Reva Basch (reva) Tue 23 Nov 99 13:13
Ellen Whitaker is author, with Colleen Mahoney and Wendy A. Jordan, of a gorgeous new book called Great Kitchens: At Home with America's Top Chefs. Photographs by Grey Crawford, and published by Taunton Press. It covers more than two dozen chefs and their kitchens, including such familiar Bay Area names as Alice Waters, Paul Bertolli, Nancy Oakes and Bruce Aidells, Hubert Keller, and the no-longer-in-Berkeley-but-very-influential-on-the-scene Mark Miller. It also includes the chefs at some of my favorite restaurants in the country - Nora Pouillon of Restaurant Nora in DC and Rick Bayless of Frontera Grill in Chicago, among others. Ellen is a professional researcher and a Berkeley foodie, both of which I can identify with, which I suppose is why I'm doing the interviewing. Disclosure: I know for a fact that she throws great parties, with incredible food, and that her own kitchen is to die for.
Reva Basch (reva) Tue 23 Nov 99 13:17
Ellen, welcome to the InkWELL! I thought, as I was typing "gorgeous" up there, that I was setting this up as another one of those dream-lifestyle coffee table books. It's a lot more than that. Did you have a clear goal in mind when you first conceived it? A mission statement for the book, or whatever? What were you hoping to accomplish, besides creating a runaway best-seller, of course.
Ellen Reinheimer Whitaker (ewhitaker) Sat 27 Nov 99 17:18
Thanks for inviting me. I certainly don't mind the book being called "gorgeous," but you're right that we had more than gloss in mind while putting it together. We wanted to create an engaging, informative kitchen design resource, from an expert point of view. As much as I'd like to take credit for the idea of the chef tie-in, my co-author, Colleen Mahoney, came up with it after her architectural practice won several awards for their residential kitchens. She began to second-guess the extent of architects' gut-level expertise on the subject and decided that the nation's top chefs might be the ultimate kitchen design authority, given their passion for cooking and entertaining and the amount of time they've spent thinking about their workspaces.
Reva Basch (reva) Sun 28 Nov 99 12:45
Is Colleen the person who designed your kitchen remodel? One of the things I find most intriguing about the book is that the chefs aren't at all reticent about telling what =doesn't= work, what they would've done differently. Things like making the sinks deeper, or =not= making the sinks deeper because they then couldn't use standard disposals and so on underneath. A lot of them are working with off-the-shelf residential components, not the larger-than-life equipment they use in their restaurant kitchens, so they faced the same concerns as people looking to remodel or build their regular ol' home kitchens. I'm curious about how the idea for the book developed. Was it an outgrowth of having lived through a kitchen remodel yourself? And how did it come together? Did Colleen contact most of the chefs at the outset? Did all of you travel to all the sites you cover in the book? I mean, did you get to go to France?
Ellen Reinheimer Whitaker (ewhitaker) Sun 28 Nov 99 22:03
Yes, Colleen designed my "new" kitchen (yikes, it's now about nine years old!) and we've been friends ever since. We specifically dug for information about what the chefs thought hadn't worked out well, or what they might do differently, if they were to remodel or build again. Most were very forthcoming about their design mistakes and conceptual errors, which made for a solid list of "don'ts," and also produced some amusing stories. I love the image of Alice Waters rolling up her sleeves in front of her brand new baking center, complete with built-in bins for flours, racks for pans and rolling pins, view of the garden, etc. and then turning around and heading for her near-by artisanal bread bakery. She says she never really used the baking center because the local bakery is so good and so close. One chef who couldn't come up with any changes at all was Michael McCarty, whose remodeled house burned down in the 1994 Malibu fire. As he points out, they "got to build the same kitchen twice," refining the design the second time around. Not the recommended way to make changes, but... Yes, it's important to realize that these are not scaled-down restaurant kitchens with 12-burner commercial ranges, huge stock pots and glaring fluorescent light, though many of the chefs have used commercial elements here and there for practicality's sake. It was nice to see so many "homey," individualistic, evocative kitchens - just like yours and mine. The idea, as I mentioned earlier, was Colleen's (she says it evolved during an annoying bout of insomnia.) She came to me because she knew I was interested in design and because I have contacts in the food world through Jenny (my daughter who cooked at Chez Panisse for 6 years.) I did some intensive research and then Jenny and I ran up a list of about 100 influential chefs,looking for a good mix of cuisines, geographies, ethnicities, etc. We then contacted the chefs, got an expression of interest and a description of their kitchen, and sent those who were still in the pool a disposable camera to take some snaps of their kitchen. We found out a lot that way - including the fact that chefs seem to be comically bad at picture-taking! Colleen, Wendy and I broke up the work based on our available time and skills, but Colleen and I went to most of the interviews and photo shoots (I went to 21 of them, Colleen made 19.) No, we didn't get to go to France. We interviewed both Jean-Pierre and Ken here and then Grey Crawford, our photographer, got the dream trip. It's the only thing I hold against him (well, that and the fact that he's way too fond of saying "A picture's worth 1,000 words.)
