a cook’s guide to designing a kitchen
If you’ve been following me for a while you’ll know that we moved back home to England after four and half years of living in a rented house in California. The house we bought in England needed a total remodel. Once we finished the whole process and had climbed to the top of a very steep learning curve, it felt a shame not to share what we’d learned. Hopefully all the tips here in my ‘a cook’s guide to designing a kitchen’ will help you cut some of the time and angst if you’re adding a new kitchen or changing an existing one.
This post was written soon after we finished the remodel. I’ve also posted here about how I added all the finishing personal touches that have made the kitchen feel more lived in. I’ve also saved a video kitchen tour in my Instagram highlights.
Why to trust a cook rather than a salesperson when planning a kitchen
Its funny that when you go to most kitchen showrooms you will be sold a kitchen by someone who is a sales specialist first and probably not a cook. Yes, they’ll know all the technical wizardry that they want to flog you (under the veil of saving you time and effort when you cook) but how can they offer you real advice if they don’t actually cook themselves? I’d never really thought about it until we started looking for our kitchen as part of our house remodel. When I realised what a minefield the whole process can be, I wanted to share all my tips while the process was still fresh in my mind, so you can get advice from a cook rather than a sales person.
When I started quizzing the kitchen sales people them about just why I needed x,y and z that they recommended, I realized that much of the kit they are trying to sell you really isn’t necessary – and the things that will make your life easier and cooking more pleasurable often get overlooked. So lets plan from the point of view of a cook from now on shall we?
Our kitchen before
This was the kitchen in the house we bought before we pulled it all out, knocked down walls and extended. It was about 15 years old and not our taste but still a good kitchen. So before the building work happened, we auctioned the old kitchen on eBay. A guy who does up houses to rent to students bought it for £1,000 – he even came with his own plumber to dismantle everything and take it away. Much better than it ending up in a skip and the money we made helped cut the cost of our new kitchen.
Like most families we spend most of our time in the kitchen but unlike most families the kitchen is also my office and where I teach people to cook so I had even more reason to get it perfect. And I’m so beyond thrilled with it.
We knocked down walls to make the kitchen and dining room into one large space. We did a small extension too. Now we have our kitchen area, a dining area and a snug TV area. If you’re looking for a comparison to your project, the kitchen area is around 6m x 4.5m and the overall space, including the dining area and snug area is around 6m x 8m. Scroll down for the detailed floor plan.
The planning process
I’ve been plotting my kitchen for ages. Having cooked in so many different kitchens in my students’ homes in California and England, I’ve got a pretty good insight into what does and doesn’t work.
The only other time I’ve put a kitchen in somewhere was when I was in my mid twenties and living in a flat in London. Oh how thrilled and proud we were with our first grown up bit of DIY. I did the tile backsplash myself – back in the day before there were youtube how-to videos. My then boyfriend, now husband and I also laid the floor over one particularly stressful weekend. We had so many happy times in this kitchen, squeezing all our friends into our tiny flat while I rustled up feasts. It was also the kitchen my oldest son had his first meals in, him perched alongside me in his high chair while I made dinner and gave him spoons to lick. It made me very picky about what equipment I’d allow into my kitchen and started me realising how important good design is if you are to enjoy cooking, no matter what size your space is.
The best way to start planning your kitchen
Like most people investing in a kitchen I’d spent hours pouring over Pinterest and through magazines. I spend lots of time cooking and teaching in other peoples kitchens. I have had the pleasure of cooking in some really fabulous swanky ones in California so I’d squirreled away lots of ideas for my wish list.
The most useful part of the whole process was when I sat on the floor in the middle of my kitchen in California and plotted what was in my cupboards and drawers. Yes, I’m the nerd who went through every cupboard and drawer and catalogued what I currently had. It took me about an hour and was the most useful thing I’ve done in this process.
Incidentally, this is a brilliant opportunity to ditch a big chunk of what you own. Donate it or sell it on eBay to add to your new kitchen fund. There’s nothing like the thought of putting old crap into a spanking new kitchen to make you question if you really need it.
Here’s what my kitchen stock take taught me:
- I have a lot of pans and for years I’d been crawling on the floor to reach them out of the back of a very deep cupboard. So my dream was to have pan drawers in the new kitchen. I put them under the induction hob on the island so that I can easily grab them when I’m cooking. They also face the dishwasher and sink meaning it is easy to put them away once I’ve washed them. See the picture below.
- My blood boils every time I try and get a tray or tin from my teetering tower in my cupboard. I saw an ingenious idea on Pinterest to put vertical shelves into a cupboard for trays and chopping boards rather than having them piled. So I copied it – here’s the finished version in my new kitchen. My kitchen fitter thought I was bonkers but now I know he’ll be recommending this hack to other people!
- Pan lids are another clanging nightmare so I stole the idea of putting some simple hooks or bars on the inside of my pan drawer door to hang them up on.
