Cook Up A Storm

In an interesting development, both for the kitchen industry and perhaps society as a whole, we are rewinding history and rediscovering the importance of proper home cooking. Here we report on the changing face of today’s kitchen and discover a thriving space that puts the chef centre stage

The food and drink industry —via myriad media headlines — has been fervently proclaiming that ‘eating in is the new going out’ since the start of the millennium. Ably supported by the publicity machines of Oliver, Lawson, Fearnley-Whittingstall et al, a renewed enthusiasm for cooking from scratch using raw ingredients (preferably home grown) has swept the nation, heralding a return to traditional food preparation. Now that recession-hit households are being given little choice in the matter, the trend for ‘proper’ home-cooked meals is fast becoming a necessity rather than a fashion statement.

According to a recent independent survey of 3,000 people, carried out on behalf of Aga Rangemaster by Next Big Thing/One Poll, 50 per cent of Britons cook from scratch more than they did a year ago and 68 per cent of British households sit down to eat as a family three or more times per week.

Obviously the primary role of the kitchen has always centered on meal preparation but in the late 80s and 90s there was a long period when ready or ‘convenience’ meals took the pleasure and creativity out of the process. Kitchens designed for family homes were specified in ways more suited, perhaps, to city crash- pads. Appliances were frequently selected for heating up food rather than cooking and dining pace was designed for eating in a hurry, not lingering over dinner.

Maximising space

Storage, particular large all-in-one larders and pantries that allow people to access all ingredients from one point, is now a priority. The walk-in pantry of Victorian times is being reinstated as people realise that completely open-plan kitchens can be messy affairs without adequate stashing space. Stephen Salt, UK manager of Boffi Chelsea, believes that walk-in larders and pull-out pantries, which offer quick, ordered and practical access to provisions, are the key to a successfully designed modern kitchen. He is eagerly anticipating the UK arrival of Boffi’s Aprile range, which boasts innovative storage hidden in the space between wall units and worktops, helping to keep surfaces clear.

Far from becoming redundant in these open-plan times, space-saving equipment such as compact appliances and internal storage systems are also thriving. In most cases this is not because the kitchen itself is small but because the client wants so much more from the space. These cooks are after the flexibility of steam, combination-microwave, coffee machine and multifunction oven. The only way to squeeze in such a plethora of options is to go miniature. The increased desire for a separate dining area in the kitchen also puts pressure on storage but manufacturers are on the case. ‘Kitchen furniture has evolved in such a way that there is now about 25 per cent more storage in modern units than in those made 15 years ago. The depth of units is greater and often the plinth area is used, allowing for more appliances to be installed,’ says Paul O’Brien, director of Kitchens International.

Creating social spaces

Our renewed enthusiasm for home cooking has, perhaps, made the biggest impact on the design and layout of kitchens. Not only has the kitchen become the new dining room but it’s also the living room, study and playroom. ‘Over the past 10 years, there has been a radical change in how people use their kitchens. It has become a multi-purpose living space, where we cook, eat, work and spend quality leisure time with friends and family,’ says Laurence Pidgeon, director of Alternative Plans. Clearly this amalgamation of rooms requires space —and plenty of it —which is why architects and structural surveyors frequently play a role in the kitchen-planning process. In many cases, architects are turning their hands to kitchen design while kitchen designers make structural recommendations.

While you might assume that all the resultant space achieved from pulling down walls makes layout planning easier, in reality the opposite is often true. In particular, traffic flow becomes paramount since the busy nature of a combined kitchen/dining/family room dictates clutter-free and efficient travel that requires incredibly precise spatial planning.

One of the biggest trends in this area is towards the ‘TV chef’ layout, where all the main practical items such as sink, fridge and prep space are located behind the chef, who works at an island looking out to his or her ‘audience’ of dinner guests. Not only does this keep the traffic flow within the working heart of the kitchen to a minimum but it also creates a sociable entertaining space that puts the cook at the centre of the action.

A new generation of cooling

The refrigeration market is becoming increasingly hi-tech. Consumers are aware of the benefits of humidity-controlled drawers, frost-free operation and twin compressors and are prepared to pay for them.