Reva Basch (reva) Mon 29 Nov 99 10:19
I'll bet! I wanted to point out -- someone asked me about this privately -- that Great Kitchens is the book featured on the first page of the Real Estate section in last Sunday's SF Chronicle-Examiner (Nov. 21). If you still have that one lying around for some reason, take a look; it'll give you a good taste (no pun intended) of what the book is like. So you did do the bulk of the interviews on site? How did that work? Did you give the chefs a list of questions in advance? Did you tape the entire interview? Was the photographer shooting around you as you worked, or was the photo shoot a separate dealie? How long did one of these sessions take, typically? And was anyone miffed -- you said you worked up a list of 100 possible candidates -- at NOT making the final cut?
Reva Basch (reva) Tue 30 Nov 99 08:36
Just a reminder, to anyone who's reading this from the Web: You can submit questions to Ellen by emailing them to email@example.com
Casey Ellis (caseyell) Tue 30 Nov 99 13:04
Ellen, I love everything about the book other than the fact that I didn' think of doing it myself. Very impressed with your sending disposable cameras to far-away chefs. I've raved about the book on a web cooking list I belong to. Are you doing any concentrated Web publicity?
Ellen Reinheimer Whitaker (ewhitaker) Tue 30 Nov 99 16:31
Thanks for mentioning the SF Examiner Sunday excerpts that ran on Nov. 21st. It was great that they published the piece, except you really miss something not seeing the photographs in color. About the interview/photo shoot process: Mostly, the interviews and photography were done at the same time (we allowed a full day for each photo shoot, and a few of the kitchens even took some extra follow-up time.) We'd typically arrive at the chef's home around 9 am (chefs are not generally morning people, so this was pushing it in some instances) and Grey would set up his gear while we conducted the interview. Even though we'd seen the "scouting" snapshots in advance, we thought it essential that we actually sit in the kitchen while we talked about it (a rule we stuck to, except for the French kitchens - sniff, sniff.) That way we could really get at the essence of each space, and see the chef's face light up when he or she started warming to the subject. We tried to limit the interviews to one hour, although some actually went on all day, in and around the photo shoot, when the chef stayed home for the duration. Yes, we taped all the interviews. The book worked out perfectly, in terms of the number of chefs included, and I don't think anyone was in the position of being "miffed" at not being included (at least, I hope not). Although we started with a list of 100, a number took themselves out of the running right away because they felt their home kitchen wasn't up to par (chefs =do= tend to be hyper-busy people and owning a restaurant can be both all-encompassing - leaving no time or energy to remodel at home - and not very lucrative - leaving no money for anything other than the restaurant itself.) We had special problems finding chefs with good kitchens in Manhattan (are there any home kitchens in Manhattan?) and our dream of a young, handsome, photogenic, top-of-his-game chef with a fabulous penthouse apartment (read, "kitchen") went unfulfilled. One ultra famous NYC chef called us up laughing after he got our letter and said, in essence, "Neat idea, but all I ever do in my home kitchen is open a bottle of beer - that's the only thing there's room to do!" We also had a bit of attrition from "life." Some chefs planned to be traveling or involved in other projects when we were scheduled to be in their city. A few moved from one house to another just at the crucial time, one had her house burn down while she was away on vacation!, there were some divorces, and several who were interested initially didn't finish their building projects soon enough to be included. But when we got down to the chefs who could actually participate and who had kitchens we thought should be in the book, the number was, just magically, "right." (Thank you, someone.) Casey, I appreciate your kind words and am glad you're enjoying the book. Our publisher, Taunton Press, is handling all the publicity so I'm not sure how to answer your question about the web. Taunton does have their own website (www.taunton.com, of course) and the book is available on amazon.com, bn.com and borders.com, all with some nice reviews, reader comments, etc.
Casey Ellis (caseyell) Tue 30 Nov 99 16:45
well, it might be good to look into this---I know there are ways to get the info to various online food interest groups. I'm not sure Taunton is as aggressive as they might be--send me a private e-mail and I'll discuss further with you firstname.lastname@example.org You have an exciting book here and I think you should be as creative about marketing it as you were about creating it. Just my nosy opinion.
