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The Kitchen That Could

The tale of a battered stove, an ancient dishwasher—and a rousing dinner party that confounded everybody's expectations.

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 overkill—like 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 Times—after a decade-long stretch during which I never ate a home-cooked meal—I 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?

I know how to improvise a meal without a timer, but the lack of overhead light presented a problem. My remedy was to clip onto the stove's back panel a big aluminum spotlight, the kind mechanics use to view the underbelly of automobiles. One could perform surgery on my range now.

The gas oven puffs on when (and only when) you place a match to one of the two functioning stovetop burners. Even then you have to wait about three minutes and then slam the oven door two or three times (I am not making this up), before it starts. The thermostat is 30 degrees off, on the hot side. And the woefully underpowered exhaust fan, which could barely ventilate an ashtray, emits a high-pitched screech that frightens the neighborhood dogs. Whenever I sauté or grill, the house fills up with so much smoke that disoriented guests have to clasp one another's hands, like schoolchildren, to find their way out.

After World War II, the General Electric Corporation developed a clunky if crudely effective prototype dishwasher, a miraculous invention that transformed American housekeeping the way the cotton gin had ameliorated plantation work. My dishwasher, in the opinion of the repairman, must have been one of the first off the line. For a time in the late '40s it may have sudsed up some plastic dinner plates and barbecue spatulas, but, like the Mercury space rocket, it quickly became obsolete. The marvel of this machine is that you can fill it with dishes, turn it on and hear all kinds of spraying and sloshing, but when you open the door the dishes are untouched. Actually, they are worse off: The circulating air ossifies the food stuck to the plates. The machine makes a good dish rack, though.

And yet, for all of its shortcomings, my little kitchen has nourished more spectacular and raucous parties than many of the showiest kitchens in Manhattan. I'm not saying that everything goes seamlessly—fish have disintegrated, soufflés have imploded and one evening lamb shanks came out of the oven so black and granitic (a visiting chef trusted the timer) that they could have been used as billy clubs. All in all, though, a little improvisation has almost always pulled us through.

Only once has my eccentric kitchen led to major embarrassment, and even then it wasn't really the kitchen's fault. Two years ago, I invited a couple of Manhattan chefs—Cesare Casella, a Tuscan who owns the restaurant Beppe, and Bill Yosses, now pastry chef at the new Citarella restaurant—to prepare a dinner. The guests were a discriminating group: Tim and Nina Zagat, of the Zagat guides; Myles and Lillian Cahn, the owners of Coach Farm goat cheeses; and my parents, who had been frequent dining companions when I was reviewing restaurants for the Times.

Fifteen minutes before everyone arrived, we were running way behind. The stove was huffing like an out-of-shape jogger on a final hill. In the midst of the confusion, Cesare realized he was missing a critical ingredient: "Basil!" he cried. I took off like a Roman messenger, roaring into town, grabbing the basil and screeching home again. I dived out of the car and, instead of going in the front door as I usually do, charged around the side of the house to the kitchen. But like a train speeding helplessly toward a broken rail, I couldn't slow my momentum, and I slammed right into the sliding glass door. At once everything seemed to move in slow motion. The door floated toward the floor, crashing in a shower of glittering glass. The chefs froze in mid-chop; the stove hissed mockingly. In that brief moment of suspended silence, I heard a car pulling into the driveway. "Keep cooking!" I shouted, leaping around the floor as I brushed up hundreds of glass nuggets.

The Zagats walked in and took in the scene with horror. "Wouldn't you like a glass of Sancerre?" I asked, feigning nonchalance. Soon we noticed that a frosty November was blowing into the house, a situation I remedied with duct tape, plywood and plastic trash bags. (They are still there.) The cooking recommenced.

All things considered, the dinner was a rousing success. We had a fantastic Tuscan bread salad (with plenty of basil), bruschetta with zucchini and Romano cheese, a peppery mussel-and-clam casserole, braised loin of pork stuffed with fresh herbs, and roasted baby potatoes with rosemary. For dessert there was chocolate mousse with vanilla génoise, farmer's cheese strudel stuffed with glazed apricots, and English trifle with cinnamon plums and blueberries.

Was the meal as enjoyable as any of the ones I had sampled from million-dollar kitchens? Damn right it was—and a lot more memorable, too.

Bryan Miller is the restaurant and food editor at Citysearch.com.

Published December 2000
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