There’s some irony, surely, in the fact that I write a column called Brigitte’s Kitchen when my current home kitchen is a tiny 1970s shambles. There’s hardly any bench space other than two odd corners to work in, which makes prep a nightmare. The sink is small and shallow – barely big enough to fit even a medium-sized pot under the tap. The cupboards are cheap and poky. The exhaust is almost non-existent, so when I use my wok the whole house smells like Bangkok.
When I have a dinner party the kitchen stacks up with plates, bowls and pots till there isn’t an inch of free space left, and it always looks like a bombsite. Nothing seems to stand up to my industrial-strength requirements. It’s not what I had in mind when I married an architect, that’s for sure.
Fortunately, for most of the week I get to cook in the beautiful kitchen upstairs at the Gertrude Street Enoteca. It has lots of natural light and a view of Fitzroy rooftops, but most of all I love it because it’s really well designed. The benches are spaced so they have just enough room to move around in comfortably but are tight enough that you don’t have to move too much – everything is within reach. We opted for open shelving partly to save money, but also because I love how open shelves celebrate a kitchen’s machinery and tools. I think too many modern kitchens lack warmth. They’re clean and cold and the hearth of the house has become tucked away instead of celebrated.
So what makes a good kitchen? Space is the easiest answer, even if it’s the toughest to control. You really do need a good length of uninterrupted bench space so that you can lay out your produce and chopping board and knives for a harmonious workflow. You want openness without clutter. It doesn’t have to be huge, but everything that’s there should be there for a reason.
Thus one of the best features of my work kitchen is the three-metre-long end-grain timber bench. It’s made from walnut, so it’s incredibly hard – and beautiful. One end is just for desserts and fruit, the other for onions, meat and fish. Because it’s natural wood, it cleans easily and doesn’t ever hold a smell.
At home I entertain a lot, and I need to be able to cook for many people with ease. This means big pots – and a six-burner stove that can fit many things at once. You also need at least one sink deep enough for big pots, or to rinse a whole salmon, or to fill with ice to cool down an anglaise quickly. (The gorgeous ceramic butler sink in my Enoteca kitchen is perfect – it’s large enough to bathe a toddler, should the need arise.)
The combi oven in my work kitchen – that is, a combination convection and steam oven – has been a revelation. Water is a better and more efficient conductor of heat than dry air, so things cook more quickly, more evenly and, depending on how much steam I use, with more moistness. My cakes have never been better, nor has my roast pork. It also steam-cleans so that the oven looks brand-new all the time. In fact, I’m not sure why more people don’t fit them at home – they aren’t terribly expensive.
We recently installed a commercial dishwasher at home because it has a three-minute cycle – and therefore I don’t have a huge build up of dishes whenever I cook.
I can just throw them in and they’re done.
But it’s not just about the right equipment, it’s also a matter of knowing how to get the most out of your equipment. For instance, if you have a 90cm-wide oven then you should buy 90cm-long oven dishes to maximise the space. That way you can cook something like coq au vin for 15 people in one tray, covered with foil as a lid. Two trays would mean catering for 30 people easily. A big oven isn’t being used to good effect if you only have regular-sized casserole pots to put in it.
Thankfully, our home renovations are on their way. And while it’s true that with enough grit and creativity you can cook anywhere, the thought of having a great kitchen at home fills me with joy and expands the horizons tenfold, so I feel anything is possible. Can we please hurry up now, Mr Architect?
ILLUSTRATION ANTONIA PESENTI
This article was published in the October 2012 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.