Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Size doesn't matter

Ahem, kitchen size that is.

Apparently, a Mark Bittman blog post featuring a picture of himself preparing his braised turkey recipe in his own New York City apartment generated quite the furor... how could a man who's written so many lovely cookbooks not have a gigantic kitchen with industrial strength burners and granite countertops?!

Because none of that matters. Bittman's rebuttal:
Interestingly, none of the queries, condolences and commiserations came from women born before World War II, women (whom I often describe loosely if unfairly as “grandmothers”) who grew up learning how to cook from their grandmothers. They know that it’s fully possible to cook just about anything just about anywhere, with just about any equipment at hand. I have lovely memories of my grandmother using a beat-up paring knife — which, for all I know, came over with her on the boat — for hacking garlic (she did not mince), peeling potatoes and cutting up chicken. She did not own a cutting board, and would probably be as dazzled by a food processor as by an iPhone.

No calls came from chefs, either, or from fellow food writers. They, too, know that when it comes to kitchens, size and equipment don’t count nearly as much as devotion, passion, common sense and, of course, experience. To pretend otherwise — to spend tens of thousands of dollars or more on a kitchen before learning how to cook, as is sadly common — is to fall into the same kind of silly consumerism that leads people to believe that an expensive gym membership will get them into shape or the right bed will improve their sex life. As runners run and writers write, cooks cook, under pretty much any circumstance.

I’ve developed material for my column and books when cooking on electric stoves (heat is heat, after all), in unfinished basements using hot plates and microwaves, and in borrowed kitchens all over the world. The equipment can make things more or less difficult, of course, but after all, cooking is cooking.
As an urban apartment liver since I reached adulthood, I am quite familiar with small kitchens that lack modern conveniences... though before I started cooking a few years ago, I mostly used my kitchen as a place to store left over take-out and yet to be drunk beer... our current kitchen is the first one I've had that had a garbage disposal, and I've never had a dishwasher. It does seem that the crucial thing is to have an oven and refrigerator that work and maintain the proper temperatures (and you can buy cheap thermometers for both). I've cooked in a few fancy kitchens and on fancy appliances, as my mother has a love of redoing kitchens (for aesthetic and resale value reasons mainly - though she does cook a fair bit), and certainly not found myself to be a better cook in those environments.

The counter argument, unrelated to any real estate considerations, would be that if you love cooking and are going to spend a lot of time doing it... why not make it as nice an experience as possible? Certainly, while an expert cook could whip up a gourmet meal with a Bunsen burner and a banged up pot from Goodwill, I don't imagine they'd want to do it all the time. In addition, that sort of blurs the line between all kitchen equipment too much for my tastes... while "hot is hot", a really crappy aluminum pan with hot spots is going to make it harder to cook well. Yeah, I'm sure Mario Batali and all them wouldn't care, but it seems to me that nice pots and pans are a justified cooking expense... though maybe I'm just trying to rationalize my Amazon wish list.

I guess the take home message is just to keep it in perspective and realize that a 30K kitchen might make you happy because it's so shiny and it might be a good investment... but it's not going to make you a better cook(and I suppose that goes for $200 Le Creuset pots as well). If you can't afford that new kitchen or new pan because your 401K is in the toilet, it's really just not something that's going to handicap you that much... certainly I did fine on a cheap 10 piece cookware set from Target(and still use to this day) until I realized I wanted to invest in something better.