Culinate

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

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