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Tue 30 Nov 99 17:39
Ellen, in Reva's introduction, she said you included Alice Waters' kitchen in your book. As a long-time and, sadly, a relatively long-distance fan of Chez Panisse, I'm particularly interested in what she has done in her home kitchen. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Linda Castellani (castle) Tue 30 Nov 99 23:01
And for some reason I am really curious about how many chefs have those pot-filler spigots on their stoves. This is a great idea for a book, BTW. It sounds like a really fun project.
Ellen Reinheimer Whitaker (ewhitaker) Wed 1 Dec 99 17:37
Cynthia, glad you asked about Alice Waters' kitchen. It's actually one of my favorites in the book - a very old-fashioned, inviting, homey, quiet space. Alice wanted plenty of room for hand-preparing food, so she included an oversized butcher-block-topped table in the "business" end of the kitchen. She says she's a "non-electric" cook and doesn't have many (any?) gadgets or powered hand appliances at home, relying instead on her knives, mortar and pestle, and other basic tools. She has only one sink, but it's a big, custom-made, copper trough sink that's really beautiful and , she says, pleasant to work in. She has also used copper for a front panel on her refrigerator. (Alice hates the commercial-kitchen look of stainless steel. Next time you go to Chez Panisse, check out the kitchen and you'll see that, even there, there's very little that looks industrial.) Her range is an eye-popping (and, again, really beautiful) lemon yellow La Cornue that has two burners and a "plaque coupe de feu.") What could be more French? Alice remodeled her kitchen when she bought the house, adding a brick chimney with a waist-level, cook-in fireplace and wood-burning bread/pizza oven. She has always loved roasting in the fireplace (see the New York Times article about her that ran just before Thanksgiving, I'll get the date for you next time I post), but the look of the brick that was used to build it didn't always please her; she eventually found a way to get the antique-looking fireplace she always wanted. Linda, I count four chefs with a water source right behind their range or cooktop; Ken Hom (although, we didn't mention it in the text), Mark Miller, Frank McClelland, and Paul Bertolli. It seems like a practical, step-saving idea to me (we eat a lot of pasta at my house!) - it's one feature that has been imported from commercial kitchens. Thanks for your comment.
Reva Basch (reva) Thu 2 Dec 99 08:19
I was going to mention that stovetop-area water faucet, too. What a great idea -- not only for pasta, but for making stock and so on. I love the story of how Alice got the antiqued-brick look on her fireplace. After living with the raw finish, which she really didn't like, for ages, the friend who was painting her kitchen walls suggested that they just rub paint on it. So they thinned the paint and rubbed it in -- et voila. The logistics of making this book sound formidable. I remember your talking about the idea years and years ago. How long did it actually take from conception to publication? And have you gotten a discernable boost in sales from Oprah's glowing mention? Man, what a PR coup that must've been.
Ellen Reinheimer Whitaker (ewhitaker) Thu 2 Dec 99 11:52
The book took about two years, start to finish. The first year included our initial (lengthy!) discussions about the project, contacting chefs and lining them up to be part of it, writing the proposal and producing a mocked-up sample, finding an agent, and getting the book accepted by a publisher. We signed with Taunton in April of 1998, finished the photo shoots in early January of 1999 and turned in the last bit of text towards the end of March this year. And, yes, it =was= something of a logistical nightmare; mostly, scheduling the photo shoots and interviews. Some of the chefs who were involved have schedules that are set for six months or more! And I'm talking every day booked, not just a few commitments here and there. It was wild at times. I think we made three separate trips to LA to shoot four chapters (good thing both Colleen and I live in California.) Our most ambitious trip was Santa-Fe-Aspen-New Orleans, right before Christmas last year, but we had a great time and lots of wonderful food along the way (standouts were lamb tikka and a Puligny-Montrachet with Mark Miller and venison jambalaya for lunch at John Folse's house). Yes, the Oprah thing was very good for the book. BTW, the New York Times article I mentioned earlier about Thanksgiving food/Alice Waters/Alice's kitchen ran on November 17th. Jean-Pierre Moulle, who is in the book, is also mentioned several times.
Linda Castellani (castle) Thu 2 Dec 99 14:21
How did the Oprah thing come about? Did she find the book on her own or did your publisher/publicist bring it to her attention? The food sounds wonderful! That must have been an interesting bonus to doing the book. Did many of the interviewees cook for you?
