Take it from the kitchen pros. Professional chefs share their secrets about efficient kitchen design.
By Victoria Spencer
When it comes to kitchen design, professional chefs are surprisingly like the rest of us. They're often limited by space and budget, but they're clearer about what they need and less likely to be seduced by what they don't need, so they don't end up with counters crammed with gadgets.
Doesn't Always Matter
"Work with what you have; that is what you learn as a professional," says Michelle Bernstein, chef-owner of Michy's and SRA. Martinez in Miami. Bernstein had to keep the existing layout when she and her husband bought their house and renovated the kitchen. "We couldn't do much; we had the amount of space we had. We sought to make the kitchen comfortable yet aesthetically appealing. It's not large enough to be an eat-in kitchen but it has all that I need." An efficient kitchen is, she says, "designed for economy of movement." In fact her stylish kitchen is so small she doesn't have the airflow for a gas stove and cooks on an electric range. A gas stove is generally a must for professional chefs. Many, like Ethan Stowell, chef-owner of Ethan Stowell restaurants in Seattle, consider a six-burner gas range a necessity. Debra Ponzek, chef-owner of Aux Délices in Connecticut, says "the right stove really depends on how you cook and eat." Her last stove was a Viking six-burner with two ovens, one small and one large. "Now I have a Viking with two large ovens. I found I really needed more oven space."
Counter Space is Most Valuable
Surprisingly, chefs are more passionate about counter space than they are about stoves. Stowell explains, "I need a lot of room. I like to spread out my ingredients, like I'm making a list of what I have." For his countertops he prefers "all wood, butcher block. It's easy to maintain and I like the feel." Ponzek increased the amount of counter space in her kitchen when she renovated and is very happy with the marble counters she had installed: "They're a really nice surface to work on, especially for pie doughs." Bernstein agrees about the need for counter space and likes the black granite she chose for her kitchen. She is careful to maintain it — and her knives — by cutting on boards, not on the granite directly.
Organization is Key
Another must for chefs is organization; they don't like clutter, believing it makes cooking less efficient and less enjoyable. Gabriel Kreuther, chef of The Modern in New York City, has beautiful Valverde limestone counters in his kitchen but the amount of counter space is more important to him than the material. "Having multiple large and uncluttered surface areas is key to a well-functioning kitchen," he says, then quotes the chefs' mantra: "Everything in its place and a place for everything." Frustrated by the lack of storage in his kitchen, Stowell plans to add a walk-in pantry — similar to how things are organized in a restaurant — when he renovates his kitchen next year. He likes his kitchen open, with everything accessible, including glassware and plates on open shelves and ingredients in the pantry. "If it's too hard to get to, you won't use it," says Monica Pope, chef-owner of t'afiain Houston, who removed the upper cabinets when she redid her kitchen. She keeps "everyday stuff, like pasta and cereal bowls and coffee cups on three shelves in the kitchen and other glassware and plates are in a cabinet facing the dining room." Bernstein has lots of shelving and cabinets in her kitchen and feels the deep cherry wood cabinets "give a lovely clean look and go well with the metal touches and black granite, creating a warm feeling."
Pot racks are a chef favorite. Ponzek replaced her kitchen chandelier with a handmade chandelier that has a five-foot pot rack built in. "It keeps the things we use all the time accessible," she says. Something Pope wanted readily accessible was space for recycling. She dedicated a corner of her kitchen for recycling. "Even though we are a small family, we fill it every week. It was an important consideration of space and organizing to include a feasible recycling area in the kitchen."
Appliances Depend on Lifestyle
Refrigerators and freezers are very personal choices. Some chefs use their freezers a lot but Bernstein chose her Viking refrigerator with a bottom freezer because "I need more fridge, I don't freeze much besides sorbets and doughs I make." Ponzek, who has three children, has solved her refrigerator needs by having a Sub-Zero side-by-side in the kitchen and a smaller refrigerator outside of the kitchen where she stores extra half-gallons of milk and juice, along with wine and other extras until they're needed. She says the second fridge is "great for chilling drinks for parties when the main one is full of desserts."
Ponzek also finds her newly enlarged island a boon when entertaining. Changing the island was the focus of her recent renovation. The island more than doubled in length, from five to 11 feet. Now when people come over she finds herself working at one end of the island while guests gather around hors d'oeuvres and drinks placed at the other end. Kreuther has a similarly sized island in his kitchen. He didn't design the island himself but notes that he and his wife chose their apartment because they liked the kitchen so much. "What we liked most was the sheer size of the island, including having plenty of counter space to prep dishes and allow for both of us to work side by side." The island even has four stools at one end where guests sit and chat with him as he works. When you have company, Pope says, "Guests end up in the kitchen and it's important to be able to face them as you cook, not be in a corner with your back to them."
A Sink or Two
A big, deep kitchen sink is a must for chefs; it needs to be generously sized to accommodate large pots. "My big, white porcelain sink works for me," says Pope. "I like the look of it — I have enough stainless steel in my life [at work]. Kreuther recommends, "If possible have two separate sinks; one is for washing vegetables, leaving the other free for dishes." The position of the sink is also important. Stowell likes the sink centrally located, in a line between the refrigerator and the stove, with counters between. Ponzek had a sink installed in her island, "right behind the stove, so I can turn from the stove to this sink with just one step."
When it comes to flooring, chefs favor functionality but also want good looks. Stowell says, "The ideal surface depends on the house." He likes concrete flooring but says it doesn't mesh with the rest of his house. His home has hardwood floors and, in the kitchen, the hardwood works well with the rustic look he favors. Bernstein says the flooring is a favorite part of her kitchen. She brought the terrazzo used elsewhere in her home into the kitchen and loves the look and the durability. Ponzek likes the large rose-tan, terra-cotta tile she has on her kitchen floor so much that this is the second home she's had it in. "It really does hide the dirt of kids and dogs and it cleans up so well, and that is important."