kitchen is very long because it is in the wing of the house, so I do a bit of walking too, but I truly would not change a thing.

    As far as the kitchen table is concerned – we are still using our old kitchen table and chairs, but in 2013 are doing round 2 of the interior design and will be ‘finishing’ the kitchen decor to go with the look and feel of the house. I can’t wait – it is like the last piece of the puzzle for my kitchen, for many of the reasons that Mark mentioned in this post – the kitchen table is an essential element of a kitchen, not only for function but for psychology as well.

    Loved this post-
    Holly

  3. Dawn says:

    Loved reading this post. It brought back so many wonderful memories of my Granny’s kitchen here in Birmingham, Alabama. Her house was built around the same time in a Steel town…I can still remember that sink that looked exactly as the one described in his Grandmother’s kitchen and the gas stove. But mostly it reminded me of how much I loved seeing my sweet Granny sitting at the table my Grandfather had built when they first “set up housekeeping” as she always put it, and drinking her coffee with a book in hand, when I awoke each time I spent the weekend with her. The kitchen truly is the heart of my home and I have tons of wonderful memories from all three of my own kitchens through the years of family time, children doing homework at the table and tons of parties where friends always congregated in the kitchen…..thanks for such a beautiful post! It was much needed on this dreary Tuesday morning!

  4. Jim Volz says:

    So enjoyed this post and always love updates on Mark!

  5. Reblogged this on My Construction Guru and commented:
    Interesting… what do you think about this kitchen?

  6. melissa lee says:

    Everything looks like a Penis to me so, I do not think it is strange at all… I also, think when design is at it’s best it has the Penis and Vagina, balance… One does fit, hopefully nicely into the other and this creates a sense of contraction and expansion that I feel good spaces have, including kitchens…

    xoxo
    Melissa

  7. Both my husband’s and my maternal grandparents had kitchens like the one you describe, Mark: stark, functional and the true heart of their homes. Yours captures the best of that tradition and great design to boot! Hats off!

    Sandra Nickel

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