Ellen Reinheimer Whitaker (ewhitaker) Thu 2 Dec 99 16:22
I think the publicity manager at Taunton sent Oprah a copy and it went from there. I'm told that Oprah "loved" the book. Yeah, I blame that pesky extra 15 pounds on Great Kitchens. Guess I can't keep =that= up much longer. We had some memorable meals at chefs' homes and in their restaurants. Lidia Bastianich (James Beard Best Chef in Manhattan this year) made us a lunch of home-cured prosciutto, rigatoni with broccoli rabe, garlic and red pepper, green salad fresh from her garden, 3 different homemade wines, chocolates from Perugia, and espresso. We capped off lunch with an amazing grappa tasting that put a big dent in the afternoon's photo shoot. (N.B. they serve her homemade grappa at her restaurant, Felidia, in NYC) Cecilia Chiang made us a huge, wonderful lunch; basically everything you see pictures of in her chapter. And we sat at that beautiful carved rosewood table to eat it. I especially liked the whole steamed rock cod with scallions, cilantro and fresh ginger. The restaurant meals were fabulous, too. Grey Crawford, our photographer, (a real foodie, too) told me that lunch at Patrick O'Connell's Inn at Little Washington in Virginia was probably the best meal he's ever eaten (and, boy, has he eaten around)! One of my favorite memories is of the cheese course at Picholine in Manhattan. We were absolutely stuffed and told Terrance Brennan that we couldn't eat any more, but he sent us 12 different cheeses anyway; we ate every bite. And I agree with Reva that Frontera Grill in Chicago (a spicy shrimp dish) and Restaurant Nora in DC (organic rabbit with polenta and bitter greens)are among the premiere restaurants in this country. In Bordeaux, on two successive nights, Grey ate at home with both Jean-Pierre Moulle and Ken Hom - they cooked the same dinner: boudin (blood sausage)! He said it was delicious, though. As you can see, it's probably not wise to get me started on Food.
Linda Castellani (castle) Fri 3 Dec 99 00:16
I'm swooning just reading about your experiences with food! What about Asia Nora in DC? Not on a par with her other restaurant? Eating there has set me on a frenzied search for other fusion restaurants, the latest being Oritalia in San Francisco. Asian-Mediterrean. I want to know more about the kitchens. What stands out in your mind as the most...what? Extreme? Unusual? Practical? Inspirational? Odd?
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Fri 3 Dec 99 08:24
Thanks for the description of Alice Waters' kitchen, Ellen. Yum!
Ellen Reinheimer Whitaker (ewhitaker) Fri 3 Dec 99 12:59
I ate at Asia Nora this last summer and thought it was fantastic (actually, 6 of us thought it was fantastic). Different from, but definitely on a par with, Restaurant Nora. Some of the freshest, most flavorful scallops I've ever encountered. Let's see, kitchen "standouts." This is hard, because =all= the kitchens in the book were included for their interesting, unique, practical, or inspirational features. On a fundamental level, I think we respond to spaces based primarily on our own aesthetic scheme, which in turn comes from our background, experience, etc. For instance, I grew up back east in a 200-year-old house, and so the kitchens that "speak" to me tend to be the more old-fashioned or traditional ones - Alice Waters', Frank McClelland's, Jean-Pierre Moulle's and Nancy Oakes'/Bruce Aidells'. But that doesn't mean that I don't also appreciate the cool modern sleekness of Michael McCarty's, the drop-dead gorgeousness of Lydia Shire's, the perfect, rustic-yet-sophisticated simplicity of Paul Bertolli's, or the lively Tex-Mex-European mix of Robert Del Grande's. That said, my =personal= votes in the categories you mentioned follow. Extreme: the size of John Folse's kitchen, a 21' x 65' great room (and that doesn't count the bulter's pantry, dining and breakfast areas, which are really also part of the great room, accessible through large, open archways. Who knows what the total size is?) Unusual: Lydia Shire's pantry in one corner of her kitchen. Its walls are constructed of a shimmering metallic grid sandwiched between two plates of glass, so a separate space is created, but you can see right into it and enjoy her fabulous collection of antique and modern serving pieces, Venetian glass, Magnalite roasters, copper pots, etc. Practical: the counter-top waste cut-outs in Paul Bertolli's and Tom Douglas' kitchens. Vegetable leavings and other garbage gets swept off the chopping area right into the garbage can located under the counter. No running around the kitchen with a handful of carrot tops. Inspirational: Tom Douglas', Lidia Bastianich's, and Michael McCarty's water views (although, if you prefer the mountains, check out Charles Dale's Aspen abode. And, as mentioned above, Mark Miller's prairie view is wonderful.) Odd: Can't think of anything that struck me as "odd." Though, Mary Sue Milliken's kitchen (and entire house) was a west-side L.A. swim club before she and her architect husband remodeled it and made it their home. Apparently the kitchen used to be the men's locker room. I suspect that most people looking at the book for the first time will be bowled over by a few blockbuster kitchens: Mark Miller's (with those warm rosy-colored walls, massive cook-in fireplace, twin pantries - one for dishes, one for ingredients - high prairie/mountain view to die for, and, of course, the Moorish dome with insets of colored glass) or John Folse's (plantation-pine floors, a custom-made center island table of antique cypress with English cast-iron drawer pulls, a collection of fascinating antique fireplace cooking utensils that he uses all the time, barn-like ceiling with massive mortise-and-tenon trusses.) But, I really think that there's something in Great Kitchens for every taste and inclination.
