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The Zen of a Small Kitchen

No dishwasher, stainless steel appliances or counter space. Having less has proved an enlightening — and more healthful — experience.

posted by John Stark, May 14, 2012 More by this author

old small kitchen

John Stark has held top writing and editing positions at such magazines as Cooks' Illustrated, Body + Soul and People. For 14 years, he was a feature writer and movie critic at the San Francisco Examiner/Chronicle.  Follow John on Twitter @jrstark.


old small kitchen
iStockphoto | Thinkstock
A funny thing happened last year on my way to Minneapolis. I lost my kitchen.
 
I moved to the Twin Cities from Boston in the dead of a very cold and snowy winter to take a new job. Try finding a place to rent in January, when leases aren’t up. And you have a Doberman.
 
So when something decent and affordable showed up on Craigslist, I rushed off to see it and took it on the spot. Built in 1942, it's a white bungalow on a tree-lined street. The amenities include a big fireplace, a Jacuzzi, a laundry, a garage and a backyard for my dog.
 
In short, it has everything I wanted — except a kitchen. Or what people now consider a kitchen, at any rate. There are no granite countertops. No center island, wine chiller, prep sink or stainless-steel refrigerator with French doors. There’s not even a double-oven, grill-top Viking range.
 
I didn’t realize just how small the kitchen was until I actually moved in. (It’s a mere 8 feet by 8 feet.) Or how no-frills: No dishwasher or garbage disposal. For the first few weeks, I felt as if I were in one of those PBS reality shows where people are made to live in a house from a bygone era. Granted, I wasn’t without hot water and electricity, as in 1900 House, or having to milk cows and dig a root cellar, as in Frontier House. But still ... no dishwasher?
 
Never Big Enough
 
My landlord told me that he and his wife had once lived here — it was their first house. After they moved out, they tried to sell it, but eventually put the place up for rent. “It’s the kitchen,” he told me. “There’s no way to expand upon it.” Despite the house’s cozy charm, fantastic location and below-market selling price, there were no offers, he said.

I can believe that. I watch HGTV’s House Hunters, and every time a real estate agent takes potential buyers into a kitchen, no matter how spacious and up to date it is, the reaction is the same: “It’s a little small for us,” the buyers say. Then they bitch about there not being enough counter space for entertaining. How many people are they expecting to feed? This is a house they’re buying, not a Carnival cruise ship. 
 
The condo that I left back in Boston was in a building constructed in the late 19th century. Even so, I had a modern, roomy kitchen with the latest appliances. After Boston, could I survive "1942 House"? Each week brought a new revelation as I overcame one challenge after another.
 
First, I had to acquire the right mindset. “The original owners of the house had four children,” my landlord told me. If that kitchen was good enough for a family of six, surely I, one person with a Doberman, could make do.
 
It’s a Gift to Be Simple
 
Because my kitchen has such limited counter space, I had no choice but to de-clutter and downsize. Bye-bye blender, quiche pans and boxes full of cumbersome cookbooks.
 
New York Times food journalist Mark Bittman was on NPR recently talking about his galley kitchen in a Manhattan apartment. Despite its small size, he said he has no problem developing recipes. You need only a few basic tools for cooking, he explained. “Nothing, for example, is easier to cook than rice. If you have a small kitchen, ask yourself, do I really need a rice steamer?” Now mine is in my basement, waiting for a yard sale. 
 
My new digs did come with a microwave, though not a built-in one. But after six months, I put it in the basement, too. It took up too much valuable countertop real estate. Once I got past the withdrawal symptoms — how do I reheat my coffee!!! — I eventually stopped missing it. So much so that I don’t think I want another one. After putting away the microwave, I stopped buying processed, microwavable meals and started cooking real food again. I’m certainly eating healthier. How could intermolecular friction (aka zapping our food) not destroy essential vitamins and minerals? And, honestly, how much longer does it take to reheat my coffee on the stovetop, or just brew a fresh cup?
 
Cooking in a small kitchen makes me feel more in control than ever. The stove, refrigerator, sink, knives, cutting board and cabinets are all in easy reach of one another. I’m not running around looking for things as my sauce curdles. I really thought I’d hate not having a garbage disposal, but that hasn't been an issue either: My trash bin is a foot from my chopping board. 
 
As for entertaining, when I was younger I’d try to impress everyone by cooking five-course French dinners. For that, counter space was essential. Now, I toss a salad, throw on some pasta and get out the Ben & Jerry’s. My stove is a gas, four burner — as simple as stove's come. What I like best about it is the timer: To use it, you don't have to read a complicated instruction booklet in microscopic print. You just turn a dial.
 
Enjoying the Scenery
 
You won’t hear me singing the dishwasher blues. Shortly after I moved in, my landlord offered to install one. But I told him no, only because it would require tearing out some of the kitchen’s original cherry-wood cabinetry. And a portable was out of the question: There's no floor space.
 
Now, even if I could find a way to have a dishwasher, I’d still say no thanks. Over the last year that I’ve lived here, I’ve come to really like washing and drying dishes. The rattling old window over my kitchen sink looks out on my neighbor’s maple trees, which change dramatically each season. Beyond those trees is a small neighborhood park, where people bring their children, grandkids and dogs to play. Doing the dishes, my hands warmed by the soapy water, gives me time to take in the view. Of all the gifts my small kitchen has brought me, this is my favorite.
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