CHICAGO — When Stacey Ballis steps into her kitchen, she means business. Not in the sense of whipping up a meal after a long day at work, but whipping up a meal because that’s her job. And the kitchen is her workplace.
As the author of foodie fiction novels in which food and cooking move the narrative along, Ballis needs to be able to cook and develop recipes as part of her writing process. She is also a cookbook author and lifestyle and entertainment blogger.
“The blog requires that I entertain a lot, so if you’re going to suggest ways that people can more effectively entertain in their home, that requires having a kitchen that’s up to the task,” she said.
Three years ago, Ballis’s dated kitchen was in need of a full-blown makeover when she and her husband, Bill, began converting their three-flat building on this city’s North Side into a single-family home.
Their priority has been to preserve some of the house’s architectural details by keeping vintage touches such as exposed steel beams, original stained-glass windows, existing woodwork and built-in cabinetry.
“The kitchen was always going to be the most crucial part of the renovation,” said Ballis, pointing out that it had to provide a cooking experience that could only be matched by a restaurant kitchen environment.
Ballis lived in the 110-year-old building for nearly 20 years as a tenant before the couple bought it. The cramped kitchen, which had not been remodeled since the 1970s, signaled a cry for help with its inefficient layout and lack of counter and storage space.
“If people came in the kitchen while I was cooking, I had to tell them to sit down and prepare to look at my tush because the stove faced the wall,” she said. “It was not a good place to entertain. It was of enormous importance to me that if we were going to invest in renovating the kitchen that we really get it right, and we absolutely did. My husband and I say that after a year of using the kitchen, there’s not one thing we would change.”
In redesigning the heart of the home, they turned the concept of a family eat-in kitchen/command center on its head.
“The kitchen was the one place that the architects were having trouble wrapping their heads around what we wanted and needed,” Ballis said. “We don’t have children, so we don’t need space for kids to do homework. We don’t need to do office functions like paying bills in there, and we don’t need everyone hanging out and being social in the kitchen.”
Drawing influence from a zoned restaurant kitchen, one part of the 800-square-foot space accommodates two dedicated cooking areas that share prep space, a sink and dishwasher.
Another section is designed for baking, with its own prep area, sink and dishwasher. And the chef’s table that seats up to 10 people is as inviting as the meals presented there.
In researching appliances, Ballis’s most important considerations were the range and ovens.
“Originally, I thought we should look into buying restaurant commercial units, which it turns out that you can’t get zoned for in a private home,” she said. “It requires a certain level of ventilation. BlueStar, the company I was interested in, was making commercial-level appliances for home kitchens, and the more I did research, the more it became clear that they were going to function the way I needed them to function.”
Ballis chose three BlueStar appliances that produce restaurant-quality results: an electric oven for baking, a gas oven for roasting and savory cooking, and a four-burner range.
While there is plenty of storage space for cooking supplies, about 200 cookbooks have a room of their own in the kitchen library, a converted bedroom off the kitchen that also houses small appliances, cookware, serveware and a wine fridge that has been modified for cheese and charcuterie storage.
The cookbooks are like old friends, Ballis said, adding: “I read them like a novel, and it just stays with me.”
Now that the kitchen has been transformed into a modern, highly functional space, it’s been gratifying for the homeowners to host stress-free dinner parties for up to 14 people.
“You give people really good food and really good wine, and they don’t want to go anywhere,” Ballis said.