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Fri 3 Dec 99 14:16
(which can be purchased at http://www.well.com/bookstore by clicking on the cover of Ellen's book at the above URL)
Reva Basch (reva) Sun 5 Dec 99 12:02
Before I got my copy of Great Kitchens, I thought "I really hope this doesn't turn out to be a clone of that Conran's Kitchen Book that came out, what, 15 or 20 years ago now? In my mind, that book marked the beginning of the whole "foodie" thing. Well, obviously it's not. And I think it's important to realize that, while the "top chefs" element adds interest and, I'm sure, helps drive sales a lot, it IS a book about kitchens that work, with a whole lot of practical detail and good advice. I really appreciate the layout sketches for each one, and the list of equipment sources for each one. Oh yeah, and have we mentioned the favorite home recipes your chefs contributed to the book? So, how do YOU cook when you're at home? What's your most-used kitchen implement?
Ellen Reinheimer Whitaker (ewhitaker) Sun 5 Dec 99 17:05
Thanks for pointing out the practical nature of Great Kitchens. Our first priority was to create a helpful, almost encyclopedic work on kitchen design, but to make it fun, too. One reviewer called the book "thinking outside the triangle" (referring to that old saw about the kitchen "work triangle.") I liked that comment. We wanted to show that there are many different ways to create a great kitchen. Wow, how do =I= cook? Quite honestly, I tend to vascillate between a quick/easy dinner one night and then a more elaborate menu the next. I can rarely sustain a streak of intensive cooking for very long, unless there's something that's in high season that I love (like tomatoes), or if the weather is really rotten and I'm stuck in the house - it's such fun to cook nonstop during a three-day rain, for instance. But, even though I go for quick and easy about half the time, I rarely (except for cake mixes, dried pasta, and canned tomato sauce) use prepared foods. Simple meals, around my house, are a mushroom omelette, or pasta with olive oil and garlic or a Caesar salad (I keep anchovy paste on hand at all times). I love to make a meal of polenta covered with homemade tomato and mushroom sauce and topped with lots of freshly-ground black pepper. For more complicated menus, I like to make dishes like dry-braised short ribs with shelling beans and homemade egg noodles, or garlicky, buttery, lemony shrimp scampi and rice loaded with bell peppers and onions, or marinated pork tenderloin (port and sliced onions) then you saute the port-saturated onions with tart apples to make a killer side dish. Are my German roots showing yet? In short, I guess I believe that life is too short and food is too wonderful to waste even one meal on frozen pizza (sorry, Wolfgang) or packaged macaroni and cheese. Aside from knives, most-used kitchen implements are a 9" AllClad saute pan and a couple of incredibly heavy-duty cheese graters (one fine and one coarse) from Kuchenprofi. I had a flimsy cheese grater for years, until a friend gave me these - they changed my life (and my Parmigiano Reggiano consumption)!
Reva Basch (reva) Mon 6 Dec 99 09:35
I need one of those heavy-duty graters. I hate the drum kind where you end up grating metal shavings onto your pasta. So, any thought of a sequel, another couple of dozen top chefs and THEIR kitchens? Or does the mere thought of that make your blood run cold?
Ellen Reinheimer Whitaker (ewhitaker) Mon 6 Dec 99 11:11
Yeah, or my favorite, grated knuckles in the soup. "Sequel" is a very hard concept for me right now. Although we have lots of leads and information for one, it doesn't exactly appeal, if you know what I mean. I =am= thinking about another book, but one that is more food-oriented and less focused on design. I hope to write it with my daughter. The proposal's being floated, but I don't know anything yet.
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Mon 6 Dec 99 15:37
As far as kitchen essentials, did you notice that almost all of the chefs you included in you book had certain items in their home kitchens, Ellen? Do they all have mandolines? Ginger graters? Those rubber garlic peelers? Pot holders that go all the way up to their elbows?
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