HAVING cooked professionally for over 10 years, I've had plenty of opportunity to mull over the design of my perfect kitchen. I've cooked in large professional kitchens, in confined galleys and suburban nightmares. I've produced food for over a hundred with little more than a bucket of water and a blow-torch, standing in a draughty corridor. And more recently, I have cooked in a kitchen abroad where, in the absence of the owners, the work surfaces had been built a foot higher than normal, which meant moving a box around the kitchen to stand on. Yet it has been cooking in the most basic situations that has brought home to me just how little you need.
I've always had a horror of the stereotypical dream kitchen, with its in-built deep-fat fryer and waste-disposal unit. Even shiny Bulthaup kitchens fill me with apprehension; I'm not sure I feel ready for all that flash organisation in my life, and in any case, I can't afford it. As it was, my husband, who is a landscape architect by profession, turned his talents to the interior and to my ambitions for a truly functional room to cook in. He drew up the necessary plans after a great deal of agonised deliberating with me, and my new conservatory kitchen was duly built onto the garden by a charming duo called the Thorpe brothers (a couple of bikers with identical waist- length plaits) who were most endearing for their utter willingness to down tools and step in as emergency baby-sitters.
For me, the true essentials around which a kitchen should be built are the sink, the cooker and plenty of work surfaces. And it is this, rather than any religious dedication to minimalism, that leads me to keep it as uncluttered as it is, together with the fact that kitchens are horribly sordid places (if you're using them properly, that is) which almost breathe grease. There was a time when I had decorative spice jars and clay casseroles hanging around looking purposeful. Then I got fed up with having to scrub the fine, gluey layers of grime and dust off whenever they were taken down (usually about once every six months). I'm far too lazy now for that kind of malarkey.
Of course, before you can decide what will or won't go into your perfect kitchen, you have to know how big it will be. For many years I was confined to a minuscule galley kitchen that was forced into functional submission. Friends would come round and habitually say "we don't know how you manage".
Prior to this, I'd endured the battery-cage conditions so often enjoyed by chefs, working at Kensington Place where you have little more than 2ft around you in which to sharpen your Sabatiers and swing your pigeons. Here, there was no other choice after completing one task but to clear it up before starting another. It was a hard-learnt lesson, but it did at least prepare me for a life of galley kitchens and I've adopted a wash- up-as-you-go policy ever since. In a similar vein, I'm always bemused by friends who live in rambling houses in the country and use a whole room as a dumping ground for old newspapers and magazines that they are never going to read again. As a city-dweller forced to think in terms of square feet instead of square hectares, I can't even contemplate such a luxury.
But I have more in the way of praise for a galley: it has the advantage of affording you the maximum work surface within the easiest reach. Some of the most impractical kitchens that I've ever cooked in have been the largest, especially when there is a sizeable dining table in the middle of the room that has to be negotiated in order to cross from one side to another. So even though I now have a comparatively large space for an urban kitchen, I have stuck to the small-kitchen mentality by installing a horseshoe unit down one end with the seating at the other. It still feels as though you're cooking in a big kitchen, but it's more user-friendly than if the whole room is fringed with work surfaces. It also means I can cook while keeping a careful eye on my one-year-old as he trashes the sitting-room.
The desire to be able to entertain in the kitchen comes quite low on my list of priorities - I would much rather eat in the garden during the summertime and the dining-room during the winter. Having a big table in the kitchen has more to do with feeding children and being able to spread out with papers and coffee while making telephone calls during the day.
Perhaps another throwback to those heady days of working as a chef is my fondness for stainless-steel worktops. I'm so used to being able to slam hot pans down on the surface that I tend to get into a state of high anxiety when I find myself cooking in a kitchen with wooden or Formica tops that burn. It's so much easier not to have to worry about it. On this occasion I have had a deep sink moulded into a single piece of steel so that it's totally seamless, and I've also done away with the drainer. But the stainless steel stops there, as it's murder to keep clean. I worked in one restaurant that had an open-plan kitchen visible to diners, where the owner insisted that we rubbed baby oil over the steel fridges during the middle of service to keep them looking their best. The local chemist must have thought there were some pretty kinky things going on, given the amount we used to buy in. And it was, after all, in Soho.
My biggest luxury has been the installation of a La Cornue cooking range. I have drooled over these ever since I was a fledgling cook, when there was a showroom next to the now-defunct French Kitchen Shop in Westbourne Grove, west London. I was determined that one day I should have one of my own. The showroom subsequently disappeared; it was just on the cusp of the media cooking revolution in this country, at a time when it seemed we were not quite ready for these massive iron ranges (it took five men to carry mine in). But they now look set to return.
