Beyond the Microwave

Cutting-edge design and sleek new equipment are bringing the kitchen into the twenty-first century.

"Have you ever been in love?"

Mark Warwick, a residential architect based in Los Angeles, is trying to help me comprehend why he so often designs extravagant, state-of-the-art kitchens for people who spend most of the week eating nuked take-out on airplanes. "It's about romance," he explains. "Kitchens are designed for a kind of lifestyle, even if it's all in the client's head. And the kitchen has some easily recognizable elements that can be status symbols—the latest and greatest. If the rest of the house is a showpiece, why wouldn't the kitchen be?"

These are oxymoronic times, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the kitchen. Just as we tend to ignore the warty truth about loved ones, we nurture fantasies of hearth and home, conjuring up images of luscious, leisurely meals prepared with the sleekest, sexiest apparatus and served in culinary Elysian Fields. The shelves at Barnes & Noble hold a zillion calories' worth of cookbooks; there is an entire television network devoted to food; chefs inspire the sort of groupies usually associated with Leonardo DiCaprio; and Thai basil has banished the once-ubiquitous parsley from the plate. "As you get further away from the basic needs for survival, desires are endless," says Fu-Tung Cheng, a designer in Berkeley, California. "People hunger for community, they idealize that sense of community, and see the kitchen as the center."

Yet while our collective palate is more sophisticated and informed than ever, never before has the American public spent less time and effort in the preparation of food at home. A recent survey by the Grocery Manufacturers of America found that more than a third of us purchase ready-to-eat dinners—euphemistically called "meal solutions"—at least twice a week. And more than a third use a microwave oven almost all of the time. "You can look at a lot of recipes and end up making something very simple but feel you've explored your options," says Nancy Mullan, a kitchen designer in New York City. "The armchair cook has joined the armchair traveler."

Few home cooks require restaurant equipment any more than I require all the strapless black velvet in my closet. (I insist on buying clothes for a life I do not lead.) "People often want professional-style equipment regardless of their skills and needs," says Alan Asarnow, a kitchen designer in Ridgewood, New Jersey. "They may be barely able to boil water without burning the pot, but the machinery we install far surpasses the ability of the user. We're proud possessors, and we want to display what we have. I call it the three-pointed star in your kitchen rather than on the hood of your car. There aren't that many great golfers in the world, but a lot of people have great clubs. Maybe they can live up to the potential."

Even designers granted unlimited budgets may find themselves trying to temper a client's lavish tastes with a dose of reality. "You shouldn't build the church for Easter," says Juliana Catlin, an interior designer in Jacksonville, Florida, and president of the American Society of Interior Decorators. "But expectations of kitchens have changed. It's sort of theater now." So damn the irony, bring on the wood-fired pizza oven, and let's ignore the fact that the local Domino's is on speed dial (and knows that you hate anchovies). "Kitchens are designed for the exceptions, not the rule," says Michael DeGiulio, a kitchen designer based in Wilmette, Illinois. "We put in rotisseries for dinner parties and double ovens that get used only on Thanksgiving, but the lifestyle from Monday to Friday probably means faster, even instant, meals."

Some of the newest bells and whistles, borrowed from the pros and adapted for the residential kitchen, directly reflect the culture's mutable habits and diets. The rage for a "pot-filler"—a secondary water spigot right at the cooktop—can be traced to the national obsession with the pasta that replaced the "spaghetti" of our childhood. Gaggenau has introduced a steam oven that combines wet and dry heat to keep a chicken moist without basting, a boon to those who count fat grams. Stir-fry enthusiasts now regularly ask for a stainless-steel-lined drawer as a quick receptacle for a searing hot wok. And surely the warming drawer—a pullout oven that holds food at a low setting—was the brainchild of someone who returned from work too often to the dried-out orts of a meal that the rest of the family had enjoyed hours earlier.

