Greg Alexander

Making room for the chef to create

Baltimore Sun, March 2004

To most of us, the kitchen is more than simply a place to prepare food. It’s a place we start our day at the coffeepot trying to wake up and the place where everyone seems to be at the end of a party. To homeowners who have aspirations to be the next Emeril, the kitchen is their studio — a place where they create culinary works of art.

Of course, if you’re going to spend a few hours a day in this “studio,” you must have the right space, one that is functional, yet also pleasing to the eye.

“The key is functionality; you must have easy access to all your tools, pots and pans,” says John Shields, chef, owner of Gertrude’s restaurant at the Baltimore Museum of Art and author of popular cookbooks, including The Chesapeake Bay Cookbook, The Chesapeake Bay Crab Cookbook, Chesapeake Bay Cooking with John Shields and Coastal Cooking with John Shields, due out this fall. Shields says that he subscribes to the “work triangle” theory, which involves placing the refrigerator, sink and stove so that they form an imaginary triangle. In doing this, you’ll be able to move easily between the three main work areas.

“Kitchen islands work wonderful in this system, especially if you can have one with a built-in sink so that you can quickly move from the refrigerator to the sink to do your ‘prep’ work,” he says. “I do as much work ahead of time as possible and having an island makes life easier, especially when you have to wash lots of vegetables. If a kitchen island is not in the budget, I recommend a cart with wheels from IKEA or Crate & Barrel to provide more workspace. I love the cart I have at work with a built-in cutting board and racks below that hold sheet pans that can be quickly popped into the oven.” Shields adds that overhead rods to hang utensils and an overhead pot rack are handy, especially is smaller kitchens where cabinet space is tight.

“There is a whole science when designing a kitchen,” adds Jim Lichty, a certified kitchen designer with Stuart Kitchens in Baltimore ( Lichty says that if you’re remodeling a kitchen, ensure that the designer is certified by the National Kitchen and Bath Association ( “Those certified must have five years of design experience and must pass a difficult national examination,” he says.

Lichty recommends visiting the NKBA Web site for design ideas and clipping out kitchen photos from magazines. “I tell clients to imagine that they have all the space and money they want for their kitchen and make a wish list. Then, we’ll price out their dream kitchen and see if it’s within the budget. If not, we’ll scale back, but I like to give them the freedom to dream.” Lichty encourages homeowners to visit one of Stuart Kitchens’ five showrooms for inspiration.

When planning the kitchen for the serious chef, Lichty says that you have to allow room for guests, too. “Those who love to cook also like to entertain in the kitchen so that people can watch the chef in action. Cooking is an art form, and most chefs like the attention,” he laughs.

“If you plan to use your kitchen in different ways, it is best to think of the room divided into sections. Assign an area for cooking and food preparation, another for eating and a third for sitting and relaxing,” recommends author Vinny Lee (Kitchens by Vinny Lee, Ryland Peters & Small, $29.95). In the book, Lee recommends placing the eating area furthest away from the food preparation area so that when the cooking is done, that area can be cleared and out of sight to guests.

Lee says that there are several design types, but the “New Professional” style is most popular with the serious cooks, especially those inspired by celebrity chefs. In this style, functionality is paramount and an open floor plan is used with few walls or dividers. Also, large appliances are used, and other elements in the kitchen should be of similar scale to maintain a sense of balance.

“If you’re a serious cook, you need serious appliances like a Sub-Zero refrigerator and a Viking range,” says Lichty. “I always ask clients what type of cooking they will be doing — if you’re more of a baker, let’s focus on the oven, but if you like to sauté, let’s focus on the cooktop.”

“Aside from appliances, I believe that lighting is most important,” says Shields. “You must have proper lighting over countertops — small halogen lights below cabinets, for example — or you may lose a finger when chopping,” he laughs. “I like adjustable lighting so that it’s bright when I’m cooking, yet I can dim the lights for entertaining.” “Lighting can make or break your kitchen,” adds Lichty, who says he likes recessed lighting over dining areas at low levels. “Combined with candlelight, it gives a nice glow.”

As far as countertops, Lichty likes granite or synthetic granite. “Granite is very durable, and the sparkle and individuality of it is nice. No two granite countertops look the same.” For flooring, he says that hardwood is very popular because it’s easy to maintain and comfortable. “If you are going to be on your feet all day cooking, you have to have some cushion underneath,” adds Shields.

Back to top