A Chef’s Kitchen

April 10, 2010

The kitchen was designed to be efficient and modern

By William Thrift
Photography by Lisa Willson

Ask anyone to give you their idea of a chef’s kitchen and they will probably describe something they’ve seen on television; think: Emril “bamming” out a dish and sliding it along to lucky audience members while a band cranks out jazz in the corner.

The basics of these types of kitchens are the same: ample sink, nice gas range (or ranges), utensils and cookware hanging from handy hooks and racks, maybe even a long counter where the chef can entertain guests.  While the chef makes it look easy, with the help of multiple takes and careful staging, what you don’t see are the teams of prep and clean-up people who support them.  Thus, the collective mindset now believes that kitchens have become the new place for the home-chef to dazzle family and friends, if not with skill, then with gadgets.

But aside from the entertaining kitchens on the food shows designed with a performing chef in mind, what is a kitchen’s real function?  The answer is simple: to provide for the sustenance of the family or people living in the home.

Brian had always liked the pale, sweeping grains and knots that give alder wood a rustic, Nordic look.

Enter Brian Dukes, one of Columbia’s most lauded and respected chefs.  A few years ago, Brian, a James Beard House chef, moved to Columbia and took the Executive Chef position at his uncle’s restaurant, The Blue Marlin.  While his fiancé, Elizabeth, finished graduate school in Virginia, Brian began looking for a house to buy in the Columbia area.  He recalled boyhood visits to his grandmother who lived in downtown’s Earlewood neighborhood, and he remembered an uncle who went to McCants Elementary School there, before it was renovated into living spaces.  Earlewood’s hilly streets, tall trees, and nearby grassy parks brought back even more warm memories.  When he saw the old brick house on a corner lot, arches on its wrap-around porch, high ceilings, and the large backyard for his garden and dog, Brian was captivated.  It was a bonus that the house, over sixty years old, was in its original, well-maintained condition.

Brian bought the house and had it re-wired to replace the old knob and tube wiring.  In the meantime, Elizabeth graduated and the two were married.  After making the house their home for a few years, the prospect of a larger family became a reality for the young couple bringing them to a proverbial fork in the road: pack up and move into a newer house with modern amenities or renovate the home they had already made.

The choice was easy.  Brian and Elizabeth had grown to love their old home and its cozy in-town neighborhood.  So they decided to improve upon what they already had.  They asked an architect to develop plans to completely overhaul the common areas of their home: the living room, dining room, kitchen, laundry/mud room, and rear entrance.  The project would be huge, invasive, and lengthy – taking up to six-months to complete.

But there was one little problem: baby Maya’s imminent arrival (right in the midst of the planned renovation).  Brian and Elizabeth decided that they could make-do with what they had rather than having to bring a new baby into a construction zone.  However, updating the kitchen was a must – everything except the stove and refrigerator were original to the house.  The old porcelain sink was set into a very short counter.  The original pipes constricted water flow to a minimum.  The cabinetry, custom-made in 1940, was shallow, making counter space a premium.  The pantry was basically a closet with a Hobbit-sized door (Brian stands well over six feet tall).  Least of all was the green and yellow paint scheme with a section of pegboard for storage; it reminded the chef in Brian of Julia Childs’ kitchen and was dated to that same era.

Baby Maya may have had something to do with initiating their nesting instincts, but Brian and Elizabeth weren’t quite ready to do it all themselves.  So they fell back on a referral from an aunt who recommended that they visit Stock Building Supply for help.  There Brian and Elizabeth found Ginny Lacoste, who came to the home, took measurements of the kitchen, and worked up a computer layout for modern cabinets and work stations without having to affect any other part of the house.  Best of all, the project would be completed in plenty of time for Maya.

Brian, Elizbeth and Maya Dukes.

At the time, Stock Building Supply carried cabinets; and once again, Brian found something familiar: cabinets made of alder.  Brian had first encountered the wood after graduating from Johnson and Wales University and working in the Seattle area.  The restaurants there use planks made from the indigenous alder wood to roast their salmon.  Alder is also popular with musical instrument makers because of its soft, resonant qualities.  Brian had always liked the pale, sweeping grains, and knots that gave it a rustic, Nordic look.

With the dimensions in hand, the couple found all of their stainless appliances at hhgregg, and arranged for them to be shipped when needed.

Once it began, the entire project took only about a week to complete.  Ms. Lacoste arranged for the demolition of the existing kitchen down to the plaster walls, which took about half a day, and for the cabinets to be assembled, and new counters installed.  She also arranged for a plumber to install a new sink and the new dishwasher.

Once the spaces for the range and refrigerator were created, Brian had the appliances shipped and put into place.  He also arranged for a new gas line to be connected to the range and for an artisan to create travertine tile backsplashes for the sink and range.

The couple now had plenty of time to “learn” their new kitchen and appliances before Maya’s arrival.  So in that regard, the pressure was off.  There are still some details of their home that they would like to address in the future.  They’d still like to re-configure the rear door to open onto a patio area in the backyard and make better use of the laundry/mud room.  Brian would also eventually like to claim some of the ample attic space to create a “man cave.”  But those projects can wait now that the new family has a functional, modernized kitchen.

So what’s a chef’s idea of a “chef’s kitchen?”  It probably depends upon the chef.  Like artists, the good ones infuse their personalities into almost everything that they do.  With Brian, it’s all about what’s necessary and comfortable for his family, and seeing to their needs enables him to continue to excel at his profession.

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