Despite its many aesthetic permutations, the basic kitchen as we know it can be traced to Hoover (the President, that is, not the vacuum cleaner). There was an enormous push toward industrial standardization during the Great Depression, and Herbert Hoover wanted to give the economy a boost by putting homeowners (men) to work manufacturing products that were designed to keep homemakers (women) happy. President Hoover's 1931 Committee on Kitchens and Other Work Centers devised a set of guidelines for appliances and cabinet systems in American kitchens; there was even a national cheerleader of sorts called Miss Consumer who introduced and promoted the new household products.

One idea to emerge from the Hoover studies—a concept that remained virtually unchallenged until recently—was that an efficient kitchen included an imaginary "triangle" composed of the room's three primary work stations—refrigerator, sink, stove—and a set number of steps between them. "The work triangle was a great idea to get people to focus on the science of design," says Asarnow. "But the art of design has come into play now, so the triangle is no longer sacrosanct. That layout presupposed that Mom was doing all the cooking. Now there are a lot of families in which more than one person cooks at a time, one sautéing and another salad-making." In many of today's high-end kitchens with double appliances, the traditional configuration has been supplanted by the concept of zones, each dedicated to a particular task. "We think the triangle is all but gone," says Martha Yunker, an architect in Minneapolis. "There's a minimum of four areas now—prep area, cleanup sink, refrigerator, and stove, sometimes with separate burners and ovens. And there's often an island or peninsula."

While most pros agree that the form and function of kitchens has been more evolutionary than revolutionary, there have been three seismic changes: refrigeration,dishwashers, and microwaves. We're now on the brink of a fourth. "The Information Age is going to work itself into the kitchen," says William Mammen, an architect in Park City, Utah. "Lots of people already have a microchip-driven breadmaker sitting on the counter, and that gives them the ability to make things without knowing how to cook. In the future the oven will do that too. It will be a cooking machine that does everything from steam to microwave to convection." Mammen even envisions bar codes on pantry staples, an updated revisit of college years, when you wrote your initials on hard-boiled eggs and containers of yogurt so that your roommates would not eat them. "You'll have a computer that keeps track of cereal and sugar and cans of soup," he says. "It'll tell you what's stocked and what you need to buy."

In recognition of the fact that the basic kitchen paradigm had not changed in more than 60 years, the Rhode Island School of Design, in conjunction with advisors such as Julia Child, developed and unveiled in 1998 a model for the future called the Universal Kitchen. (Maytag has since bought the prototypes and intellectual property rights, and may have some of the designs on the marketplace in five to ten years.) "It is a kitchen system," explains Jane K. Langmuir, an architectural designer and the project's director. "The components are like furniture, and no matter what the user base—family, single person, old, young, tall, short—you can select the components that suit your needs." The design team's priority was to accommodate the changing demographics of the kitchen, enhancing the room's appeal by making it more convenient and efficient. Work surfaces are built on adjustable legs (the traditional 36-inch counter height is really meant for someone five feet four inches tall, the average height of Mom in the Hoover era). A dishwasher pops up only when needed. A corner oven, which utilizes what Langmuir calls "the most dysfunctional space in a kitchen," has doors that slide back into spaces on either side of it so you don't have hot metal dropping into your lap as you remove a 20-pound turkey.

The Rhode Island School of Design's Universal Kitchen is really a furtherance of the current "unfitted" kitchen—a sort of elegant, upscale prefab, originated by various companies in Germany (Bulthaup and SieMatic), Italy (Snaidero and Boffi), and Great Britain (Smallbone and Christians). It is no surprise that the modular kitchen began in Europe, where people typically take their cabinetry as well as their appliances with them when they move. "An empty European kitchen is not a pretty sight," says Lee Markbreit, a designer for Varenna Poliform in New York City and a former designer for Boffi. "It is basically a waste line, a gas line, and a water tap."

For people who would never buy a car without kicking the tires, there is a certain appeal to test-driving a kitchen by visiting a showroom or Web site and then working with the company's in-house designers to pick through hundreds of styles of cabinets, doors, molding, hardware, and architectural elements. The look may be Tuscan farmhouse, English manor, or surgical purity. "I have to ask clients as many questions as a decorator would," comments Markbreit. "Do you like to lock yourself behind a door while you create a mess, or do you invite people to participate and chat with you? Some clients want to see their Cuisinart and coffeemaker lined up; some find a crock of wooden spoons on the counter an abomination."

