The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Want to be a better cook? Try a tiny kitchen.

Specialized tools and more counter space won't help you make food from the heart

(Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post)

In the summer of 2008, I turned 23, and I decided to ditch the city I’d been living in and the roommates I’d been living with. I moved to a new city and a new apartment, a studio in a hundred-year-old building. It had all the physical charms one could want when making a fresh start: tall ceilings, gorgeous vintage wood trim, a claw-foot bathtub. It also had one glaring flaw, obvious to everyone who saw the place: the kitchen.

A closet in a former life, the kitchen featured a gas stove with an oven only large enough for one cookie sheet; a weirdly short refrigerator; and a huge, ancient enamel sink with separate hot and cold water taps (which didn’t match). It had no counter space at all and one lone cupboard. Two people could not occupy the kitchen at the same time, and when I stood in it, I could reach out and touch everything all at once. Mercifully, it included one small window, which provided very good light but had been painted shut long ago. The floor was the color of untended dirt. People laughed when they saw it or assumed I was exaggerating when I described it.

It was, however, in that weird miniature space that I became a cook.

Up until that point, I had zero confidence in the kitchen. In my family, my mother is the cook, and rather than teaching me everything she knew, she preferred to do most kitchen things herself. I’m also the youngest and the weird artsy one, and all of that added up to me not learning to do much more than boil pasta as a kid. When I moved out of my parents’ house, I gradually taught myself new cooking skills by necessity. It was slow going.

When I moved into that apartment, I got rid of anything that felt superfluous and all objects intended for a single use. My toaster? A whole appliance just for the toasting of bread and bagels? Gone. I got rid of my microwave. I dumped half of my cooking utensils, a deep-fryer I had used twice, all but four coffee cups, two cookie sheets, one bread pan, two saucepans, plastic cutting boards, an old blender, that extra can opener, my silverware organizer, plastic mixing bowls and old storage containers. I ignored the voice in my head that said, “But what if you need it later?” I pared my pots and pans down to two: a saucepan and a wok. There wasn’t room for them in the single cupboard, so I hung them from two sturdy nails on the wall. I got a small rolling cabinet with a butcher block top. There wasn’t room for it in the tiny kitchen, so I parked it just outside.

For me, not having any extra space meant I was out of excuses. Now I didn’t have kitchen clutter to clear away before I could try a new recipe, because there was no space for clutter in the first place. In art school, I had lived off of Hot Pockets and grape soda. Now I was constantly imploring anyone who would listen to come over for dinner. I baked pizzas. I learned how to make my favorite Thai dishes. I rolled avocado sushi rolls and made lentil soup. I experimented with flavors and spices that would have terrified me before. I kneaded bread on that square of butcher block. I marveled at the way the light came in my kitchen window.

Within a couple of months, I became completely obsessed with pasta. I wanted desperately to make my own, but everyone said I would need a pasta machine.

“A pasta machine?” I thought to myself, “Ridiculous! People made pasta before they had pasta machines, otherwise why would they ever have invented the machine.”

As it turns out, making flat noodles by hand is pretty simple. You knead the dough for about 20 minutes — the trick is not taking a break. You let the dough rest, then roll it as flat as you can and cut it. I put on some loud pop punk and got to work. My arms burned, but it was also satisfying in the way physically hard work can be. As I folded the dough like a lump of clay, I thought about the generations of people who made their pasta this way, and I kept working. From noodles, I expanded to ravioli and dumplings.

And when the Martha Stewart Living website informed me that it a standing mixer would yield a better meringue and copper bowls would produce a fluffy, more stable foam, I was determined to prove Martha wrong. I didn’t realize until Thanksgiving morning, with all of the ingredients for lemon meringue pie carefully assembled, that I didn’t even own a whisk. I used a fork. It turned out fine.

Far from holding me back, the smallness of the space empowered me. There was no crossing the room to get another tool; all of the tools were right there, practically at my fingertips. There was no space for self-doubt. I just tried things. Without the complicated tools and appliances that consumerism teaches the home cook to aspire to, I was left with the realization of how much is possible without all the fuss.

I had fallen in love with my tiny kitchen.

I’m not alone. Making dinner in a molecule-sized kitchen is typical for seafaring chefs like Captain Chef Annie Mahle, who regularly prepares three meals a day for 20 passengers and seven crew members in a 6-by-8-foot galley on the schooner J&E Riggin. “I’ve cooked in big fancy kitchens,” Mahle said in an article for Bon Appetit. “They’re gorgeous but also tiring.” She also subscribes to my less-is-more theory of tools, revealing to the magazine that she uses a wine bottle as a rolling pin.

We like to imagine that more space means more freedom, and maybe that’s true to some extent. Overcrowding can be bad for humans, and I’m happy to have a kitchen where I can chop vegetables while my partner does the dishes these days. But I lived in that little apartment for two years, and when I finally did move, it wasn’t the kitchen I had grown out of.

My mother knocked down a wall in her house to finally have the spacious, beautiful kitchen she always dreamed of. It’s beautiful — and I hate cooking there. I feel like I’m constantly walking across the room for a knife, or opening 12 cupboards to find a bowl. Folks think you need a lot of things and a lot of space to make a nice meal, but it isn’t true. If making and preparing food is a creative act, then that creativity has to come from within, not from a gleaming KitchenAid mixer and a wide expanse of granite countertops. And I miss my tiny kitchen, where I learned that smaller spaces and simpler implements are the best way to nurture food into a meal.