Gourmets, gourmands and gluttons are turning America's kitchens into the new living room -- the focal point of the home. And kitchen equipment manufacturers have risen to the occasion by creating the most impressive array of expensive gadgetry seen since we made the shift from hi-fi to stereo.
When the Cuisinart first came on the market, the high price of this seemingly elaborate blender was appalling. But in terms of kitchen equipment, the Cuisinart is just the tip of a high-priced iceberg. Serious cooks [with money] favor far more elaborate and expensive machinery, like commercial gas ranges [average price: $1,500 to $2,500], built-in refrigerators [around $1,500], countertop electric grills [about $400- $500] and combination microwave/electric wall ovens [about $1,800]. In spite of their lavish approach to equipment, these same people pay close attention to cabinetry, wall and floor coverings -- all requiring minimum maintenance.
"Most people who do a kitchen only anticipate doing it over once in a lifetime," says Dan Magruder of Voell Custom Kitchens. "So they want all the gadgets. Many want to make it into a prestige thing, but they also want the kitchen to become a room that is an important part of family life -- another living space in the home." Thus, the eat-in kitchen is born again -- often at price tags ranging from a few thousand dollars to $70,000.
For example, the owner of a 26' x 28' Potomac kitchen, working with Washington architect Winthrop Faulkner, came up with a plan for a kitchen that includes two major seating areas and a full range of minimum maintenance equipment.
"We spent three years planning this kitchen and it's taken almost a year and a half to build it," says the owner, who prefers anonymity. "We wanted this kitchen to be forever -- nos mistakes, no regrets."
It would be hard to have any regrets about so impressively equipped a room. To suit a family of cooks [husband and wife and three teen-aged children] who entertain a great deal, the kitchen has: a Jenn-Aire cook-top grill with a "cartridge" to convert the grill into a two-burner electric countertop stove, another set of two electric countertop burners next to a combination microwave and electric wall oven and a six-burner Vulcan commercial range complete with a large grill, broiler and two ovens. In addition there are three sinks, two dishwashers and two refrigerators and a large butcher block island that has cabinets below and also provides space to sit and prepare food. The St. Charles metal cbainets can be cleaned with the sweep of a sponge, as can the stainless steel countertops and the walls and floors of custom-glazed red ceremic tile. There is a walk-in pantry to keep most of the supplies out of sight, a pass-through area to one of the cozy eating corners on both sides of the working kitchen space, and at one end of the kitchen, cubicles open from both sides above counter height for storage of plates and glasses away from the main cooking area but in easy reach. In short, it is an extraordinary place in which to cook, eat and entertain.
This kitchen, however, is by no stretch of the imagination an energy saver. If all the appliances were turned on at once, it would gobble up 120 amps of power. [Zoning codes throughout the area require only 150 amps of electric service for entire houses.] "I've never seen anything like it," said Norman Ayers of Ayers Electric Co., Silver Spring, who wired the kitchen.
Though it's packed with more equipment than most people would need in a lifetime of cooking, the Potomac kitchen embraces many of the most popular trends in kitchen design today. The serious cook plans a kitchen around the cooking center -- the cooking surfaces and ovens. Next come the sink and refrigerator. About a decade ago, popular wisdom dictated that the cook should not have to walk any more than 12 feet in a triangle between the stove, sink and refrigerator. Now that figure has been raised to as high as 30 feet, and with the popularity of an island for cooking, a sink or a simple workspace, the old triangle is less and less important.
The European look in kitchen design is the biggest single trend. Area contractors define that look as a simpler, less adorned style than that seen in the traditional American kitchen. It may be that to properly cook "gourmet" one must do so in a kitchen that speaks of the traditions from which many of the dishes derive. One of the major influences in this trend toward a more Continental look in kitchen design is British author and merchant Terence Conran's The Kitchen Book , which has sold some 70,000 copies in this country at $24 a copy and which features both European and American kitchens. Conran promotes kitchens that reflect their owners and that let it all hang out -- pots shining from racks high above one's head or on a wall, jars filled with everything from pasta to pickles -- rows and rows of plates and cups and bottles of wine, cooking oil and bowls of fresh fruit.
