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Reflections on kitchen remodeling

(article, Adam Ried)

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That old phrase “the moment of truth” means that split second when you learn whether something works . . . or not. Note that the word "moment" is in the singular, inferring that there is just one such instant. Any enthusiastic cook who has renovated his kitchen, however, will beg to differ. I certainly do.

As we settle into our recently completed new kitchen, the moments of truth — plural — come fast and furious. How is it to store the dishes in an undercounter drawer instead of an upper cabinet? (Good — it's super-easy to unload the dishwasher into the adjacent drawers, as I’d hoped.) Is there enough space in the sink to easily maneuver a half-sheet pan? (Yes.) Does the depth of the sink strain my back while doing dishes? (To get a large-enough sink, it had to be deeper than I thought would be ideal, but it turns out to be fine.) Is there enough light over the kitchen table? (Yes.) Over the stovetop? (No.) Does the hood actually prevent the fire alarm from blaring when I sear meat? (Yes! Yes! Yes! Thank God Almighty, yes!)

[%image stove float=right width=300 caption="The range has worked well; the hood, fabulously."]

In particular, each use of the range feels like a moment of truth. Before those details, though, may I ask your indulgence in a rant about the appliance-buying experience, from which I still haven’t quite recovered?

Unless you’re spending a bundle for high-end brands, which I wasn’t, there is no place to test mid-range appliances before buying. This absolutely galls me. I would never buy a car without driving it first, so being forced to buy a range without first stir-frying and simmering on it drove me to distraction. 

I understand that retailers have limited space to market umpteen zillion appliance models, and that setting up each one to test would be impractical, to say the least, not to mention the logistics of allowing potential customers to cook on the premises. But still, the stubborn part of me just can’t accept the injustice of having to buy blind like this.

So, what in an ideal world should be pre-purchase testing becomes, in the hardscrabble real world, numerous moment(s) of truth on an appliance already installed in your new kitchen. The first meal I prepared on the stovetop — Basque-style piperade with eggs and slices of golden fried grits — was less about testing than it was about making a dish we love with what I had around. 

After that, though, I crossed my fingers and started testing my way through the various stove and oven functions. Bergamot biscotti, plain almond granola, cheese grits soufflés, several tortas Caprese (like a big, wonderful Italian almond brownie), and four oven thermometers moved around the cavity provided my initial sense of the oven’s straight-ahead baking mode. A harissa-glazed meatloaf shed light on the convection-baking mode, and a dry-brined turkey breast gave me a taste of convection roasting. 

On the stovetop, I braised escarole and sautéed mushrooms for duxelles on the moderately-powered 9,500 BTU burner; stir-fried chicken with onions, red peppers, bok choy, and a spicy tangerine sauce on the 17,000 BTU power burner; and as I type this, I have a pot of chicken stock going on the lowest-powered 5,000 BTU burner, which is maintaining a gorgeous, gurgling simmer, bubbles breaking the surface every now and then with nary an adjustment. 

I didn’t expect the range to be a rock star, and it isn’t, but overall, it’s pretty good. Looks as if I can loosen those fingers a little.

In fact, with the project behind us and the memories of stressing over every decision and detail starting to fade, it seems like the time to reflect on what I learned about such projects — the knowledge that came hand-in-hand with the stress. If my future holds another kitchen renovation at some point, this sort of information will certainly provide a running start. And maybe it will help someone else in the meantime. So, here goes!

h4.Cast off your preconceptions

I’d had 12 years working in the old kitchen to overthink its every detail and analyze ideas about how a new one should be laid out. After countless design iterations, the room is nothing like, and way better than, what I’d been imagining.

This goes both for its overall layout and for the individual components of the design.

Two examples: First, despite the fact that the kitchen is small and we couldn’t expand it, I was convinced that a peninsula was necessary to separate the work and social areas of the space, and no amount of patient prodding from designers or contractors was going to dissuade me. Despite their best efforts, it was money that finally saved me from myself on this. When I learned how much the peninsula added to the construction bid, I reluctantly eliminated it, and now I’m so happy that I did. The room works fine and feels much more open sans peninsula.

It’s a similar story with the windows. We started with three, but to accommodate the layout, one had to be removed. It’s a dark room to begin with, so I was loathe to lose a window, despite multiple assurances that pushing together the other two would admit enough light. Against my instincts, I finally accepted the sacrifice, and guess what? The new, larger double window is terrific, serving as a focal point in the room in a way that the original windows never did. Also, to balance the loss of a window, we widened a doorway from a back hall, so more light from the window there could shine into the kitchen.

