For months, Jessica Carbone’s office served as a de facto storeroom for the donated products that would eventually find a place in the demonstration kitchen within the new 45,000-square-foot “innovation wing” at the National Museum of American History. Those gadgets and pricy pieces of cookware soon became sort of stress-relief objects.
“Over the last six months, whenever anyone had a difficult meeting or something they didn’t want to work on, they’d come into my office and say, ‘I need some retail therapy. What can I look at?’ ” says Carbone, project associate for the American Food History Project.
While the staff may have found comfort in Le Creuset pots, Zwilling J.A. Henckels knives and Pyrex bakeware, those in-kind products were not what paved the way for the demonstration kitchen and stage, a relatively rare ornament in American museums. No, the object that made the project’s cooking space possible hovers far above the pots and pans: It’s a massive Halton Ventilated Ceiling System, which sucks up cooking byproducts that could potentially harm valuable objects in nearby exhibits.
“We had to find the right hood vent to do exactly what we needed it to do, which is make sure there is no smoke and no smell and no grease of any kind in the building. We did, and it’s big,” says Susan Evans, the project’s program director.
It’s also noisy. Or was noisy in early June, when Smithsonian staffers, along with chef, cookbook author and TV personality Pati Jinich, a member of the Kitchen Cabinet advisory panel to the museum, were loading equipment into the kitchen. “We reconfigured the fan a bit,” Evans says a few weeks later, “and the sound is completely fixed.”
Which means the demonstration stage, officially known as the Wallace H. Coulter Performance Plaza, is ready for its debut on Wednesday, when it will quickly prove its versatility: It will host two music acts — the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra Quintet and DJ Will Eastman — in the morning before rolling out its portable, gas-powered stoves for a 2 p.m. demonstration on Colonial-era chocolate making.
The stage will instantly transform the project’s programming to engage all five senses of the museum’s nearly 5 million yearly visitors. It will not only allow chefs, farmers, bakers and teachers to share hands-on knowledge but will also provide space for food-science experiments and historical cooking demonstrations. It even has a built-in system to webcast programs.
As the July Fourth weekend approaches, the kitchen stage will host its first Food Friday, a themed demonstration that will feature a guest chef, culinary instruction and a history lesson. Chef and author Curtis Aikens will introduce July’s theme — “Summertime in America” — by preparing barbecue sauces, rubs and a cold summer salad. Future themes will explore “Food Movements in the 20th Century” (August) and “Hispanic Heritage Month” (September).
Jinich is already devising ways to use the museum’s collection for her planned demonstration in October as part of the inaugural Smithsonian Food History Weekend, planned as an annual exploration of American food and the people and technologies that have influenced it. She has her eye on the world’s first frozen margarita machine, which is on display in the ongoing exhibit “Food: Transforming the American Table, 1950-2000.”
“If you’re going to talk about Mexicans in the U.S. and who came up with the first [frozen] margarita and being able to show people this was the first margarita machine. . . ,” says Jinich, so animated she speaks in fragments. “Where else can you do that? That’s just mouthwatering to me.”
Jinich’s comment underscores an important point about the kitchen stage: “We’re not a cooking school,” says Evans. “We’re a history museum, so our programs are always focused on really making that connection between what you eat and the history behind it.”
The stage is also not a commercial kitchen, which means food prepared during regular museum hours will not be available to the public. (Samples will be available for “after hours” events, which require a ticket.) But visiting chefs will share a recipe with the museum’s food-service contractor, Restaurant Associates, so the company’s cooks can prepare a dish inspired by it, then make it available in the museum’s Stars and Stripes Cafe.
It just can’t be a complicated recipe: Although the kitchen stage has a lot of advanced equipment and gadgets, it doesn’t have a full-time prep team.
“We really can’t do a lot in advance of the demo itself beyond basic measuring, basic chopping, defrosting and sort of pre-setting of the equipment,” says Carbone. “So if someone wants to make beef bourguignon, they can bring all the ingredients, and we can do a fair amount of it on stage. But then we’re going to have to take a magically finished beef bourguignon out of the oven.”