Caroline Cummins is Culinate’s managing editor. She lives with her husband, two daughters, and cat in Portland, Oregon.

Starting afresh

A new kitchen for the new year

January 9, 2013

My husband and I moved into our current home more than seven years ago. It is an old house, built in the mid-1920s. We like old houses, but, you know, they’re old. Which means that in seven years we have spent thousands of dollars on infrastructure: pipes, wiring, heating, ducting, insulation, cracked windows. We operated on the principle that whatever was most broken got fixed first.

By 2012, the kitchen — with its crumbling 1970s-era cabinetry and peeling vinyl floor tiles — had moved to the top of the waiting list. We had shored it up over the years with little fix-ups here and there: installing a dishwasher (amen!) and a vent hood (thank you, Jesus!) and some extra lighting (let there be light!) over the stove.

But the appliances we had installed were aging prematurely — yes, we cook daily in our kitchen, and we are not gentle on our tools. And we had begun to trip over the peeling tiles — more often now that we were frequently carrying one of two young daughters in our arms and couldn’t see the floor anymore. And we were tired of getting splinters stuck in our fingers or forearms every time we reached along a cabinet shelf for a bottle of olive oil.

Awkward corner #1: a window, empty space, an undersized fridge, and a built-in cabinet for an ironing board.

We were tired, period. Tired of the mildew permanently lining the edges of the sink and backsplash. Tired of the uneven laminate countertop. Tired of not being able to see the dishes when we washed them in the shadowed sink. Tired of not having enough storage or counter space. And so forth.

Like most Americans — and, frankly, like many food writers, including Mark Bittman and Deb Perelman — we have spent most of our lives cooking in mediocre, even terrible, kitchens. Tiny apartment kitchens with undersized (often spun as “European-style”) appliances. Ancient 1920s kitchens with faucets that squeaked, iceboxes lined with a thick fur of frost, and gas ovens you had to light by hand, snatching your arm back fast enough to avoid getting singed.

Awkward corner #2: a stove between two high-traffic doorways.

Kitchens only big enough for one person at a time. Kitchens with no venting, so the ceiling was permanently orange from smoke and grease. Kitchens where you never knew which appliance or bit of wiring was going to fritz next.

But if you have the working basics — a sink, a range, a fridge, a little counter space — you can still cook perfectly well. Culinate’s recipe editor, Carrie Floyd, has a kitchen that’s even more awkward than our old one; both are small, with multiple doorways cutting holes in the walls. Even her architect husband has admitted it’s a boggling design problem. And yet, she regularly turns out beautiful, delicious meals for her family and friends.

We, however, had the opportunity to make a change — and, more importantly, the teeth-grinding frustration. We spent six months discussing and researching and talking with friends, professionals, and various contractors before committing to the plunge. (I lived through a two-month kitchen remodel as a teenager and knew just how deep a plunge it would be.) We bought new storage racks, rearranged our basement to accommodate them, and moved the contents of our kitchen — all the food and tools and gear — underground.

The cabinet wall of the old kitchen.

And then we spent more than six weeks cooking in our basement. With two kids under the age of four, no less.

In my next few posts, I’ll detail what we did (and didn’t do) to make our kitchen remodel happen. I’ll share we what learned, and offer suggestions.

And should you ever get the chance to rip out and start afresh, too, I hope our experience will help.

Related post: Kitchen homework; post: The field test; post: Temporary cooking; post: Choosing a contractor; post: Choices, choices

There are 5 comments on this item
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1. by anonymous on Jan 9, 2013 at 1:07 PM PST

Please hurry those kitchen remodel posts!

2. by Richard Yarnell on Jan 9, 2013 at 1:10 PM PST

Having had the luxury of designing a kitchen for our new house, I’m going to anticipate the next installment of Ms Cummins’ article and make a couple of suggestions that most people overlook.

We all get older and some of us end up having difficulty getting around. While you have the chance, make your new kitchen friendly to people with mobility problems. The space it takes to turn a wheelchair won’t be wasted. The extra width between cabinets and appliances will serve you well when you recruit family help.

Don’t economize on ventilation. In modern houses, tight by code in an effort to reduce energy use, forced ventilation is more important than keeping surfaces grease free. Our home is exceptionally tight and we’ve found that having a fresh air source below the stove top and close to it, helps preserve comfortable temperatures in other parts of the building, but also keeps our high volume exhaust hood from sucking outside air through stove pipes and other unlikely places.

And, for this comment, finally, make sure you have enough capacity and receptacles behind your counters. We put narrow beam spotlights above each work space and we put all our counter top power sources on timers. We learned that the most common cause of damaging kitchen fires was not stove top accident but rather fire started in unattended appliances. There’s an added benefit: by having a timer cut power to small appliances, many of those phantom loads, the seemingly small but continuous power use by some appliances, are turned off. Even our microwave is on a timed switch - do you really need another clock in the kitchen?

It’s a fun process. Take your time. Get it right.


3. by Elise Pratt on Jan 9, 2013 at 3:51 PM PST

This sounds like our kitchen three years ago. What a mess, but what a payoff. We added a pantry and laundry room with the added space in the kitchen. This forced us to move out for four months (no water or no heat with an infant). I can now actually have a cooks kitchen with what I wanted in it, not others.
The best advice is part of what I read In Ms. Cummins article, plan, plan and plan some more. We had a designer plan it all out to match the existing house and then we also could take it to contractors for continuity.
Can’t wait to see more pictures.

4. by Caroline Cummins on Jan 10, 2013 at 3:15 PM PST

Richard --

Thanks for your comments! We would’ve loved to make our kitchen more accessible, but we needed to work within its existing footprint. (Our home, with several awkward, tight flights of stairs and tiny rooms, isn’t exactly elder-friendly to begin with.)

The kitchen’s back door is close to the stove and serves as a source of fresh air for the room. So far, no ventilation problems have come up.

And I agree that timers to cut down on energy loss are great — but we don’t have any small appliances, such as microwaves, that stay plugged in, so we skipped them.

Elise, where did you move out to for four months? We considered renting the kitchen of the empty house next door, but the basement setup worked just fine.

5. by sundrah on Jan 10, 2013 at 3:32 PM PST

Looking forward to seeing the pictures of the transformation.

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