cooking light

Small kitchens demand smart, efficient design

This article first appeared in Su Casa North Summer 2015.

My friend François grew up in a small French village in the hills outside Lyon. She and her family ran the only bistro, which served coffee, drinks, and of course the legendary French country cooking. In my mind, a “French country kitchen” meant a large space with a vast range and gleaming copper pots, but in fact, the Lagoute family produced all the bistro’s meals on a two-burner gas hob. François was a fantastic cook, and she disabused me of the notion that one had to have a big, fancy kitchen to produce great meals.

There was a time I did a lot of cooking and spent a lot of time in the kitchen, though these days I prefer the plein air vistas of “Steve’s Grill Patio & Martini Bar,” where the best of Maine’s seafood is either grilled or steamed in a gigantic gas cooker. My wife Evy rules the indoor kitchen, especially now that we recently completed a really terrific space at our current renovation project, Sea Cove Cottage.

The kitchen is small, about 10 by 13 feet, but it boasts excellent design, equipment, lighting, and ventilation. Evy says it’s her favorite of all the kitchens we’ve done over the years, and she’s not shy. So what are the ingredients for a great small kitchen?

Professional design is a must, and to help your designer you have to focus on what you really need. Small spaces are only successful if they’re highly edited—and that takes discipline. Our designer, Robin Siegerman, helped us be ruthless.

Modern cabinets and cabinet hardware can utilize every square inch of available space. You’ll need an “engineer” who can get the most out of a cabinet line. Longtime friend Rick Spencer was able to use stock KraftMaid cabinets in our kitchen and make the result look custom—and he realized a ton of very usable storage, too.

Go high end on the appliance package (if you can). High-end machines look great, work great, last a long time, and don’t go out of style. They can also be a differentiator in the marketplace if and when you decide to sell your house. Shop for discontinued, last year’s, or even used models to save money.

Rigorously edit your stuff. We went with one set of caterer-quality white plates, bowls, silverware, cups, and glasses, and one set of high-quality pots, pans, and knives. (Okay, the espresso machine was deemed a necessity!) The happy fact is that cooking styles have evolved to favor simple dishes made with fresh, local ingredients that don’t require an elaborate set of cookware.

And back to Steve’s Grill Patio . . . don’t discount how much pressure a good grill area can take off the kitchen. I grill the Thanksgiving turkey outdoors, which my wife loves because it takes all the men (and their unruly holiday behavior) out of the house.

We’ve been cooking in our small kitchen since December. It’s easy to work in, easy to clean, and looks really cool. So far, neither my wife nor I would go back to a large kitchen—or for that matter, a large house!

Steve Thomas is a home renovation expert and the spokesperson for Habitat for Humanity International.