It’s the cook, not the kitchen

Around Thanksgiving, I wrote about my childhood dream of having a big house in the suburbs and hosting holiday feasts. Central to that dream was the kitchen, the heart of a warm home. I imagined it like the kitchens you see in magazines: an open floor plan, gleaming stainless steel appliances, a wrought-iron rack of perfectly polished cookware slung within arms’ reach of a wide, granite-topped island. Of course, there would be more stove-top burners than you could shake a stick at.

We all hope to follow an upward trajectory in life. For me that meant a path through ever more elegant (and technologically advanced) kitchens. My first apartment with Jay was pretty good in this department: we had lots of counter space, a long bar, tons of cabinets, and plenty of natural light from the French doors to the balcony.

And then we moved from spacious and airy SoCal to old-timey Chicago. Our apartment is pretty typical for the neighborhood: a three-story brick building with a courtyard, separated from other similar buildings by narrow alleys. Our kitchen is really a kitchenette, half-size appliances and a small sink tucked into a cubby in the dining room. You can see where the accordion doors that hid the kitchenette were taken off their hinges. There is 1 square foot of built-in counter space, and a few cabinets with uneven doors that never fully close. The big windows look directly into my neighbor’s big kitchen windows. Thankfully, they keep their blinds closed at all times.

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When we first moved in, I could barely disguise my disappointment about this new culinary situation. The ugly shelves, under a thick layer of the world’s worst paint job (seriously, a drunk could piss a more even coating), held only a fraction of our kitchen stuff. The linoleum was cracked, the hardwood scuffed, the floor uneven. I didn’t want to cook here. This wasn’t home.


 

Fast forward three months, and I’m simmering curry sauce for my homemade paneer while the dough for the naan rises. And suddenly I realize that I love my humble kitchen. It has made me a better cook.

Nothing out-of-sight, nothing out-of-mind. To make up for the limited built-in storage space, we put up a wall-to-wall Ikea shelving unit that holds most of our cooking gear. Since everything is on display, both functional and aesthetic, it has to be clean, well maintained, and neatly organized. I know exactly what I have and if it’s used regularly. I don’t hold on to anything I don’t use. Goodbye, Thanksgiving-only roasting rack for a 35lb bird. I never truly knew ye, enormous fluted lime green casserole dish.

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Knowing your stuff > having more stuff. Having a limited amount of equipment and space has made me more resourceful. I have to think about recipes and decide how to make them work with what I have, instead of buying an appliance that does the job (a food processor, mixer, breadmaker, slow cooker, and so on). That has, in turn, taught me more about the process of cooking. Sometimes you really do need an electric beater to aerate your batter. Sometimes you just need elbow grease and a little more baking soda. And that depends on what’s happening chemically in your recipe.

Mise-en-place is everything. I never cook before laying out my ingredients, in the order in which they will be used, measured and chopped in advance. There’s no space for clutter because there’s no space for anything. I know exactly how long I have to slice my veggies while the onions soften, and how long I have to boil the pasta while the veggies cook. The salmon is placed in the oven such that it will be done exactly 5 minutes before the pasta is done cooking, so that all the ingredients come together at just the right time. My little kitchen has forced me to be more organized and better prepared. Now cooking feels more like flowing through a recipe.

When I moved in to this apartment, I thought I’d be stuck making simple, one-pot meals and ordering a lot of take-out Thai food. Now I recognize that those limitations were self-imposed. I didn’t need a better kitchen. I needed to be a better cook.

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