Long story short: Ideas are good, but slavish devotion to them could work against you. For more on slavish devotion, read on to my refrigerator remarks.
h4. Do your homework

In the name of cost control, or at least cost awareness, do your homework — lots of it — before soliciting bids from contractors. This being my first renovation, I’d never reviewed contractor bids before, and I found them confusing because there was no consistent format. With help, I sorted out what was and wasn’t included in each. But I didn’t evaluate the allowances, which are the amounts of money built in for various components of the kitchen — floors, counters, backsplash, windows, painting, and so forth. If the actual cost exceeds the allowance, then bam . . . you’re paying more than you expected for a cost you hoped would be fixed.

In all honesty, even if I’d scrutinized the allowances, I wouldn’t have had a frame of reference for their accuracy. It turned out that several of them were low, so I ended up paying more  than I’d expected (though usually not too much) for those items. If I had gotten some basic measurements and researched countertops, flooring materials, and backsplash options (both materials and installation), I might have been able to spot allowance shortfalls and ask the bidders to reevaluate them.

Incidentally, a bit of early research will also mitigate stress and help keep the project on schedule. There are a million little rapid-fire decisions to make as the work progresses, so if you handle some of the bigger choices beforehand, you won’t have to do it under time pressure once the contractor is up and running.

[%image tiles float=left width=400 caption="Clint's bathroom tiles, in Adam's kitchen."]

h4. Shop online

If you have the time and inclination, shop online ‘til you drop. There are bargains out there waiting for you.

By nature, I am neither an enthusiastic nor particularly effective shopper. But I learned that spending a little extra time on the Internet can yield juicy rewards. To wit, I present the case of the Clint Eastwood tiles.

Most of our backsplash is composed of cheap porcelain floor tiles from Lowe's, which I found only after checking out numerous high-end tile showrooms. At one of these places, I swooned over some cool glass tiles, which I thought would make a nice accent to the other plain tiles. For the design we had in mind, we’d need only 40 of them, and I figured I’d splurge. Then I learned the price: just under $18 per piece. That worked out to about $720, or more than half of the entire backsplash allowance, to buy the accent tiles.

Sayonara splurge.

Sad to see those tiles go, I decided to poke around online to look for something similar and a lot cheaper. What I found was that the tile manufacturer has a website to sell overstock at discounted prices, and lo and behold, there were my tiles, for $4 a piece. At just $160 for the 40, I couldn’t afford not to buy them!

As if welcoming those gorgeous tiles back into my backsplash for less than a quarter of their retail price wasn’t good enough, I learned from the woman who helped me with the order that they’re also a favorite of a certain celebrity: Clint Eastwood. (She had recently sold him some to use in his bathroom.) Thus, forevermore they will be known as the Clint Eastwood tiles. If that doesn’t sell the apartment when the time comes, nothing will.

h4. Electric company

Don’t gloss over the electrical plan. I was so preoccupied with choosing appliances, cabinets, countertops, and floors that I basically ignored the electrical plan — at first. Essentially I was about to let someone else choose for me the number and locations of outlets and switches. In the nick of time, I shifted my focus from maximizing the overall amount of counter space to how I was going to use that space, i.e. the placement of countertop appliances like the stand mixer, food processor, blender, toaster oven, electric kettle, and coffee grinder. 

Having spots in mind for the appliances allowed me to plan a plethora of outlets nearby to power them. Same went for the occasional-use appliances, like the ice-cream maker, juicer, knife sharpener, rice cooker, mini-chopper (a Magic Bullet of the midnight infomercial fame, and I love it), and spice grinder.

[%image orbit float=right width=400 caption="The cats love the heater, which is set into the toe kick."]

Much to my delight, the new kitchen has very few foibles, and if I’d paid closer attention to the electrical plan, I might have avoided two of them. 

First is the location of the electric heater, which is set into the toe kick beneath the prep area. This isn’t ideal for two reasons. First, I tend to run hot, so I don’t care for hot air blowing at my ankles. Second, my feline associates don’t share my distaste for that floor-bound flow of warm air; in fact, they tend to settle right where I have to stand to work. If they’re lucky, I’ll notice and step around them, but if I’m really focused on my work and moving quickly, I’m just as likely to accidentally stomp on a tail or paw, eliciting blood-curdling yowls from them and loud invective from me.