- Keeping all your food in one place makes cooking simpler. Larder cupboards typically have shallow shelves on the inside of the doors for spices, and drawers at the bottom to keep vegetables dark and cool. Lots of people add an electrical socket and use one of the shelves for their toaster and kettle or coffee machine. I have quite the collection of glass jars that I use to hold my dried beans, flours, cereals and things. Most of these jars are from Ikea and are tall so I planned for my shelves to be the correct height to fit them with enough room for me to reach in and grab them.
- The kitchen in the house we had rented for the past 4 years had 15 single cupboards and 9 drawers – a lot of storage but because it wasn’t designed to suit what I had to store and use it didn’t work. These numbers were useful for giving me an idea of the volume of stuff I needed to store though so became my check as I went on to design the new kitchen.
- I wanted my plates, cutlery (silverware for you Americans!) and glasses to be within arms-reach of the dishwasher to make it easy to unstack each day (my worst kitchen job by far).
- I was obsessed with the idea of an appliance garage. I don’t like cluttered worktops so I was forever bending over to grab my heavy food processor and mixer out of a low cupboard in my old kitchen. By using the corner unit to hold my appliances, putting a couple of plug sockets in there and running the worktop into it, I can have my appliances plugged in and just pull them out onto the worktop when I want to use them.
Working out exactly what you need before you talk to kitchen suppliers
Once I had my list of what I owned and ideas of what storage would make my life happier, I went through and worked out exactly how many cupboards and drawers I’d need to fit everything in.
I measured my kitchen space, drew it out and started sketching ideas of how I’d lay things out. Most kitchen units, ovens and fridges in the UK are 600mm wide so it is pretty easy to do a rough plan. You’ll be able to get narrower and wider units once you sit down with a real planner but the 600m blocks gave me a good idea of what we could fit where.
As a rule, drawers are more expensive than shelves. But they are incredibly useful as you can pull out your things and see everything rather than rooting about in the back of a cupboard. However if you’re like me, drawers can become crap drawers very quickly. Its easy to shove things in and forget about them so I wanted to see if I could get creative with shelves and save myself some money.
This was the plan our kitchen fitter created for us
My appliance choices
Fridge and freezer
Even though I’ve adopted lots of American quirks, I decided against a big American style fridge as it doesn’t work with the layout I wanted and it was very pricey. Instead I chose a tall freezer and a separate tall fridge – both from AEG and integrated so they could be built into my floor to ceiling bank of units. In the picture above they are the doors either side of the ovens. Fridge on the right so that it is closer to me when I’m cooking at the island. Freezer on the left as I use it less often.
I don’t mind cooking in public and have always wanted an island with my hob (stove) on it so I could more easily demo in class. I also don’t like having a sink on my island – which my last kitchen had, because then it always looks messy, especially when we’re having a party and I have a pile of dirty dishes in there. So I put my sink below my window and my hob opposite it on the island so I can easily turn around and get water, wash my veg, dump dirty pans in the sink while I cook.
Because my hob was going to be on my island, I wanted to get an induction so I chose an AEG. I’d chatted to Chef David Kinch, at Manresa in los Gatos about what he thought about using induction and he sold me on it. He loved the reduction in heat in the kitchen compared to using gas. Also they are much easier to clean – always a huge selling point for me. They are much safer as they are only hot when a pan is on there. One thing to be mindful of though is not to use your induction hob as a place to rest pans when they’re hot out of the oven like you might with a gas hob. That’s because (excuse my lack of technical speak) it buggers up the mechanism inside. Get a trivet instead.
One of the questions I get asked most is why I don’t have an extractor fan. I’ve never used one in the past, even when we had one it was too loud and didn’t make any difference. I also didn’t want to clutter the kitchen or add to our budget by having one. If I’m cooking something steamy or smoky I just open a window. Two years in and we’ve had no issue with this.
Ovens and microwave
I splashed out on two ovens because I’m often cooking multiple meals at once. Again these were from AEG. Don’t be swayed by the all-singing all-dancing models, the poor guy who was selling me the ovens got very frustrated at my lack of interest in meat probes or all the functions the ovens can have. As long as I have an even temperature and can bake, roast and grill (broil) I’m happy. Lots of expensive technical stuff isn’t going to make you a good cook if you don’t know how to cook, and the more buttons there are the more baffling it is to use as far as I’m concerned.
I did however get a steam oven as one of the ovens because I’m increasingly asked to create recipes for them so I needed one for work. The one I chose also works as a regular oven.
I decided against a built in microwave because they’re much pricier than a standalone one. And I already had a microwave I liked so I decided to put it in a (well ventilated) cupboard within my appliance garage.
I added a warming drawer to warm plates and keep food warm. I also use it to prove bread. I know a few people who cook their meat in them instead of a slow cooker or crockpot. Genius. I put mine in the island, so I could easily reach it from the hob.