In recent years the modular concept has been incorporated into custom design as well, says Florence Perchuk of St. Charles of New York. "Americans like the idea of a kitchen looking as if it were furnished, perhaps in another century," she explains. "Instead of having contiguous relationships between all the parts of a kitchen, there may be free-standing units, meant to sit there on their own. We're grouping these components together now, but the deconstructed look actually needs more planning—it has to be scaled right, and we have to consider the empty 'white space.' "

Along with cabinetry, certain European appliances have invaded the American market, although dozens of other manufacturers still have not made their products available. "I think it's about getting approvals from the American Gas Association and being strong enough financially to enter a new market," says Markbreit. "Lots of the brands are good. It is like choosing between an Audi, a Saab, and a BMW." For manufacturers, it's also about responding to increasing environmental concerns, particularly energy conservation. About six years ago the Department of Energy reduced the amount of energy that dishwashers sold in the United States could use, and most of the new ones have multiple arms that throw water simultaneously, making them quicker and more efficient. European dishwashers, such as Miele, Bosch, and Asko, use less water and throw it alternately from two or three arms, so they're much quieter but can take up to two hours to complete a wash cycle. The newest trend is the "dish drawer" made by the New Zealand company Fisher & Paykel: Dishes are washed in a hideaway pullout drawer and sometimes are stored there, never hitting the shelves.

Refrigerators are hidden in drawers now too, an ideal way to delegate space for children's snacks and sodas; to separate meat and dairy in a kosher household; or to designate an area of the kitchen that DeGiulio calls la mattina (meaning "the morning" in Italian) containing the milk, juice, and English muffins needed for breakfast. "One couple asked that I consult the chef at their favorite restaurant to get ideas for their kitchen," says Mullan. "He thought that there should be under-counter refrigerators everywhere, that the reason people get sick from food that's gone bad is that they're lazy and take things out but don't put them back."

If one refrigeration trend is Lilliputian, the other is Brobdingnagian. The massive, commercial Traulsen is admired for its glass front, "though most people don't want to show off what's in their refrigerators," Mullan points out. "Personally, I'd take the shelves out of a glass-fronted refrigerator and use it just for storing flowers. I could cart them in from the country on the weekend and have them fresh for a party on Thursday." It isn't illegal to put one of these behemoths in a home (even though it does not conform to Department of Energy conservation standards for residential appliances), but the noisy motor and condenser will drive you crazy unless they are "remoted" to another area, such as a basement. Northland offers the flexibility of buying a naked 48-inch refrigerator/freezer module that houses over 30 cubic feet of storage space and creating your own decorative container for it. Some manufacturers are trying to reduce the visual mass of the refrigerator, what Asarnow calls "the upright coffin in the middle of the room." Mavericks and iconoclasts may prefer the futuristic Oz by Zanussi, which resembles a gigantic amoeba.

For the professional look adapted to the home market, there seems to be no competition for Sub-Zero. "You've heard the well-worn expression about thinking outside the box?" asks Asarnow. "Sub-Zero has thrown the box away, set aside all traditional thinking about refrigeration, and come up with concepts that break the mold." A Sub-Zero refrigerator has microprocessor controls that sense the temperature once per second and adjust continuously. "Let's say you have a sixteen-year-old son who 'shops' in front of the fridge with the door open," says Asarnow. "It knows the moment the door is closed and how long it has to run without stopping to bring the temperature up. It only defrosts when needed. Every other refrigerator works on a preordained timer." And with a Sub-Zero you can now get filtered water from the fridge—no more making Evian ice cubes.

Sub-Zero recently introduced wine storage using this same microprocessor. "The unit keeps bottles at an angle so the corks stay damp, and it's vibration-free so there's no disruption of sediment," remarks John Cappabianca, who trains architects and designers about brand-new luxury appliances for Goldman Associates in Roslyn Heights, New York. "The glass front is designed so that no ultraviolet rays get through. It is like SPF for your wine."