It is a timely comeback. One knock-on effect of all the hyped media attention to restaurant cooking has been the new fashion in ranges for the home; even Smeg is doing a scaled-down version for "let's play restaurants". The good news is that many of these cookers afford generous space for the hob, and you can have almost any config- uration of oven and hob that you want. The bad news is that they are mostly dressed up to look like old-fashioned or professional ranges, when in truth that's all cosmetic. The La Cornue range, on the other hand, has a superbly engineered domed oven which is specially designed to keep food moist. They argue that modern fan ovens dry food out by blasting it with hot air, although we will have to differ here. While I love my La Cornue, I also think that modern fan ovens are brilliant for the consistently good results they achieve compared to old-fashioned gas ovens. So I have one of these as well, and that's what I use for my recipe testing.
The rest is very pragmatic. The floor is polished oak and comes from Junckers, and with Louis intent on rubbing Ritz crackers into every visible crack, I can recommend it as being exceptionally user-friendly as well as lovely to walk on first thing in the morning in bare feet. I have two fridges, one for the drinks and one for the food, and I'm quite happy with the standard domestic type instead of one of those flash American numbers, the glory of which always escapes me (especially the ones with glass doors - since when did the contents of a fridge look attractive? Unless of course it's been kitted out for one of those "what I keep in my fridge" slots, where there are never any unsightly leftovers or half-eaten bars of chocolate).
Also high on my list of priorities are light and silence. In an ideal world, the only noise apart from occasional blast of Miles Davis would be sizzling, sputtering and simmering, or else the sound of a whisk brushing the side of a bowl. But the reality of modern kitchens is somewhat different, with all manner of machinery and appliances joining in, the chief offender being the extractor fan. Testing these out in a showroom was like standing next to the runway at Heathrow, my husband and I shouting over the din as it slowly crescendoed to full power. The expensive answer is to duct the extractor motor some distance away from the fans above the cooker so there is no noise in the kitchen. In built-up areas, though, this invariably means dumping the noise on your neighbours. I'm not sure there are any magical solutions to the extractor-fan problem and I guess it all boils down to compromise.
But in the meantime I'm thinking it over in my beautifully light and airy new room. After toiling away in a kitchen totally reliant on electrical lighting, it is an unimagined luxury to find myself cooking in a conservatory with an opaque glass ceiling and full-length glass doors right the way down one side. In fact, I'd even go so far as to call this kitchen perfect. For me, that is. !
PUTTING THE KIT INTO KITCHEN
ANNIE BELL insists that she hasn't invested in "a massive amount of equipment" for her new kitchen. But there are some stalwarts she just can't do without. One is her trusty set of Wusthof Trident knives, which she's used ever since her early days; another old ally is her collection of Bourgeat saucepans, which have heavy bases and, she says, are more durable than those made of thinner enamel. "On the one hand they don't conduct heat very quickly, but they never burn, and it makes a tremendous difference cooking with them." She also uses an iron frying pan, and prefers to chop food on a wooden board. "These days you're meant to use plastic ones, but I hate the sound of them; to me, it's a bit like chalk on a blackboard."
A common-or-garden food processor is another of her kitchen staples, as is the ice-cream maker: "It doesn't often get an outing but its nice to have." Baking essentials include rolling pins, a "very useful" pair of stainless-steel hinged tongs, a Zyliss "Strongboy" ("for opening things without having to ask someone to do it for you"), a basic palette-knife and a rotary whisk. This, Annie claims, "is by far the easiest whisk to use: it doesn't demand enormous muscle power".
Also high on her list of essentials are a zester, an olive pitter, a lemon squeezer, a pestle and mortar and a garlic press, plus a simple stand-up steel cheese grater. But Annie is careful to point out that kitchens work better and harder for you when they're not cluttered. "It's more about leaving things out than putting them in. There's a notion that you have to buy all these gadgets in order to cook, but most gadgets just complicate your life and there are some completely absurd ones that perform the most basic tasks. You spend half your life washing them up."
Three simple innovations have most helped in the creation of her ideal cooking space: a deeper sink, "which is so much easier to prepare food in," a separate walk-in larder and, maybe surprisingly, a reduction in cupboard space. "I haven't got as much space as I might want," Annie admits, "but that's not such a bad thing because it's easy for me to get into the habit of stuffing things into the back of cupboards and not looking at them for another two years. I'm making a big effort to keep things pared down; it's a good discipline for me." Rachelle ThackrayReuse content