4 Brilliant Organizing Tricks I Learned Watching a Pro Chef Cook in a Tiny Parisian Kitchen

published Jan 4, 2024
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Kitchen with exposed storage and wooden table.
Credit: Kai Ahlefeld

In hindsight, it was pretty absurd: Fly to Paris on a couple weeks’ notice with my chef friend, stay in a 30-square-meter (about 322-square-feet) apartment, and host back-to-back dinner parties for local influencers. What could possibly go wrong? As it turns out, aside from doing dishes for days, everything went right!

Here’s the story: My friend Alison Settle, an amazingly talented (and James Beard-nominated!) chef, and I cooked up a plan to lead culinary tours of Paris in the spring. To kick it off, we’d get some photo and video content for promotions, and do some on-the-ground recon, so we flew over in October to put on a few dinner parties in an amazing apartment called Kai’s Kitchen I’d been obsessed with since spotting it online. 

The challenge (other than our, ahem, ambitious plan to shop and plan for a menu Settle would create on the fly in 1.5 days — her first time in Paris, at that!) was that we’d be hosting 10 people (plus ourselves) in an apartment the size of about one room in most American homes. I was confident, though, not only in Settle’s skills, but also in the inspired design of the kitchen and dining area, which was essentially the entire apartment. The kitchen had absolutely everything a chef could need, and although it was teeny, the dinners went off without a hitch — the guests and hosts were equally impressed and inspired by the apartment’s smart setup.

Kai Ahlefeld, the mind behind the design, turned out to actually be an event designer. He’s designed some 300 fashion shows, so when it came to renovating the apartment he wanted to use as his own event space for cooking and parties, he used the same tools from his work to create the design. At its core is his desire to see what he has to work with, Ahlefeld says. “For me, a kitchen is more of a workshop — a playground, I think. It’s nicer to see everything — you just have to make sure everything looks OK.”

He admits that he didn’t view the space’s small size as the challenge many of us would have. Ahlefeld’s motivation was that “everybody becomes part of the creation of [the meal]. And you can stand and talk to people, telling them what’s happening, then just sit down with them.” After witnessing Settle work her magic, and talking with Ahlefeld, here are my four biggest takeaways that could work in almost any small kitchen (and I’ll surely be incorporating in my own future reno projects!):

Credit: Kai Ahlefeld

1. Display (almost) everything

Although the footprint was petite, the apartment had high ceilings, and Ahlefeld used literally every inch of wall space, going floor to ceiling, and incorporating a rolling ladder for ease of reach. Not only is this a smart use of space that allowed so much storage, but for Settle it also served an even higher purpose. 

“Displaying everything that you have kind of opens your mind up to the possibilities,” she says. “So much of the time we’re hiding our appliances and stuff in cabinets because we’re like, ‘it’s disrupting the counter space,’ or ‘it’s not attractive,’ and then kind of forget what our capabilities are. Whereas in this kitchen I could see deeply in my mind what I can accomplish here.” 

Credit: Kai Ahlefeld

2. Make the pretty parts the decor

Everything we needed for the dinner parties was beautifully displayed, complete with an adjustable lighting system. The key here, Ahlefeld says, is an idea he uses often for fashion shows.

“Just choose something that is interesting and then multiply it by a lot,” he says. In this case, the rows of inexpensive white plates. Find something you like, he says, and “take a lot of them and it looks amazing, whatever it is.”

On one long wall, shallow ledges held the simple white plates and small bins for cutlery as well as glasses and stemware. The opposite side displayed Ahlefeld’s prized collection of jars, inspired by the original 10 classic green glass jars his mom collected at flea markets and left to him. After building up a collection, he uses them to store dozens of ingredients. The jars get an enthusiastic thumbs up from Settle. Stateside, “I am a huge proponent of Ball jar systems,” she says. So much so that her home system is Ball jars. She stores basically everything in them and labels them by their contents. “It’s super cheap,” she says, to get the jars at a grocery store, and “it has this air of being both industrial but also homey.”

Credit: Kai Ahlefeld

3. And downplay the rest (elegantly)

Of course, not everything is attractive. For things like the food processor and other small appliances and tools, Ahlefeld added lower shelving that he enclosed behind sliding screens. 

Swinging cabinet doors wouldn’t have worked with the limited space between the wall and the massive dining table, so he worked with an artisan ironworker who devoted several days to this piece of the project. Aiming for an industrial vibe, they built the sliding screens from real iron. Ahlefeld says, “And it’s really bolted; it’s not welded together or anything. It’s basically done exactly as the Eiffel Tower is done with manual bolts.” How chic is that?

Credit: Kai Ahlefeld

4. Surface spaces are multi-taskers

When we’re thinking about kitchen design in the U.S., we often tend to think in zones — and that we need an island and tons of counter space. Kai’s Kitchen has almost zero counter space once the gorgeous beast of a SMEG range and the oversized sink were in, but it did have a behemoth wooden dining table, along with an extremely multifunctional rolling cart topped with a hefty butcher block.

Settle single-handedly prepared a multi-course meal for a dozen of us using that block, plus the table. She was more than comfortable making use of unorthodox spaces, having spent so many years in restaurant kitchens where she sometimes needed to be creative and, say, use the bar as a prep area if that’s where the handiest outlet was located. “You shouldn’t limit yourself to one square in the kitchen,” she says. “You should cook where you feel comfortable.” 

The rolling butcher block held shelves packed with spices, and sported a knife rack, to boot. She used it just as Ahlefeld intended, to let diners see her at work, and then we served from it. The two parties feel like a dream, in retrospect. Settle is still dreaming about it. “I felt really free in that kitchen,” she says. “I had everything at my disposal. I was like, ‘If something doesn’t work out, it’s fine. I can fix it, because I have all of this efficient use of space and equipment.’” It doesn’t get much smarter than that.