Home & Design

Kitchen Wisdom (From a Guy Who Really Knows)

Chef/restaurateur Spike Mendelsohn shares his thoughts about kitchen function and design as executive chef and brand ambassador for developer Van Metre Homes.

I’VE BEEN harping about kitchens lately. But I recently was made aware of someone who knows just the tiniest bit more about them than I do: the chef/restaurateur (and very cute) Spike Mendelsohn.

Spike’s a “Top Chef” alumnus who grew up in a restaurant family and owns several places in Washington DC—Good Stuff Eatery, Santa Rosa Taqueria and We, The Pizza—so the guy knows his way around a stove. He has recently hooked up with the DC-area developer Van Metre Homes as the homebuilder’s executive chef and brand ambassador, complete with recipes and how-to videos (my fave is about peeling ginger with a spoon—who knew? everyone but me?).

Here is some of Spike’s advice about designing, or re-designing, your kitchen. I salivate over the acreage suggested by these Van Metre kitchens, but even tiny urban kitchens can benefit from a few of these tips. I hope.

Spike suggests that the key to a kitchen that works really well is to mimic the flow of a restaurant kitchen. Restaurant kitchens, as you may know, are cramped and filled with people doing very specific things. To avoid more moving about than necessary in the crowded space, tools and pots for each task are kept near each “station.” His kitchens, Spike says, feature pot and pan storage beneath the stove so everything is at hand, exactly where you’re going to use it. (That suggests you have a cooktop. I would add, if you have a freestanding range with no drawer space below, you can always keep pots and pans in a pot drawer or a cabinet right next to the range.)

You can also, of course, keep things at hand by way of a pot rack. But, Spike cautions, make sure the rack has rounded edges lest your head pay the price for your design error.

When it comes to microwave ovens, Spike suggests that, if you can, you upgrade to a speed oven instead—for better looks and versatility. A speed oven combines microwave and convection cooking and often a grill element.

Being a good brand ambassador, Spike touts the EVP (engineered vinyl plank) flooring offered by Van Metre, because it’s waterproof and scratch-resistant (and looks like wood planking). But he also urges homeowners to buy slip-resistant mats in high-traffic areas of the kitchen (though it must be said that home kitchens usually don’t have restaurant amounts of water and grease sloshing around! Cushioned mats in front of the sink are never a bad idea, though).

If you’re building (in my dreams!), Spike’s ideal would be to have the porch extend under a kitchen window so food and drinks can be handed out most efficiently. Mine too.

Speaking of drinks, a refreshment center in the kitchen is a goal for kitchen efficiency. The glamorous kinds have wine refrigerators and maybe refrigerator drawers and storage for glassware. But those are luxuries a cramped kitchen can only dream of. Not such a luxury might be storing the glassware and maybe barware near the family fridge so that drinks and ice and glasses are all in the same neighborhood.

Van Metre and Spike and probably the majority of American homeowners are fans of kitchen islands (some of which have taken on Brobdingnagian proportions in recent years). But Spike is loving the newer L-shape islands, which allow for prep work to be done along one length and for friends (or the kids doing their homework) to sit along the other. Either shape leaves the rest of us simply island-dreaming.

As a pro, Spike knows how useful it is to have open shelving in a kitchen. You can see where everything is and just reach without opening doors. But restaurant kitchens don’t have to contend with the kids’ jelly glasses and three different sets of dishes and weirdly shaped what-is-that-thing? You’ll notice in magazine spreads, and even Ikea ads, that those open shelves hold pristine stacks of simple white dishes, a few simple, same-color mugs, etc. If you can stick to that, it’s a great look and, yes, restaurant-kitchen-efficient. If your tastes in cookware and serveware are, er, a bit more eclectic—okay, if you’re a slob and a rat pack like me—open may not be the way to go. Though it would, perhaps, curb baser instincts.

Spike is a major fan of pantries. But he’s not talking about those pull-out units filled with staples. He’s talking about a whole area of the kitchen or even a separate space for ingredient storage. He recommends adding an extra sink and a countertop to the pantry so prep work can be done there, leaving the kitchen a thing of beauty in the eyes of your dinner guests.

Back in the land of the realistic and space-constrained, a dedicated pantry joins the “most wanted” list that includes a well-organized mudroom and a well-lit, glamorous laundry room. You would find that having an expanded pantry, Spike says, is priceless. Somehow I don’t think “priceless” is quite the word; I’m sure there’s a handsome price tag attached.

But dreaming is free, and that’s what I’m going to do with his suggestions. Maybe one or two of them will materialize.

—Nancy McKeon

Ah, the refreshment center. Now, that’s something that can sometimes be achieved, perhaps more modestly, without having to buy a new house or rip out an existing kitchen. / Photo courtesy Van Metre Homes.



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4 thoughts on “Kitchen Wisdom (From a Guy Who Really Knows)

  1. Nancy G says:

    This is timely for me, since we’re about to start the planning stage of a kitchen redo, and I have soooo many ideas running through my head. The vinyl “wood” flooring was already on the list to check out, so glad to see a professional touting it, even if he is a spokesman. Thanks for the insights.

    1. Nancy McKeon says:

      I had another kitchen thought (when will they end!?). I think that wood-look plank flooring is as good as its price, so be sure to look at the expensive stuff so you’ll be in a position to assess things as you go a bit lower. There are also vinyl (I assume) tiles with a stone-like look–but the pricier they are the better they look (duh). One word about stone, or specifically granite, floors: My doggie is wary of going into the kitchen because she can’t really get purchase on the shiny granite floor (which predates me). There’s some kind of paw wax I can put on her, but on the whole I’d rather not have to deal with slippery floors, being a klutz myself. (OTOH, I have a dog-groomer neighbor who’s moving to some slick apartment tower–okay, okay, he’s going to sublet a condo in Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue!– where ALL the floors are gleaming granite. He’s Iraqi and so happy to get away from wood floors! He’s also the one who told me about the Musher’s Paw Protection wax, which is how his Afghan hound show dog will navigate those granite slabs.)

  2. Great tips Spike/Nancy – was shocked that my shoe box kitchen accidentally checks most of the boxes, including the window onto the porch for passing through drinks (except for that pesky screen). No island though, unless we break through to the dining room and, in that case, we’d require one of those pantry kitchens because I cannot imagine dining in the cooking mess and the only way to have space for one of those is to buy the house next door — and that would eliminate half the benefit of the island, the hang-out with cook space.

    Now. How do you peel ginger?

    1. Nancy McKeon says:

      Stephanie, take a look at this video from Spike Mendelsohn on the Van Metre Homes site. I don’t use a whole lot of ginger, but when I do I lose about a third of it, just as Spike says. He shows how to use the back of a large spoon to peel. I don’t have any ginger on hand at the moment but I’m certainly going to try it next time. here’s the link: \https://vanmetrehomes.com/spike

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