The underused freezer has been exiled to the bottom of the refrigerator. "What most people have in their freezers is vodka, ice cream, and jewelry," says Mullan, and most designers agree that it's the first place a resourceful burglar ought to look. "These days, you can buy everything fresh at any hour. The only people who need a lot of freezer space are sportsmen who shoot venison or go fishing in Alaska." What is useful, Mullan adds, are different climates of cooling and warming for various foods, like oils that tend to go rancid at room temperature but need not be kept as cold as meat. "A closet turned into a larder can be cooled to somewhere in the fifties," she says. "There are lots of things that can be kept at that temperature. And a crisper, or brisker, that has a low heating element can keep crackers from getting soggy."

Just about everything in a kitchen can now be completely "integrated" or concealed by cabinetry except the range—not yet, anyway—but nobody wants to hide the gorgeous Europeans, such as the Tulikivi made of Finnish soapstone, the enameled British Aga, and the French La Cornue (approximately $20,000 by the time it makes the trip from France). The problem is that these beauties generate tremendous heat, which makes them perfect for Kennebunkport but less than ideal for Palm Beach. "When I first installed these ranges in homes, the amount of heat produced by the pilot light alone was unbelievable," comments Warwick. "You can cook the food quicker and better, but you have to keep the air conditioning on all the time." To compete, American manufacturers are producing professional-style ranges adapted for the home: Elmira Stove Works and Heartland both make big, homey-looking models that seem like they were plucked from a production of Our Town; Vikings and Thermadors announce: "I am a chef."

The two buzzwords in cooking are faster and hotter. "People want great burners with high BTUs [British Thermal Units] so they can sear a chop, then turn the heat way down to melt chocolate," says Thomas D. Trzcinski of Kitchen and Bath Concepts of Pittsburgh. They want "dual fuel" (gas and electric within the same unit); sealed burners so that food won't drop into inconvenient crevices; "simmer plates" that diffuse heat; and "bridge" grates that connect front and back burners to create one large cooking surface—good news for anyone who has ever attempted to maneuver a fish poacher. The latest broiler sears food with infrared heat on steel or ceramic mesh, instead of the usual electric rod, which heats the upper part of the oven cavity. "Magnawave" ovens include intense halogen lights that cook faster than a conventional oven but also brown food, almost replacing the microwave. That's just fine with Warwick. "I think that the microwave is an evil machine," he says.

The heavy-duty machines borrowed fromthe commercial world demand brawny ventilation—many manufacturers will void the warranty on a stove unless it is vented according to their specifications. "Hoods are my pet peeve," remarks Yunker. "The manufacturers assume you're going to use all six or eight burners at once, making blackened something and deep-fried something else, with a couple of pots burning madly, generating more smoke and grease and steam than a restaurant. And they want the ventilator hood to be thirty inches above the cooktop, which means you'll hit your head on it." Venting power is measured in units called CFMs (cubic feet per minute), and a high number can mean noise—"Some of those things will suck the tie right off your neck," states Cappabianca. New technology has made advances. For example, Vent-A-Hood draws the hot air up into a canopy, then throws the grease against the inside wall of the blowerhousing before expelling the contaminants from the unit. Abbaka has shifted the ventilator motor from the interior of the hood to the exterior of the home, making for quieter operation.

Even something as utilitarian as a hood can look stunning in a photo. But while most people seem to understand that the model on the cover of Vogue looks perfect only for the time it takes the camera to click, few realize that the beautiful stainless-steel kitchen in the ads of shelter magazines will quickly show fingerprints and scratches—and still we want low maintenance, even if there is a staff for the purpose. "What Americans call scratches, Europeans call patina," says Lee Markbreit.

"If you love the material, you will learn to live with its properties. Any French bistro has nothing but Carrara marble on its countertop, but it's more porous than granite and it will stain." Viking recently introduced the first self-cleaning restaurant-style gas range. "But true commercial ranges are seldom self-cleaning," comments DeGiulio. "They have raised griddles and many ridges where food falls. And they're not zero-clearance with the cabinets because they have a pilot light and no insulation, and lastly, they're too hot."