One thing that I can’t believe more people in England don’t have is a waste disposal. Before I lived in America I’d never used one, but now I can’t cope without one. Being able to wash peelings and any bits of leftover food straight down the sink, rather than have one of those little catchers in the plug hole is my idea of luxury. They’re very easy to install – just don’t be silly and put things like lemongrass stalks or really tough peelings down them. Also no meat either. Having a disposal means your bin doesn’t get as stinky either as all your food scraps get swished away. They cost around £300.
Boiling water tap
I was lucky enough to receive a boiling water tap from Quooker in return for using it in my classes and in my recipe writing so I didn’t need a separate tap. Or a kettle. Having instantly available boiling water (the tank under the sink holds 7 liters) is a huge luxury. Boiling water from the tap or kettle makes cooking so much quicker and the fact I can have a cup of tea whenever I want without waiting is dreamy. I just need them to invent a wine tap and I’ll be in heaven.
I chose my dishwasher for maximum space, minimal noise and the promise (I hope its true) that my glasses and dishes will be dry when they come out. I was also adamant I didn’t want one of those new shallow drawers at the top of the washer for cutlery as I’m too haphazard to lie all my spoons and knives neatly in a row when I’m loading the dishwasher. The old school basket suits me just fine.
If you have the space and budget, do what lots of my American clients do and add a second dishwasher in the kitchen or utility room. It makes life so much easier if you don’t have to unload the dishwasher before breakfast or mid party.
The whole bin situation is another area where things have changed since I last did a kitchen in my mid-twenties. Ten years ago, the height of sophistication was a chrome Brabantia bin. We were thrilled when we saved up for ours. Now everyone wants their bins in pull out drawers or cupboards to increase floor space. But if your space is limited, I’d prioritise using cupboard space for cooking kit and have a freestanding bin elsewhere.
If you decide for a built in bin, you will have your head swayed by all the ‘systems’ there are. Some of them are crazy expensive and look to me to be overly complicated and a pain to clean. I decided to have a simple floor level drawer built into one of my cupboards so I could pop a couple of very cheap Ikea plastic bins in – one for recycling and one for regular rubbish. Then if they get stinky and gross in a couple of years, I can just chuck them and get new ones rather than tackling some fancy Italian made job with a toothbrush and bleach – which is not how choose to spend my time.
Worktops (countertops for American readers)
We chose Silestone quartz (Bianco River colour) worktops because of their durability, price and choice of finish. I’m thrilled with them. Our island was the biggest sized slab they made.
This probably took more thinking than any other part of the kitchen. We ended up getting our island pendants and wall lights from the Garden Trading Company. We added LED lights in the roof even though I didn’t want to because I didn’t want to interrupt the lines of the ceiling. I’m glad we did though as they do light things perfectly.
This was one of the first things we picked. I wanted a concrete style floor to harden up the more traditional units. The large matt porcelain bone white Icon tiles from Cheshire Tile worked perfectly with our underfloor heating and are easy to clean. We ummed and ahhed about getting a smaller tile but I’m glad we chose the bigger ones as we had a big space to fill.
Who to buy your kitchen from
The last time we did a kitchen was in our London flat when we were 25. We were clueless and broke and went to a very well known high street kitchen shop. We were totally sold in by the smooth talking salesperson and fell for the ‘special offer’ – funnily, that offer seemed to be replaced each month by an offer with the same discount but different wording. The design process was very whizzy and impressive. Where the process became a nightmare, was that they subcontracted kitchen fitters who in our case were dreadful, and made the whole experience stressful and miserable. It totally put me off dealing with a big high street kitchen company again.
The units I wanted this time were pretty standard but the prices I was getting from kitchen showrooms were bonkers. Luckily our builder works with a guy who can source doors, worktops and cabinets direct and fit them himself – cutting out the profit margin the big high street kitchen guys need to have. We ended up getting our doors from this place – somewhere I’d have never found myself. The units came from a separate trade only place.
This approach also meant I got a custom kitchen with much better fixtures than I could have from a big company. And because he wasn’t trying to sell me in on fancy things I didn’t need, he really took on board what I wanted whilst adding a ton of creative solutions based on his experience. Definitely a craftsman rather than salesperson approach.
Ask around for someone in your area – many builders will have someone they use. There was a bit more leg work involved for me as I had to trot around a few builders-only places for the various components, but I secretly loved wearing a hi vis jacket and seeing behind the scenes.
He sourced everything for me but I bought my handles off eBay to save money and get exactly what I wanted. I bought a few single ones to see before I committed to buying all the ones I needed.
Phew I think that’s it. I’m sure I’ve missed something but hopefully all this will give you some ideas and save you some thinking time. I’m a total nerd about this whole process so am happy to help answer any questions and share supplier info.
Please share this with any friends who may find it useful.
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