When it comes to efficient kitchen design, food magazines would have us believe that professional kitchens are the place to look for ideas. But the restaurant kitchen can be too antiseptic, too assembly-line for at-home cooks. Consider, instead, the chef’s home kitchen. Time and again we’ve seen that, at home, chefs have co-opted ideas from restaurant kitchens to suit their own lifestyle, with clever, at-a-glance ways of storing spices and two-are-better-than-one faucets.
So has cookbook author, writer, and cooking show host Amy Thielen. Her kitchen—a newly built pine-paneled kitchen in Two Inlets, Minnesota—may seem rustic, just off of an original one-room cabin that Amy’s husband, the visual artist and sculptor Aaron Spangler, built in 1995 (“by hand, literally, as we didn’t have any electricity back here,” Amy says). In 2008, the couple added running water and an indoor bath when they moved to the cabin full-time from New York, but Amy was still filming her TV show, “Heartland Table,” out of the small original kitchen. Just last year, they tacked on an extension with a new, spacious kitchen, clad in local Norway pine, designed completely by the couple, and built by Spangler.
It’s a kitchen fully fitted for professional use. “I wanted it to be functional for photo shoots, and large enough to do events and fundraisers in, but still homey enough for our small family life,” says Amy. And it had to work for entertaining (she’s working on her next cookbook, on just that topic, for W.W. Norton). So amidst open shelving and what Amy calls a “California-meets-Japan-meets-Scandinavia vibe,” the couple cleverly built in a handful of design elements borrowed from Amy’s time in professional kitchens. The result is a rustic home kitchen that’s secretly fully equipped to handle feasts of all kinds.
Here are five ideas Amy and Aaron built into their kitchen, as attractive as they are super functional.
1. Warming Flat-Top Stove
“My grandma and great-grandma both cooked on a wood cookstove, and when I was a line cook in New York I worked on a steel flat top,” says Amy. “I loved the choreography of the moving pots—so fluid. So I’ve been dreaming of having a wood cookstove for years.” The couple uses it for heating as well as cooking. “We start a fire in the stove every morning to warm the room and I feed it all day long. I usually have a pot of something cooking on the stovetop, just to make use of the heat, in that backwoods bachelor’s ‘perpetual stew’ tradition—although mine usually holds beans or chicken stock. It may take me a few years to master the art of wood feeding—birch versus oak, small sticks versus large—but I fall more in love with this stove by the day.”
2. Steel Backsplash
Behind the wood stove is a pot rack both handsome and sneakily handy for entertaining. “Aaron designed the blackened steel backsplash and pot rack and hired a local metalworker to make it. He also put in a metal ledge, where I keep finished dishes warm before they go to the table,” says Amy. “I like to drape my wet dish towels over the brick pillar next to the stove; they dry within the hour. At night, as the fire goes down, I’ll sometimes set a dish of homemade yogurt on the ledge to firm up overnight. It loves that dying heat.”
3. Built-In Speed Rack
“I asked Aaron to build me a mini sheet pan rack in the cupboard beside the stove—what professional cooks call a ‘speed rack’—sized to fit standard half-sheet pans,” says Amy. “I use it to store my ridiculously large collection of baking sheets and racks, and also finished pans of baked goods. When I bake a chocolate cake before a dinner party, I slide it into the speed rack where no one will pick at it, though they’re onto me now,” she adds. She keeps a box of flat parchment
paper on the top pan, for ease. “I’ll never wrestle with that stubborn coil of rolled parchment paper ever again,” she says.
4. Extra-Deep, Triple-Bowl Sink
As important as efficiencies in cooking are efficiencies in cleaning up. “I searched high and low for a large, triple-basin sink, because as a cookbook author, I wash a lot of large pots and pans and baking sheets that don’t fit in the dishwasher,” says Amy. “And I’m what you might call a ‘classical’ dishwasher—hands submerged in hot sudsy water, washcloth instead of sponge, coiled metal scrubber for the sticky pots—not a fan of endless soaking.” Hence, her choice of a triple-bowl sink for her three-step dish-washing process. “I fill the left sink with sudsy water, rinse in the center sink, and stack clean dishes in the third sink, to air-dry out of sight. I love it,” she adds. “I can keep a sinkful of soapy water for doing dishes while I cook, and still drain my pasta in the free middle basin.”
The sink is fitted with twin faucets. “Nate, my plumber, and also my childhood next-door neighbor, refused to install the cheap-but-trendy bridge faucet I’d first picked out because he didn’t want to service ‘junk,'” Amy says. “So he found me a really nice mid-range one, with a matching bar faucet for cleaning out the far-right sink.”
5. Dual Countertops
“I went with an oak island, because that’s where I stand and work all day, and I wanted a soft-to-the-touch surface. The island is also the place where friends congregate while I’m making dinner, and wood makes for a warmer, more pleasant bar,” says Amy. “We hired a local craftsman to make the island, plank-style, from burr oak he’d harvested from his land. It was ungodly heavy, but it’s here now (and forever).”
The counters around the perimeter of the kitchen and by the sink are matte Acacia marble. “I wanted a countertop that would be strong, sterile, resist water, and take on a patina,” says Amy. “Some of the other surfaces I looked at could withstand a bombing, and also were more expensive. I find it easy to keep clean, and don’t care if it chips. It already has, actually. I want a surface that will age along with me as I cook over my lifetime. At the end, it may look like it has seen some days and experienced some really epic dinner parties—or, it may look exactly the same. We will find out.”
For more inside secrets from chef’s home kitchens, may we suggest: