I like to walk into a kitchen and feel that the space expresses the personality of the cook who inhabits it. Too many kitchens today seem like sterile laboratories—there’s no one home. As an editor, I’ve had the privilege of working with many different cookbook writers, and I am always interested in how their kitchens reveal something about their approach to cooking—the particular array of spices on their shelves, the utensils they use the most, the aromas that linger in the air.
I first became aware of the presence of personality in a kitchen when Julia and Paul Child returned from Europe in the early 1960s to settle in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They renovated the large kitchen in an old New England house and hung on the walls all the copper pots and pans Julia had brought back from Paris. Later, I noted how the Middle Eastern food expert Claudia Roden’s kitchen in London reflected her memories of growing up in Cairo, where all the women of the house would gather to make mezes and gossip. The relatively small room, brightened by Middle Eastern tiles, opened onto a generous, cluttered space with a long wooden table where you could sit down and chat and peel fava beans. And I could always detect the heady scents wafting from the tiny kitchen of Indian cookbook author Madhur Jaffrey’s modern apartment in New York City even before I rang the doorbell. Her ability to have all four burners going, with bowls of dals and chutneys kept out of the way in cramped cabinets and ready to go, was almost an acrobatic feat, but she always knew where everything was and remained undaunted. More recently I’ve been learning the art of sushi making in the sleek kitchen of noted Japanese culinary authority Hiroko Shimbo; it is a model of efficiency and gleaming cleanliness. The big rice cooker is always filled with sushi rice ready to be scooped up, and there is a central worktable full of ingredients carefully laid out, reflecting the balance of color and texture that is so important to Japanese cooking.
In 1970, when my husband, the author Evan Jones, and I bought the co-op apartment where I grew up, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, I knew what kind of kitchen I wanted—modeled on Julia’s but expressive of us. The building was constructed in the early 1900s, when architects allowed fairly ample space for hired kitchen help (our kitchen measures about eight by ten feet). Separating the kitchen and dining room was a convenient pantry, with its own sink, intended as a place for the maid to wash glasses. There was also a small, diamond-shaped window in the door to the dining room that allowed her to see when it was time to bring out the next course. At first, the distance the pantry created between the dining room and the kitchen seemed a problem, and we tried to break down some walls to bring us closer to our guests, but there were too many ancient pipes embedded in there, and we had to give up. In the end it turned out to be a blessing; we made the pantry into a cozy dining area, where we put a round marble cafe table for two and hung our own copper pans, which cast a warm glow when we ate by candlelight.
From the start we wanted to preserve the timeless look of the old kitchen while making it more workable. Like many New York kitchens of bygone days, ours had cabinets that reached way up to a high ceiling. Of course, you needed a ladder to fetch things from the top shelves, but those cabinets provided a great storage place for seldom used equipment, and they hung high over the counter, allowing for some pegboard space underneath. We kept two of those, just sprucing them up with new doors, and replaced the rest with accessible open shelves where I could keep, in handsome glass jars, staples such as rice, dried beans, grains, dried mushrooms and chiles, and spices. What old kitchens like ours lacked was counter space, so we added some along three of the walls so that we could work together without getting in each other’s way.
One of those counters, under a wide window, had a backsplash extending along its length, in front of the deep windowsill. When this section was installed, we realized that in walling off that windowsill, we had inadvertently created what the French call a garde-manger, a cool spot beneath a kitchen window where fresh foods can be tucked away. During the time we lived in Paris in the late 1940s and early ’50s, most of the apartments we rented were without refrigerators but had garde-mangers, so our improvised version in New York held a certain nostalgic charm. I still use ours all the time in cooler months to stash away dried fruits and nuts and chocolates—things that need a slight chill.
The pride of the kitchen is the six-burner Garland stove, which has served me well now for almost 40 years. With its wide oven and high heat, I am able to simulate a baker’s oven and make crusty baguettes and the occasional pizza. It is a blessing in every way.
But a kitchen is never finished, and I’m still adding useful items, such as a small marble-topped worktable, which has shelves to hold my most frequently used cooking essentials; I spotted the table not long ago in the window of a Gracious Home store near our apartment. I have it tucked alongside the Garland, so I can do all my prep right next to where I cook. When I started writing my most recent book, The Pleasures of Cooking for One (Knopf, 2009), a project that began to evolve after my husband died, in 1996, I realized that an important part of reducing recipes and making them work in single portions lies in adjusting the pan size, so I relegated my big equipment to the top parts of the cabinets and hung smaller tools close to the stove: my four-cup Le Creuset pot, my trusty eight-inch iron skillet, a small wok, and an omelette pan. Then, when I was ready to cook, everything was right at hand, whether I was making an Indian curry or a Chinese stir-fry or an Italian pasta dish.
Above all, my kitchen is a part of me. It keeps me efficient and, particularly now that I cook mostly for myself, inspires me to be creative, to have fun with whatever I am making. When I sit down to a nicely laid table in the old pantry, I light the candles, pour myself a glass of wine, and feel that I am honoring the past as I enjoy a good dinner.