It's been said that all you really need in order to cook are heat, a good knife and a couple of sturdy pots and pans. I agree in principle, although it might be tricky whipping up a lemon meringue pie. Still, I always feel envious when I see photo spreads of spectacular home kitchens with massive stoves, turbo-charged convection ovens, runway-size counters and more storage than the Yankees' locker room.
But impressive as these setups are, for most home cooks they are culinary overkilllike gunning a dragster to the corner deli. Does it really take a great kitchen to make great food, or can you do equally well in humble spaces? I have had the opportunity to investigate this question rigorously: Since retiring six years ago as restaurant critic for the New York Timesafter a decade-long stretch during which I never ate a home-cooked mealI have made up for lost time by staging many elaborate dinner parties at my 100-year-old farmhouse. It has a kitchen that some of my more diplomatic guests have described as "different" or "rustic," the way you might compliment the mother of a homely infant by observing that the child seems "bright." The space is large, about 12 feet by 20, and it has a lovely view of the fields and woods out back. It also has a five-foot-long counter with a Formica surface in a faded dalmatian pattern. But as best I can tell, it was last renovated the year Truman rabbit-punched Dewey.
If I had to single out the kitchen's biggest challenge, it would be the stove, which I bought 11 years ago for $75 at a front-lawn tag sale. (I haggled down the price from $80.) Manufactured by a company aptly named Caloric, it is a petulant creature that requires endless negotiation and cajoling before it goes to work. The exterior is a mottled brown, sort of like a baseball infield after it's been watered. Two of the four gas burners have been on strike for years, making cooking for a crowd a slow process. On the back panel is a clock frozen at 7:02 (I often wonder what was cooking, so many years ago, at the moment time stopped.) To the right of the clock is a fogged-over oven timer that also expired long ago, likely resulting in more than one desiccated roast; eerily, though, it continues to buzz every three or four days, precisely at noon. Then there is the third dial, which simply says STOP. Stop what?