Making the Perfect Kitchen
What price perfection? For those of us in the United States, $40, or in Canada, $60. That’s what Clarkson Potter is charging for the book “Living and Eating,” a “recipe for a simple, perfect lifestyle” by British authors John Pawson and Annie Bell.
Pawson is a modern architect known in London for his designs of minimalist restaurants with Far Eastern themes. Bell is a food writer with the Independent newspaper. As the book’s many photographs reveal, they are attractive people. Pawson has a beautiful home and Bell produces exquisite-looking food. In this new book they endeavor to impart their style to us.
Traditionally, the best way to “read” a cookbook is by cooking a dish or two and seeing how they turn out. But in my case, the quest for style came before food. Perhaps it was a New Year’s impulse. Maybe it was a case of deep-seated longing. But just once, just for a moment, I wanted a shot at perfection.
Pawson and Bell begin their book by exhorting us to clear the clutter: “Get rid of everything which is unnecessary and distracting and you are left with what actually matters,” they say. In the book, only a fruit bowl adorns the Italian stone counter of John Pawson’s kitchen. As I surveyed my kitchen, I was sure that the fruit bowl was in there somewhere. But that is not to say the things obscuring it did not matter, I argued to myself.
As I scanned the room, I ran through a defensive mental inventory of my clutter. The stock pot matters, I thought. It lives on the stove. Next to the stove, the chopping board matters. So do mustard pots filled with spoons and spatulas, a scale that also holds pot-holders and dish-towels, the salt dish, pepper grinder, a 1970s tray from Habitat with an African motif, knife blocks and a fat jar.
Over on the main run of counter surrounding the kitchen sink, there was a certain jumble, yes, but you just had to know the system. To the right of the sink go keys, pocket junk, parking tickets, newspapers and bicycle helmet. Aha! There was the fruit bowl, under the newspapers.
Above it, the window ledge was lined with milk bottles holding salvia cuttings, bags of poppy seeds, half of a perfectly useable nutmeg, some spare change, some safety pins, some wildflower seeds collected on a seaside walk in Pt. Reyes and some ripening--whoops, rotten--cherry tomatoes.
Next to the sink, there was the chipped pink flower pot with the sponges, the bottle of dishwashing liquid, the hand soap, the moisturizer and, often as not, a bottle of Ironite plant food. Not pretty, maybe, but if you wanted clean dishes, moisturized hands and green plants, they all mattered.
Within the sink, the main basin was empty and shone. There’s perfection for you, I thought. A plastic compost bucket with vegetable trimmings resided in the smaller basin. It was lidded. The top was wiped. It didn’t smell.
But it couldn’t be accused of design merit. I turned to page 28 and looked under “Waste Disposal.” Garbage disposals are noisy, the authors complain. “There is something unnatural about these conveniences--perhaps it is the nature of the waste they ingest. A conscientious country dweller would simply trail out to the compost heap.”
Hmm, I thought. Do country folks in Britain really “trail out to the compost heap” every time they have a potato peel, orange rind or coffee grind? Here in downtown Los Angeles, we need buckets in our sinks and go out to the heap when a) it’s light outside and b) the bucket’s full.
But it was not the moment to get bogged down with cultural differences involving the disposal of lettuce bottoms and apple cores. My eye moved on with the clutter inventory. To the left of the bucket, there was another basic necessity: the dish-drainer, where the cast-iron frying pan lives when it’s not being used, along with a coffee mug, a coffee pot and most of my knives.
Then, as the counter took another sharp left out into the room, expanding into something of a breakfast bar-cum-work station, there was the jug used to measure out bird seed. Total necessity. Two watering cans, one for filling the dog bowl, the other to, well, keep it company. The gym bag went there because it held a wet bathing suit that would fester if I put it anywhere else and forgot to remove the suit. The dog food dish was there because it was half full of kibble left behind by a thin terrier, then put out of reach of a waddling Lab. The muddy tennis balls belonged to the Lab.
