The professional cook without a home base -- a species often found wandering, knives and whisks clutched close, from rented church kitchen to home kitchen to rented restaurant kitchen -- is essentially out of business. No stove, no cook.
The numbers of those who want to turn their good recipes into a livelihood are legion. They are caterers, cookie bakers, barbecue-sauce makers, and they end up wandering because the number of kitchens available for such enterprises is considerably scantier than the number of potential entrepreneurs.
Thus when Barry Wax and partners sat in a local restaurant four years ago hatching plans to produce their chili recipe on a commercial scale, their entrepreneurial odyssey was just beginning. They needed an "inspected" kitchen, meaning one that met all the various federal, state and local health laws so that their product could move without threat through the various channels of commerce.
The kitchen also needed to be big enough so that they could produce industrial-sized batches of chili, and located so as to be accessible to various modes of transportation.
In the end, they found that if such a kitchen were to exist, they would have to invent it.
So they did, and wound up with Kitchen Privileges, an 8,100-square-foot kitchen-for-rent -- that's roughly equivalent to 75 home kitchens put together -- with 16 commercial ovens and a comparable number of hotel-sized burners, dough proofers, dough retarders, steam kettles, tilting skillets, untold numbers of titanic pots, pans and whisks and 10 sinks just for hand washing.
The idea is to provide commercially-equipped kitchen space to those who need it, whether for two hours once in a blue moon or six days a week for the forseeable future. The kitchen -- actually several kitchens -- is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
You sign up in advance for the time and equipment you'll need, and pay the $27-per-hour fee, plus a one-time security deposit in advance. The $27 includes whatever large equipment you'll need, plus small equipment like pots and pans and cleaning supplies. It doesn't include knives or specialized equipment like tart molds.
Wax says there have been no problems with scheduling conflicts because "I'm bigger than everyone else," and because "there has been a great deal of recognition that this is a shared-use facility."
Located near the intersection of Shirley Highway and the Beltway in Alexandria, Kitchen Privileges is ingeniously designed so that half a dozen operations can go on at once without anyone getting in anyone else's way.
Located around the perimeter of the warehouse-scale room are half a dozen self-contained rooms that house the basic food preparation equipment -- sinks, tables, mixers -- and which are rented individually by the hour.
Cooking equipment -- stoves, ovens, fryers, steamers, broilers -- is located in two lines arranged back-to-back down the middle of the large, central room. When you rent a "kitchen" at Kitchen Privileges, you rent not only one of the individual rooms located around the perimeter, but also the use of whatever cooking equipment you need in the central room, large and small.
You specify ahead of time which items you need. And if you've never used commercial equipment before (the "tilting skillet" is so big that emptying it is called "offloading"), you can get lessons as part of the basic rental price.
Since Kitchen Privileges opened in February, 1984, the facility has attracted types of cooks ranging from the big guys with corporate dollars behind them to the one-person, part-time operations. Wax says he has 43 regular users, some of whom use the kitchen five or six days a week, and some of whom use it for a few hours every week.
Others, like the Northwest Washington catering and carry-out operation Movable Feast, use the kitchen when they have overflow work from their own kitchens. A very small salsa-making outfit, Lee Street Heat, recently signed up with Kitchen Privileges so it could produce its sauces in enough quantity to keep up with demand. Baker James Andrews of DC Desserts spent months looking for a place to bake his rich cakes and tarts and now is at Kitchen Privileges six days a week.
One part-time but regular user is a mom-and-pop cookie baking operation called Sour Dough East. David and Susan Reed are at Kitchen Privileges two days a week churning out macaroons, oatmeal-current and chocolate chip cookies that they sell to specialty shops and fine carryouts. "I used to spend three to five days producing what I can produce here in two days," says David Reed. Because there are 40-quart mixers and multiple, large capacity ovens at the Reeds' disposal they can mix and bake larger batches at one time.
Another small firm, Market Basket Salads, is using Kitchen Privileges to develop recipes for salads that it hopes to sell to institutions like cafeterias, nursing homes and offices. Co-owner Tom Kaplan, who most of the time is an ice cream wholesaler, says he couldn't have considered this kind of a new project if it weren't for Kitchen Privileges.