The second minor annoyance is the location of the disposal switch. Had it been placed six inches to the left, I wouldn’t have had to step to the right every time I use the disposal. A major life obstacle? Certainly not, but I do notice that step every time I take it.

h4. Take stock

Inventory your batterie de cuisine. As you pack up the contents of the outgoing kitchen and cull unnecessary items, keep a detailed list of your equipment and dishes and where or how they were stored. This may seem like a lot of extra work, but this list will enable you to be certain that everything will have a home as you plan the cabinets. Wouldn’t it be a drag to discover, as you move into your shiny new kitchen, that there are no cabinets or drawers large enough to accommodate your biggest stainless-steel mixing bowls or serving platters?

h4. Make a pan plan

If you’re shopping for a mid-level or economy range, bring your favorite pots and pans with you to the showroom. The sales people may look at you like you’re nuts, but at least you can see if several pots will fit on the grates at once. You may be surprised.

I frequently use a Dutch oven and large skillet simultaneously, and I found that on several stoves, these two vessels could not be placed on front and back grates while remaining reasonably centered over the burners. Call me persnickety, but if I’d bought a range that couldn’t accommodate the pans I use most frequently, I’d be homicidal.

h4. Seek independent opinions

For valuable advice about large appliances, try to consult independent installers and repair people. I’ve already vented about not being able to test appliances, and absent the opportunity for that firsthand experience, gathering meaningful information from alternate venues becomes even more important.

Online reviews and message boards are helpful to varying degrees, but they’re far from definitive (it seemed like half the reviews I found were on manufacturers’ and retailers’ websites). For me, some of the most useful insights came from appliance installers. For instance, one guy mentioned that in his opinion, one of the fridge models I was considering was difficult to level. Even a minor tilt, he said, could lead to partial blockage of some line or another (one that was slender to begin with, apparently), which might impair performance or even cause a problem down the line. That’s all I had to hear to move on to another model.

It’s also worth working your network of family, friends, and other contacts who might have the same or similar models to those you’re considering. I got friendly and fantastic feedback from Melissa Clark (the New York Times Good Appetite columnist and all-around excellent foodie) when I contacted her after noticing in a video that she was using a range that was on my list of possibilities. She didn’t know me from Adam (sorry, couldn't resist), but she responded quickly with very helpful information.

Last, you might ask the salespeople for names of recent customers who’d bought the models you’re considering. I did, but no dice. You might have better luck, though.

h4. A chilly reception for the new fridge

Happily, I can report that of the four large appliances I had to buy — range, fridge, dishwasher, and hood — the latter two are fantastic so far, and the refrigerator is the only regret. I will admit, though, that the failings of our French-door, counter-depth model are entirely my fault. 

My life aspirations are relatively modest, but near the top of that short list has always been a fridge with an ice-and-water dispenser in the door. This was my big chance, and I was hell-bent for leather. Even though I knew that counter-depth fridges are shallower and less spacious than standard models, and that the mechanisms for external ice-and-water dispensers both take up valuable space on the interior of the dispenser door and are often the first things to break, no presentation of common sense or reason could deter me.

Well, as the old saying goes, be careful what you wish for. I got my in-door water-and-ice dispenser (happily, they are fun to use, and I’m drinking more water than ever), but despite trying to compensate for lost space with shelves that fold, slide, and tilt every which way, the fridge holds next to nothing. And what little it does hold fits only in odd, impractical spots, making any semblance of logical organization an unattainable goal. 

My last gripe is that anything placed next to the ice maker (for the door ice, separate from the unit in the freezer below) freezes, regardless of how I set the interior temperature. I’ve been using this fridge, one that I thought would be my pride and joy, for only a few weeks, and already I’m pondering replacements.

With all of that off my chest, I’m actually proud to say that if I were doing it again, the fridge, the disposal switch, and the cat-attracting heater are the only things I’d change. Otherwise, the room holds everything it should, and functions as intended. 

Friends can gather around the (albeit small) kitchen table while I cook in my own area. The table and the work zone are close enough for easy interaction, so I actually get to join the party. People can access the fridge and the pantry without coming into “the zone,” and I can reach the stove, spices, mixing bowls, cookware, sink, and trash without taking a step. Most ingredients and baking supplies are also close at hand. The space is, for the most part, well-lit, and the materials are pleasing.

Beautiful, functional, and six degrees from Clint Eastwood . . . how could I ask for more?

stove, l

tiles, l

orbit, l

reference-image, l