This, I insisted to myself, was not a messy kitchen. Granted, the muddy tennis balls shouldn’t be on the counter. I put them in their rightful home, the bread drawer, and stood back to regard my favorite room.
It still was not perfection.
Twenty-four hours later, it was closer. The dog’s dishes were emptied, washed and stashed away. Their water bowl was put outside. So were the dogs. Parker, the black Labrador retriever, Glancey, the shaggy terrier, and Clunk, the Irish wolfhound-German shepherd mix, were staring balefully in through the French door, their panting smearing the glass. Parker wanted her ball, Glancey wanted his food, Clunk wanted in.
Tough. Unlike John Pawson’s kitchen, my kitchen floor is not Italian stone that matches my counter. It’s some wood-effect stuff put in by the previous owner that I tried to upgrade with a lick of deck paint. But today, this painted floor might as well have been marble. It was clean and the mop and buckets had been put away. The dogs could forget it. From this day forward, they were yard dogs.
Their staring and panting bothered me so much, I hung a piece of fabric over the door, which darkened the room. Parker started to scratch. I deafened myself to it and squinted through the gloom at my pared-down kitchen to consider how far I was still from a simple perfect life.
My plates were not beige to match the walls. They didn’t even match each other. The stockpot was still on the stove. I had a big double-door fridge when Pawson liked two miniature ones that can be hidden by sleek cabinetry. My kitchen would never look like a marble showroom, not least because the counters are turquoise and made of warping Linoleum.
But more could be done. So the dish rack was stashed beneath the sink, along with the sponges. To make room for this, I moved all the cleaners into the bathroom.
Pulling the dish rack in and out made washing up pretty involved. By Monday, I had begun eating take-out. All my washing-up energy went into feeding the dogs, cleaning up and stowing away their bowls and hustling the confused and mournful animals back outside.
As I left for work, I shot a glance back into my newly perfect kitchen and thought, “Boy is the cleaning lady going to be surprised.”
That night, it was clear that she had, indeed, been taken aback. Unable to find the cleaners in their new simply perfect home in the bathroom, she had not cleaned.
By Tuesday, Parker would not go outside after eating, Clunk would not eat and was chewing the balcony. Glancey was in such a sulk that he refused to come in. They had had enough. It was them or perfection.
I chose them.
That night, the dogs were back inside, their bowls were everywhere, the gym bag was on the counter, along with tennis balls, leashes, keys and pocket detritus. The fruit bowl was put in the dining room, and fruit stashed in a cupboard to be kept safe from mice drawn inside by bird seed and dog food.
If it wasn’t possible to cook in a perfect kitchen, there was still hope for some perfect food. I turned to the recipes. I know Bell’s work from the time we were both at the Independent in London, and I am an enthusiastic fan. There are few better cooks or food writers in the U.K.
Here were some typically well-chosen, unpretentious, good things: quiche, beet soup, croque-monsieurs, roast chicken, steak with Roquefort. But I already know how to make all these things, as do most even reasonably competent cooks I know. (Those who don’t should invest in a book by Julia Child, not an architect.)
Stranger yet, Bell’s trusted and sensible voice wasn’t there. Instead, these simple foods were offered in the richly ridiculous tones of a didactic fop. “A well-crafted quiche is sufficiently soignee to pass as an appetizer in miniature as well as making a great lunch.”
“Knowing how to fix a mean Bloody Mary is an essential social skill.”
“The morning after a May Ball, when dinner is a distant memory, the sky is streaked with the illuminated greys and blues of dawn, and you are starving in an unnatural way is the time to appreciate a kedgeree.”
And my favorite: “There was a time when it was deemed good manners to peel your guests’ quail’s eggs, and then society got real.”
At this line, I realized that the quest for perfection was not for me. I have never had quail egg issues. On good days, I can find my keys, I already make a respectable Bloody Mary, I have never been to a May ball and I prefer kedgeree after a good night’s sleep.
But, reader, note well: The bid for perfection did produce one important tidbit. “Wedgewood makes the most restrained off-white china.”
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