“A man’s kitchen is a reflection of himself,” the great French chef Alain Chapel confidently reflected as he looked upon his kitchen and observed a hurried, quiet order. I have spent time in kitchens so cramped that line cooks continually rubbed elbows with one another (in the literal sense, not socially), reached around and under, twisting and turning this way and that to accomplish their job of cooking food and plating it. I have been in other Goliath set-ups built to the exact specifications of a masterful chef, stretched over three vastly different, temperature-controlled floors, where it was not uncommon for a line cook to deliver food using an elevator. Kitchens are the result of the symbiosis between a chef’s experiential knowledge and the tools at hand to carry out the task at hand: cooking food.
A kitchen at its best, most organized and efficient state is a thing of beauty. And when the wheels come off and chaos ensues it is like a nightmare you will never wake up from. In either case the end goal never disappears: people need to eat, want to eat and are hungry. Whether cooking professionally in a restaurant or at home for your children, the show must go on or you will have unhappy consumers. The longer I cook and the further I dive into this obsession over food, the more varied kitchens I find myself exploring. And from two recent visits to thoughtfully-designed home kitchens I have been reminded of a handful of golden rules for any kitchen.
Golden rule number one: Always have a radio in your kitchen. Encourage upbeat and joyous music, dancing and inspiration from a varied selection of music from all members of the room. But don’t allow music to distract you. Use it as a tool that is absorbed in your head, makes its way to your heart and is then transferred into your food.
Golden rule number two: Give yourself lots of counter space. Give yourself room to examine, process and honor each ingredient. A table or island in the center of your kitchen is paramount. Access on all sides should be possible, with ample space to cut up a large fish or a small animal, lay out five cookbooks at a time to peruse, examine a dish with multiple sets of eyes or organize your thoughts with a prep list written among the products going into it.
Golden rule number three: A sink should be close enough that washing produce, filling pots and personal hygiene isn’t a chore, with a second sink a bit further away designated for dishwashing. This can also be accomplished in a tight space with a double bay sink.
Golden rule number four: Set up your kitchen so whatever tools are needed are organized and well cared for, removing the clutter of less-used items from your cooking space. If you don’t ever use your microwave, get rid of it; it’s taking up valuable real estate. Also consider where each task is carried out in your kitchen space and organize those spaces accordingly. If you process stripers in your sink as we do, keep a cutting board, a sharp knife and a container to place filets in close by.
Golden rule number five: Keep your cookbooks in your kitchen. Have them close at hand so access at any point is possible.
Golden rule number six: Have a plan. Things always change and ingredients speak to us as we manipulate them, steering us in different directions, but it’s important to have a starting point. Make a list, cook for a while, make another list of your progress and keep moving forward until your list has become a menu.
The continual theme is efficiency. It is the key component to being a good cook and organizing a productive kitchen. When it’s time to cook, it’s time to be efficient; gathering the ingredients is where you should take your time. Daydream about what you like to eat, what excites you. Walk around outside and breathe fresh air and if you are lucky enough to be in a natural setting, press your nose deep into a flower, rub grass between your fingers and smell them or nibble on a green bean fresh off the vine. No matter where you are gathering your food, use your senses. Touch the chicken. Smell your fish. Examine every aspect of a tomato before purchasing it. Look closely at the skin to determine its thickness, examine its shape and weight, smell it and think about ripeness, then draw upon past experiences and endless possibilities before buying it or plucking it from the vine.
While the water is still warm, take the time to remove your shoes and wade in to cast a line out in hopes of luring a fish onto shore next to you. Take a net and a flashlight out into one of the Great Ponds at night, and scoop up some fierce blue claw crabs. As I write this, six rock crabs sit in my fridge, an often overlooked bycatch of local lobstermen that I get from Betsy Larsen when I have the time to do them justice. I don’t know their fate yet. The bibb lettuce salad we served last night with toasted almonds and crÃ¨me fraiche vinaigrette would be much improved with some lemon-enhanced picked crab meat. One of the most memorable dishes I have ever eaten was at the River CafÃ© in London: a linguine drenched in butter, slivers of fresh green hot pepper, mint and crabmeat. It made my knees weak. I have never been able to recreate this simple dish, but time and place should never be replicated or forgotten. Technique gives us the ability to process food skillfully and efficiently, but it is our senses that make food beautiful and magical. Smelling this crab reminds me of Menemsha, which reminds me of walking out on the jetty. Navigating those giant stones with short legs and a slippery tide lapping at my toes.