A change in the requisite capacities of fridge versus freezer is a sure signifier of a different approach cooking. In the 90s, the freezer ruled and size was everything but now fridges are fighting back thanks to the renewed desire to cook healthier foods. Supporting Aga Rangemaster’s findings that half of all Britons cook from scratch more than they did a year ago, Smallbone’s design director Steven de Munnich reports that people are indeed now allocating significantly more space to specialist refrigeration rather than freezers.

‘This is led by the increasing availability of high-quality, fresh ingredients and people’s growing desire to shop regularly for seasonal produce,’ he explains.

There are also environmental and economic factors at play when specifying cooling, which is seeing the standard fridge-freezer duo joined by a new zero-degree cooling zone. Designed to extend the life of fresh food (thereby reducing the amount sent to landfill), these food preservation compartments are available within the refrigerator itself (such as Liebherr’s BioFresh drawers) or as separate entities and provide flexible temperature controls that cover refrigeration, zero-degree and full-on freezing. Try Fisher & Paykel’s CoolDrawer that can be set to fridge, freezer, wine chiller or pantry mode, depending on changing needs, or Hotpoint’s Quadrio fridge freezer, which has a separate flexible drawer that can be set between -26°C and 0°C.

According to the government-funded body Wrap (Waste and Resources Action Programme), each year the average UK family throws away £400-600 worth of food past its sell by date. ‘Fresh food lasts up to three times longer in a zero-degree ompartment than it does in a conventional fridge, which has a major impact on the family food budget. It also means that buy-one-get-one-free deals represent value for money because you don’t end up throwing away excess food,’ says Steve Woodworth, sales director at Liebherr.

Intelligent appliances

Although we are turning back the clock to the days before ready meals, today’s food-focused kitchens are decidedly better appointed than those of our grandmothers. ‘The influence and popularity of TV cookery programmes has encouraged people to be more adventurous in their tastes and their cooking methods. This is reflected in the emergence of increasingly sophisticated appliances, such as teppanyaki grills and wok hobs,’ says Robert Laurie, marketing and ealership director at Poggenpohl. Increased sales of steam ovens, induction hobs, pyrolytic cleaning and taps supplying instant boiling water also reveal a demand for time-saving appliances. However, unlike the favoured appliance of the 80s housewife, the microwave oven, this latest speed-conscious technology doesn’t come at the cost of food taste or quality.

On the contrary, consumers are turning to technology to help improve their cooking skills and manufacturers are responding with increasingly advanced programmes designed to take the guesswork out of cooking. Often referred to as ‘intelligent ovens’, these appliances recommend which shelf to use, calculate the perfect temperature and automatically select the correct cooking programme. The top-end models also monitor the ongoing cooking process, continuously adjusting temperature and timing to ensure cordon bleu results every time. The De Dietrich DOP895B oven’s Intelligent Control System boasts a 260,000 pixel interactive display that’s image-led for intuitive usability, while Miele’s intelligent ovens even tell you when to add extra dishes or ingredients to create an entire meal.

‘Although the idea of relying on a machine to cook your meal could be daunting, the intelligent functions and well-designed menus are surprisingly easy to use. The results are perfectly cooked meat and vegetables, and a reduction in cooking time,’ says Jamee Kong, head of design at DesignSpaceLondon. He adds that many top-end appliance suppliers offer clients’ a visit from their home economist or an introductory course with cookery demonstrations.

Let the show begin

Once they have invested heavily in a showcase kitchen, few people are willing to hide it behind closed doors and in most homes the kitchen is now the main venue for dining, informal and formal. Celebrity chefs have made it acceptable to show-off in the kitchen and cooks with new-found skills are more than happy to do so. The most successful open-plan kitchens have two eating areas: the breakfast bar, which is used for quick snacks ‘on the hop’ and provides additional prep space, and the spacious separate dining table, where family and friends sit down to eat together. ‘Consumers are now much more prepared to try new ways of cooking and are keen to learn new skills, especially for dinner-party entertaining and cooking for family and friends, where an element of showmanship is acceptable,’ says Helen Shaw, marketing manager at Gaggenau. Thanks to the new breed of appliance-packed, storage-controlled, multi-zone kitchen diners, staying in is now preferable to going out.

This article was first published in idfx Magazine.

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