Like the toys we covet, we are at times brazenly impractical. DeGiulio remembers explaining to a couple that La Cornue was the Rolls-Royce of ranges. "Then it's perfect for us," said the client, "because we have one of those in the garage, and we don't use that either."

Kitchen Design Sources

Here is a list of top organizations that will provide kitchen design information and referrals, as well as designers known for innovative, high-end residential kitchen work.

Organizations

National Kitchen and Bath Association
687 Willow Grove Street, Hackettstown, NJ 07840;
800-367-6522; fax 908-852-1695;
www.nkba.org.

American Society of Interior Decorators
608 Massachusetts Avenue N.E., Washington, D.C. 20002;
800-775-2743;
www.interiors.org.

Designers

Alan Asarnow
Ulrich, Inc.
100 Chestnut Street, Ridgewood, NJ
07450; 201-445-1260; fax 201-445-7221;
www.ulrichkitchens.com.

Juliana Catlin Catlin Interiors
916 Dante Place, Suite 2, Jacksonville, FL 32207;
904-396-5522; fax 904-396-4009;
www.catlin-interiors.com.

Fu-Tung Cheng Cheng Design
2808 San Pablo Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94702;
510-849-3272; fax 510-849-3274.

Michael DeGiulio
DeGiulio Kitchen Design, Inc.
1121 Central Avenue, Wilmette, IL 60091;
847-256-8833; fax 847-256-8842;
www.degiuliokitchens.com.

William Mammen Mammen Associates Architecture
2001 Lucky John Drive, Park City, UT 84060;
435-649-8868; fax 435-645-9282.

Lee Markbreit
Varenna Poliform
150 East 58th Street, New York, NY 10155;
212-421-1800; fax 212-421-1290;
www.poliformusa.com.

Nancy Mullan
204 East 77th Street, New York, NY 10021;
212-628-4629; fax 212-628-6738;
www.nancymullan.com.

Florence Perchuk
St. Charles of New York
150 East 58th Street, New York, NY 10155;
212-838-2812; fax 212-308-4951.

Thomas D.Trzcinski
Kitchen and Bath Concepts
7901 Perry Highway, Pittsburgh, PA 15237;
412-369-2900; fax 412-369-2903.

Martha Yunker
Y + A Architecture
240 North 9th Avenue, Minneapolis, MN 55401;
612-371-9195; fax 612-371-9199.

Manufacturers

Abbaka
800-548-3932;
www.abbaka.com

Aga
800-633-9200;
www.aga-cookers.com

Asko (through Delia)
800-356-3803;
www.askousa.com

Boffi
212-431-8282;
www.boffi.it

Bosch
800-866-2022;
www.boschappliances.com

Bulthaup
310-288-3875;
www.bulthaupusa.com

Christians (New York showroom)
212-308-3554

Elmira Stove Works
800-295-8498;
www.elmirastoveworks.com

Fisher & Paykel
800-863-5394; www.fisherpaykel.com

Gaggenau
800-828-9165;
www.gaggenau.com

Heartland
800-361-1517;
www.heartlandapp.com

La Cornue (through Purcell Murray)
800-892-4040;
www.purcellmurray.com

Miele
800-843-7231;
www.miele.com

Northland
800-223-3900;
www.northlandnka.com

SieMatic
800-765-5266;
www.siematic.com

Smallbone
44-13-80-731-639

Snaidero
800-926-8499;
www.snaidero-usa.com

Sub-Zero
800-222-7820;
www.subzero.com

Thermador
800-656-9226;
www.thermador.com

Traulsen
800-825-8220;
www.traulsen.com

Tulikivi
800-843-3473;
www.tulikivi.com

Vent-A-Hood
972-235-5201;
www.ventahood.com

Viking
888-845-4641;
www.viking-range.com

Zanussi (through Electrolux)
44-175-387-2500;
www.zanussi.com

Aimee Lee Ball, a New York-based freelance writer, wrote about gemstone cutter Bernd Munsteiner in Departures' May/June issue.