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Two summers ago when Melissa Clark, the cookbook author and Good Appetite columnist for the New York Times, told me she had a baby on the way and a kitchen renovation about to start, I raced over to her Brooklyn apartment to catch the calm before the storm.
Recently, I returned to watch her develop a recipe (Rustic Shrimp Bisque in today’s NY Times) and check in to see how all the improvements were serving this seasoned chef and mother.
The kitchen prior to renovation.
Prior to the renovation, Melissa made do in her century-old townhouse kitchen with its quirky knotted pine cabinets and Magic Chef stove. From what I could see, she made do very well, testing her recipes for the Times every week and somehow also managing to squeeze in several cookbooks along the way. The kitchen was about four times the size of my own with ceilings that could accommodate a trampoline party.
Melissa’s previous island setup.
I understood the desire to upgrade, especially with a baby on the way, dues paid, and a burning desire for a few luxuries like powerful ventilation (serious latke habit in this house) and an enclosed kitchen island to hide the sharp edges of an extensive collection of tart pans and ceramic ramekins.
The room had a “cluttered beauty” as Melissa describes in her Times piece on the renovation (“Tossing a Rattle Into the Renovation”, NY Times, December 17, 2008) but it no longer served her needs and her husband, Daniel, had been gently urging her to consider sleeker lines and clearer counters since he moved in.
For not being the primary user of the kitchen, Daniel had a big role in some of its more style-y design decisions. It was his idea to mix up the cabinetry with translucent paneled glass doors to reveal little touches of red behind. He also pushed for rounding out one side of the center island’s marble top to ease the flow from one side of the kitchen to the other.
Despite Daniel’s input, the kitchen is unmistakably Melissa’s professional den: It has counters ample enough to mise en place several recipes at once; enough seating to host a few visitors without anyone getting in each others’ way; a full-size fridge (I can’t claim that one); floors wide and smooth enough to accommodate a toddler afoot; and room enough for little personal touches like Melissa’s aunt’s marble bust (readers, please submit suggestions for her name!); and a suggestion of a clementine-hued theme to compliment Melissa’s copper-red hair. All without feeling overdone.
The day I visited, Melissa was working on the shrimp bisque that would ultimately find itself featured in today’s NY Times Dining Section (“Saving Money, and the Soup”). I also got to meet little Dahlia, who now teeters around the space with no threat of splinters from the old funky parquet floors (silky smooth coco palm now) or grabbing a stray ramekin and smashing it to bits.
What remains the biggest challenge with the space? The pantry: I want a pull-out pantry and lament it every day. So if could have really gone for it it would have been custom cabinetry. Also the stove. I want a new stove.
What improvement can you now not imagine living without? I love my Sub-Zero, love the amount of cabinets, love the vastness and look of my marble counter tops. They are so pretty they make me happy every day and there’s finally enough counter space.
I loved the bisque. What did Daniel think? He thought it was smashing, ate it up and asked me to make it again. Dahlia spit hers out. Can’t please everyone!
Where did you splurge in the renovation? The Wolf hood, Ann Sacks tile, custom-made marble table, my new Blendtec blender, and the air conditioner.
And where did you apply restraint and save money? The base of the marble table was $80 in Chinatown, the fridge was a floor model from the Sub-Zero showroom, and the cabinets are from Ikea.
What’s for dinner tonight? Pureed split pea soup with olive-topped croutons, and crispy kale.
The arrangement of the Ikea Askome Birch Cabinets was planned by Melissa’s husband, Daniel. Two haphazardly placed translucent doors among the birch reveal some of the couple’s red serving pieces through the glass. The double-height cabinets also make the ceilings feel even higher. Nice touches.
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The old kitchen’s layout was similar to the new with a main wall of cabinets, stove, dishwasher, and sink on one side of the room and a central island used for prep and eating.
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The fridge location changed from the main wall of cabinets to the opposite side of the room. It’s a Sub Zero floor model, one of Melissa’s budget-saving moves.
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The new island has a Carrera marble top, complete with cocktail stains, which Melissa expected and encourages. The blemishes add character and eventually will share a visual history of great meals.
The marble has a curved edge (Daniel’s idea) that softens the sense of flow around the space.
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The new dining nook table was custom made from the same piece of marble used on the other counter tops atop a $80 Chinatown cafe table base.
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The old dining nook. The table left no room for a high chair.
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The old area of the kitchen where some things were stored, some things were chopped, some things were served. A big space, not well utilized.
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The same area with built-in bookcase, Benjamin Moore flat latex Wolf Gray wall, and one of two of the kitchen’s pot racks. The ladder is essential for reaching the second-level cabinets.
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Close up of the bookcase. Holds the essential heavy-rotation cookbooks, fire extinguisher, and tissues.
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Melissa and I have the same favorite aluminum kitchen clip: they’re Japanese, and you can still get them from KioskKiosk in NYC)
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The old island was a relic from Melissa’s past filled to the brim with sharp-edged tartlet pans, glass measuring cups and mercury-filled candy thermometers. In other words: not child-friendly.
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These stools were bought on a whim (and they fit!) fromWhite on White in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for $50 each.
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The other side of the island is filled with drawers. Most have Melissa’s cooking supplies. One is reserved for the baby’s cooking toys.
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One of the biggest splurges was the Wolf Hood. Here, Melissa is stirring the stock for the Shrimp Bisque.
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The darkroom timer is one of Daniel’s contributions to the kitchen. Yes, they actually use it.
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Collapsible Ikea dish rack.
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When I visited before the renovation, Melissa showed me the style tray for the kitchen including flooring, tile, marble and cabinetry.
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Melissa cooking on herGel Mat and Coco Palm flooring.
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Melissa has been getting seltzer delivered for seven years.
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Melissa’s Kitchen Diary.
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She takes her notes while developing recipes on pen and paper. Not a lap top in sight.
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Clementines contribute to the hints of orange theme around the room.
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The old pot rack.
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Same wall, nicer pot rack. (Copper pots = more orange.)
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The marble bust that came from Melissa’s aunt’s house, complete with 30 years of cigarette smoke stains.
Melissa’s daughter is named Dahlia and Dahlia’s new doll is Flora. This lady needs a name! Readers, weigh in.
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Melissa catching the light against her Wolf Gray wall.
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Preparing the soup by taking some professional knife skills to a few leeks.
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Pressing the good stuff out of the shrimp shells for the stock.
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Checking the bisque for flavor.
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Blending the bisque in Melissa’s Blendtec blender. Tip: add a few ice cubes to a hot soup before blending to prevent the top from blowing off.
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A final taste.
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The finished bisque, our lunch.
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First dinner party after the baby was born and kitchen was finished. In the background cooking areAlice Feiring and John Magazino (ofPrimizie Foods). Standing at the right is Frank Bruni.
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Melissa just a few days before the baby was born. The kitchen is almost but not quite done.