In Ris Lacoste's Home Kitchen, Sleek Is Out, Efficient Is In

By Bonnie S. Benwick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 5, 2009

As a food editor, I get invited into all sorts of kitchens to watch people cook, and this is what I've discovered: There are lots of fabulously outfitted kitchens, but few of them are truly fabulous.

My unprovable theory about the Great Misstep of Modern Kitchen Design is that when people ask for a more workable, functional space, what they receive is the maximum footage of cabinets and countertops.

That's what a lot of us end up with after the final punch list is complete. But it's not really enough, because the cook's personality is often missing. Ever wonder what makes some kitchens the place where party guests always congregate? The folks don't gather 'round just to grab the freshest hors d'oeuvres.

A question along those lines first occurred to me in 1967. That year, my parents paid workmen to break through an exterior wall and construct a live-in, eat-in space roughly one-fourth the size of our modest house. They consulted neither architect nor space planner. Not everything was perfect: One only has to consider the era's gold-flecked laminate and textured vinyl flooring. Yet my mom, a full-time nurse, dictated features with evergreen efficiencies. The kitchen instantly became the hub of our home. Someone was always in there, either working or on the phone or talking around the table. And eating.

Years later, when it came time to update or remodel kitchens I owned, in my mind, I never got it right. Too often I fell under the sway of kitchen trends: the built-in wine or spice rack, often near the stove (!); upper cabinet doors that were inches from my nose as I prepped on the counter below; the set of Lazy Susan rotating shelves intended to maximize the dead space in corners.

Size and style aside, a fabulous kitchen should provide comfort. A table and chairs are important but not essential; a source of natural light is, though, because it makes us feel good and makes food look better.

A few months ago I spent a Sunday in the Glover Park kitchen of chef Ris Lacoste. She and Washington architect-builder Andrew Cassatt spent nine months creating it, and anyone who has suffered through such a redesign just read that and winced in empathy. Their effort speaks for itself. Lacoste is happy and comfortable in her kitchen, which measures about 220 square feet.

Lacoste, a former chef of 1789, is working on the design of her new restaurant, Ris, scheduled to open around Labor Day. In figuring out her personal kitchen, she successfully incorporated elements of restaurant-kitchen practicality, her style and the architecture of her 1911 house. As a result, her kitchen is a lived-in space. Efficient? Yes. Sleek? Not even close.

It is graced by the natural light from five windows and a few glass doors. But the first things you notice are the open shelves loaded with plates, pottery and glassware. The objects complement the room's wall colors of pale yellow, blue and gray and are illuminated by undermount lighting.

Then there's the 9 1/2 -foot stretch of maple countertop Lacoste has dubbed her "appliance alley," where she can go straight to her mixer, food processor, high-powered blender, digital scale, toaster (with stacks of jam jars), coffee grinder, spice grinders (for savory and sweet), juicer and timer. She never has to hoist a machine from a lower berth or hide one behind a tamboured door.

Lacoste's 14-inch-deep sink and sinkboard are made of greenish-black soapstone, with a flexible rinsing faucet at hand and a wonderfully practical four-inch-high splash guard along the front of the drainboard. (Cassatt had seen the latter feature in commercial kitchens.) Lacoste uses the sink's generous proportions for food prep and oversize pots and pans, but not for after-dinner cleanup. For that she turns to a standard-size stainless-steel sink, dishwasher and fridge, which make up the butler's-pantry area of the kitchen, a little out of sight due to the placement of the house's original porch.

Deep, easy-sliding drawers are filled according to the task that is performed nearby: Dish towels and napkins are below the shelves with plates; baking ingredients and measuring cups are housed just under a marble slab. Dutch ovens and casseroles rest on lower racks below the wooden island that's situated between her large range and a second oven built in just below the appliance alley. A massive custom pot rack wraps around the ventilation hood.

Perhaps the best feature seems built-in, but isn't. With the tug of a handle, the lower half of a vertical pantry on casters pulls away from the wall. It's actually a garbage bin that can roll right next to the island for easy offloading and is almost as tall as the butcher block itself.

I realize that some folks would look at Lacoste's kitchen and see clutter. Pots and platters are exposed to the dust and grime of a daily workspace. But the room is functional and well organized; and it's part-lab, where she is inspired to develop new recipes.

"I have what I need where I need it," she says. "And I like seeing my collection of brownware."

Visitors can watch the chef in action at Lacoste's weathered dining table, which she retrieved from a discard heap courtesy of her neighborhood's mobile college students. Vignettes and mementos all over the kitchen recall fond memories: a huge mortar and pestle from the neighborhood apothecary of her youth in New Bedford, Mass.; groups of small stones from favorite places; photos of family and of her mom, Yvonne, a kitchen role model.

It's a pleasurable place to be, whether you're cooking or just visiting. Lacoste says that as soon as she installs a small, old-fashioned wood stove and sets a rocking chair beside it, her kitchen will be complete.

To my mind, it already is. Fabulous.

Bonnie Benwick is assistant editor of the Food section.

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