For Martha Rose Shulman, a fancy kitchen isn’t part of recipe

(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
Where I Live

“I bet you have a fabulous kitchen.” People say that when they hear I write cookbooks. The truth is, I’ve never had a fancy kitchen, or a very large one. For 12 years I lived in a huge 19th century apartment in the 6th Arrondissement of Paris, where nobody has a big kitchen. I hosted a monthly Supper Club for 24 to 30 paying guests, cooking three-course dinners and testing many a recipe in a kitchen not much larger than a walk-in closet.

As in most bourgeois apartments of that era, it was at the end of a long, narrow hallway, far away from the formal living and dining rooms. This kitchen must have been decorated when my landlady, Christine, was going through a major depression: It had dark red, blue and brown plaid wallpaper, a burgundy tile splashboard, midnight blue cabinets and a broken-tile floor whose best asset was that you couldn’t really tell when it was dirty.

But the room did have one good thing going for it: a large, hinged window in front of the sink. Granted, the glass was frosted, so you had to open the window to see anything, but it allowed in so much light. On a big ledge outside, I could keep the cheeses and vegetables that wouldn’t fit into the tired, half-size refrigerator.

My one work surface was a piece of Formica-covered particleboard set on top of the washing machine. I would have to lift it off every time I did laundry. Next to this was the big, white enamel American-made range with two ovens, one that was gas and worked well, and one that was electric and gave you a shock when you touched it.

The kitchen gave onto a small, informal dining room, with French doors and a big round table that could serve as a setup space when I was really in production. Into this room went the full-size refrigerator -- still small by American standards.

I made other improvements. I hung bright new wallpaper, white with royal blue pinstripes. I designed a white storage and counter unit and had it built with a drop-down work surface. I moved the washing machine and put in a dishwasher, whose top remained my main work area. I replaced the old stove with a French five-burner “semi-professional.”

Why did that kitchen work for me, and how? Beyond the mere fact that it was in Paris, there was something to be said for having a small kitchen: I didn’t waste energy in it. My best kitchens have had a three-point setup that allows me to flow between the sink, cutting board and stove.

In my petite Paris place, people could help with prep in the little dining room, and the drop-down surface went up when we needed more countertop.

It was congenial. I was proud of the fact that I did so much out of that space. It was living proof that my readers would not require anything fancier than an apartment kitchen and some good knives to accomplish my recipes.

IBEGAN my career as a caterer and vegetarian-cooking teacher in the ‘70s, and my first work kitchen was in a pretty three-bedroom bungalow that I shared with two roommates in Austin, Texas.

We called our place the Moon House because it had a moon-shaped window in the front door, and we had a big hippy kitchen: a 1950s chrome and Formica table at one end, a stove of the same vintage at the other. I loved it.

There was little counter space and hardly any storage, so I made spice racks and pegboards out of wooden produce crates and built pantry shelves with end-cuts. I built an island out of two worktables, one of which had two tiers -- a high surface for cutting and a lower one for kneading bread. I could turn on the spot from sink to cutting board to stove, and while I prepped food I could chat with friends.

Later I lived in a tiny three-room Austin cottage, its kitchen small and dark.

With my landlady’s permission, I knocked out the wall between the kitchen and the main room, so my little house was essentially one cooking and dining space. I commissioned a worktable that dropped down from the wall like an ironing board. This served as sideboard, kneading surface, cutting board and podium.

Out the back, I built a little palapa, a shed with a tin roof, with shelving for food storage and a hook-up for a second refrigerator and a chest freezer. In front, I planted an herb garden in 5-gallon plastic pickle containers I collected from restaurants. The layout wasn’t ideal, but I had what I needed: a great stove, ample work surfaces and enough room for my ever-growing batterie de cuisine.

In my present Los Angeles home, I finally have room for a decent work table that doesn’t need to be folded up or down. It’s a 5-foot stainless piece that I bought at Surfas for $130. Lined with brightly colored cutting boards, it fills the center of the room and draws people in. My knife block sits out on the counter with the toaster oven, electric kettle and microwave; my pots and pans are within easy reach on a graceful wrought-iron and brass baker’s rack in a breakfast room. It’s all welcoming, more pretty than showy.

I do require a good gas range, but I would never trade my reliable 1950s Wedgewood for a Viking, even if I had the space.

The old stove may be too far from the sink, but its nook is so fetching, I can live with it. The fact is, if you love to cook, you will live with any kitchen you find yourself in. You will cook anywhere.

Martha Rose Shulman has written more than 20 cookbooks and coauthored titles with Wolfgang Puck and Juan-Carlos Cruz, among others. Her latest is “Mediterranean Harvest: Vegetarian Recipes From the World’s Healthiest Cuisine.” Please send comments about this story to