These kitchens share a penchant for natural colors and natural materials. Although the slick white kitchen is still pictured in many decorating magazines, there is a shift to the new "almond" color or off-white tone now available in cabinets and appliances. The once popular avocado, copper and harvest golds are being replaced by browns, beiges, almonds and wood tones. To achieve the European look, homeowners are buying cabinets with names like "Allmilmo" and "Poggenpohl," both German firms. The cabinets are distinguished by minimal hardware and special roll-out baskets for storing vegetables, unusual hinging and simple, flush doors. For those who prefer metal cabinets, the prestige name is St. Charles. Plastim laminate cabinets and countertops continue to have a following, but primarily in solid colors rather than in the wood-grain look. For those who want a natural look, real wooden cabinets with a mineral oil or polyurethane finish in oak, cherry or another light wood are growing in popularity. Ceramic tile either as a countertop finish or flooring is another move away from the plastic look of a laiminate countertop or a vinyl floor covering. Wood floors are making a comeback, again, a reflection of the more natural European look.
A reflection of the fall-out from the high-tech fad is the growing popularity of the commercial range -- an expensive item with some genuine pluses for a serious cook. The flame levels on a restaurant range can be adjusted to achieve subtle variations in cooking temperatures and the hood fan required for these ranges is so powerful that kitchens with this kind of machinery rarely suffer from odors that sometimes hang on in other kitchens long after they have lost their appeal.
For those less interested in the high-tech end of the market, there is the Jenn-Aire electric grill. With a countertop venting system, the grill eliminates the need for an intrusive overhead hood. Another popular home unit is the Thermador TCM combination microwave/electric self-cleaning wall oven. Like the Cuisinart, the microwave has also made its way into most new kitchens -- either as a built-in or a countertop model and sometimes combined with a gas or electric oven dual option. The next bit item appears to be the convection oven, now available in a countertop model. [In a convection oven a built-in fan circulates the heated air, baking food faster at lower temperatures.] The most popular refrigerator is the Sub-Zero -- popular because it can be made to look built-in due to its 24-inch depth. It can be paneled with any material -- wood to match cabinets or a shiny metal finish -- is 84 inches high and comes either as a side-by-side [freezer and refrigerator] or with the freezer on the bottom. Cookbook author and caterer Lisa Yockelson has one in her kitchen because it is perfect for storing large platters of food. Gourmet cook Ron Griffin selected one because it fits in beautifully with his allwood [red oak] kitchen, blending in as if it were another storage cabinet.
The top priority for anyone putting in a new kitchen, once the basic equipment has been selected, is the storage capacity. Corner cabinets with built-in lazy susans are now old hat. St. Charles has a cabinet designed with a built-in spice rack that allows for double the usual amount to be stored within easy reach of the chef. Another popular feature is a drawer that pulls out to reveal one or more garbage cans, out of sight but in easy reach.
In Ron Griffin and Sam Pardoe's custom kitchen, the countertops are cut short by sliding panels which hide the usual countertop clutter and which are fitted with outlets so that the appliances behind the doors are ready to be pulled out for immediate use.
In Carol Mason's kitchen, an entire 7' x 14' wall is devoted to storage. The individual cupboards, which also hide air conditioning ducts, are only as deep as a dinner plate, so the chef doesn't suffer from the problem of reaching behind one thing to find another. The island in her kitchen holds two deep sinks "so I don't have to see the dirty dishes when I'm sitting at the table," says the cook. In addition to the countertop gas stove is a convection oven on a table [its brick alcove once held a fireplace]. Built into a wall at the other end of the kitchen is a microwave oven. Mason uses open drawers for storage of everyday pots and keeps her larger catering pots downstairs in her basement.
Instead of the slick finished and polished look of many contemporary kitchens, Mason's has a warm, homey atmosphere, reinforced by a curved wooden ceiling made of wainscoting and by wooden countertops and drawers in the cooking area. At 12' x 21', it's not a big room, but it seats about a dozen students and can accommodate two cooks with ease at any one time. The storage wall is less obtrusive than a collection of cupboards might have been and there's still room for Mason's large collection of cookbooks for inspiration. "I've never had much space to cook in and I kind of like it that way," says Mason. "I find this kitchen very comfortable -- it has to be . . . I guess I spend about 12 hours a day in it."
The use of wood and used brick in Griffin and Pardoe's contemporary "country" kitchen in Georgetown also makes for a warm atmosphere. The 10' x 22' space is divided between a work space and an eat-in area for eight or 10. Because Griffin, a real estate agent and owner of a gourmet food store, loves to cook for large groups, he selected a commercial range [four-burner] with a grill. A butcherblock counter with a knife rack embraces the stove so that it's hardly noticeable. Behind the stove is a space for a microwave oven and a commercial dishwasher complete with a booster to bring the water temperature up high enough to sterilize dishes and dry them in just 3 1/2 minutes."Can you imagine -- no more wondering if you'll run out of dishes?" asked Griffin with glee. Is this their last kitchen? "Who knows? Every time we do one, we hope it'll be the last," Griffin said.