Although if his new business really takes off he says he may want to own his own kitchen, but "you don't want to sink that kind of money into a facility just to try out products."
The two largest operations using Kitchen Privileges are two of the largest operations anywhere: the United States government, testing recipes for school lunches, and Campbell's Soup Company, which is using Washington as a test market for a new line of products. Campbell's project director Mark Sherman says one reason the company chose Washington "is this facility. It's so unique."
Because it moves meat and poultry products in interstate commerce, Campbell's needed a federally approved and inspected facility.
The scourge of the small, cottage-industry caterer is local health regulation, which protects consumers but is nearly impossible to satisfy in any home kitchen. As a result, there are dozens -- possibly hundreds -- of small caterers and bakers in the area who ignore the rules and hope that they don't get caught.
In fact, one of the biggest favors Wax and his partners did for the professionally cooking public was form a flying wedge between them and the various government bodies that regulate, or at least attempt to regulate, professional food preparation.
A good proportion of the years between the brainstorm at the Hard Times Cafe and the opening of Kitchen Privileges was consumed by meetings between Wax and Fairfax County officials, Wax and Virginia Commonwealth officials, and Wax and officials of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Wax says all the officials "were supportive and very, very helpful."
When he approached them with his idea, Wax says, "they were initially quizzical." After all, there was no precedent. But, by consulting with the various officials as designs were being developed, everybody ended up satisfied with no major missteps. "For something that was kind of whole cloth," says Wax, "remarkably few things were overlooked."
The result is an obsessive clean-freak's dream come true. You can wash everything. The walls and the floors are coated with synthetic materials so they can literally be hosed down periodically. The floors are steam-cleaned frequently under pressure of 1,000 pounds per square inch. In fact, even the appliances are in most cases designed so that they can be taken apart easily for cleaning.
There are separate sinks for mops, for dishes and for handwashing, and the handwashing sinks are operated with foot pedals so germy hands don't have to touch the handles. Walk into the place and, even if you're a visitor, you're handed "whites," the white jackets worn in meat lockers, and a little paper hat to put on.
Rooms where cooks are working with raw meat or poultry are kept at 50 degrees, and the temperature in the two rooms especially equipped for baking can be kept equally cool. Raw meat and poultry is kept separate from cooked meat and poultry throughout the facility. Then there are the signs:
"WASH HANDS BEFORE RETURNING TO WORK"
"NOTICE. KEEP THIS AREA CLEAN"
Somebody is paying attention, too. The facility rated 100 on its last health inspection, and health department authorities have been known to refer potential professional cooks there.
Complying with the spirit and the letter of the various laws is so important to the operation of Kitchen Privileges that there are clauses written into Wax's lease with the developer of the property ensuring that the developer can't do anything to interfere with it.
And what do the renters get out of all this cleanliness? For many of them, it is crucial, the sanction that allows them to operate legally. For others, it makes getting a business license easier by providing automatic approval for their place of business.
Many of the problems that caterers, bakers and other relatively small-scale, nomadic cooks face are logistical. The baker may bake only on Tuesdays and Thursdays. If he's rented a church kitchen, for instance, or a restaurant kitchen during its off hours, he may not be able to store his supplies between times. That means a lot of lugging.
Then there's the problem of deliveries. The bakers' supply house may only be able to deliver the flour on Wednesday morning, when the baker is somewhere else.
Kitchen Privileges got that one figured out, too. First, it is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If you've signed up for kitchen space you can arrange for someone to accept your deliveries even if you aren't there.
And lockable storage facilities (refrigerated, frozen and dry) come with the territory, assuming you have some regular arrangement, even for a few hours every other week, with Kitchen Privileges.
In fact, Wax and his partners spent so much time figuring all this out that their chili recipe got put on a back burner. They're just now getting ready to go into production.
As for Kitchen Privileges, the idea has worked out so well that Wax has gotten inquiries from people in other parts of the country about setting up a similar facility. As of now, it looks like New York is next for Wax and his partners.