I remember an apartment I had in Manhattan, when I was just 20. It was at the top of a six-floor walk-up with marble stairs. Even at 20, I wanted to leave an oxygen tank on the 4th floor for laundry day. But a huge two bedroom in the West Village for cheap rent was hard to come by, even in the 1980s. Plus there was a handy bonus: My parents couldn't make it up the stairs. No more surprise visits. WIN!
We called the apartment the Ranchhouse and decorated it with Clint Eastwood posters and western-style furniture. It was a completely NOT-renovated pre-war tenement, where the landlord never did a thing. Once a year or so, part of the ceiling would fall down, and we'd have to tape plastic bags to keep out the pigeons.
The kitchen was like stepping back in time to the 1950s. It had a huge sink in which you could wash two babies and a water buffalo, and an old country gas stove made years before electric starters came into fashion. You had to light a match every time you used it, then jump back or lose your eyebrows.
Since the bathtub was as close to the stove as the nearest counter was, it became an extension of the kitchen. One of the first parties I catered, years before I could afford a commercial kitchen, I had to make a hundred quiches. Fortunately there was loads of space in the Ranchhouse kitchen. I opened up two folding tables for more kitchen prep area then bleached the clawfoot tub, filled it with ice, put the quiches in disposable containers and stacked them in the tub.
A caterer was born!
I threw at least one dinner party every week in the seven years I lived in the Ranch. Big pots of chicken curry simmered away on that funky stovetop regularly.
Part of the reason for all that home cooking was that once you got up all those stairs, you never wanted to go down again and part of the reason was that big kitchen with the 1960s country gas stove and old cupboards, just made you feel like cooking.
If you spilled a sauce or dropped the eggs, so what?! It was the Ranchhouse, stained, scratched and comfy.
A few years later, I had the pleasure of moving into a designer home (lost it in the divorce, alas) with a kitchen that was featured in a magazine or two. I never saw so many gadgets; I wanted to hire an IT guy just to show me how to turn on the oven! But something about that super swank, electric, brand new, "cook's kitchen" shut down my mojo. I don't think I cooked a meal at home the whole five years I lived there, unless you count salad.
For me, a dream "cook's kitchen" needs a gas stove, but I can make electric work. I once catered a party for 300 people out of a Xerox machine closet using two butane camper stoves and a prayer. So I know just about anything can be done if you have enough gusto.
I can forgive the electric stove as long as I have a lot of room and an easy, it's-OK-to-make-a-mess, we-can-just-clean-it-up feeling kitchen. Not the case for that designer kitchen. Everything about it read "pretty but don't touch."
I was recently invited to a family supper to share, great food and lots of love, but also to show off my cousin's swank new kitchen with the gorgeous tiled counters.
As with 99% of the dinners I get invited to, I was asked to help prepare the meal. It goes with the territory. Folks finding out you are a caterer is like finding out you are a doctor. Doc why does this hurt? Chef, how long do I cook this beef?
My cousin is awesome, so I pulled up my sleeves and jumped in to help crank out the supper. But every time I tried to put something hot down on those gorgeous, Spanish style counters, her husband nearly had a coronary! "Don't scratch the counters! Don't get burn marks on the tile!"
I wound up breaking down a few cardboard boxes, covering all the tile with them and then covering the boxes with tablecloths to make it look a little nicer. So yes, gorgeous new kitchen, but NO, not my idea of a cook's kitchen.
I'm not a designer or a contractor or a spokesperson for any sort of pot or pan or sort of kitchen appliance. I'm just a downtown girl who loves to cook and am lucky enough to get paid doing it.
So what I can tell you about creating that dream kitchen of yours is this: It's your dream, not mine. Find whatever makes you feel comfortable. If an egg dropping on the floor in a kitchen sends you into cardiac arrest, something is wrong with that kitchen (or perhaps less caffeine would be a good idea, dear). Keep it user-friendly!
Give me a kitchen that's big, with loads of counterspace, a cook's island, a heavy-duty gas stove, lots of good, heavy-bottom pots and a few windows to let out the smoke if it doesn't have an exhaust fan, and I am good to go.
So what's the moral of this kitchen story? Moral shmoral. Just be comfy and make sure to cook with love. Everything else falls into place.