Kate O’Toole: No one should be an island in their own kitchen

Wow factor should come from good food and conversation, not freestanding lumps

Islands in the steam: ‘There’s room for only  one person to cook comfortably, your guests  get in the way and you lose the fun of putting a meal together with friends. Too many cooks might spoil the broth but that doesn’t mean the chef should be cast into solitary confinement.’ Photograph: Thinkstock

Islands in the steam: ‘There’s room for only one person to cook comfortably, your guests get in the way and you lose the fun of putting a meal together with friends. Too many cooks might spoil the broth but that doesn’t mean the chef should be cast into solitary confinement.’ Photograph: Thinkstock

 

There are as many styles of kitchen interiors as there are cooks to toil in them. Ascetic Shaker, Tuscan rustic, French Chateau chic, traditional Irish melamine, sleek modern gadgets hub (does anything age faster than the future?), footballer’s wife and many more.

Roughly half an acre of space is required for the footballer’s wife option, although I wouldn’t say she cooks a lot. Yet even those who have hot and cold running staff to do the dirty work for them can’t resist the primordial urge to mooch around in the kitchen. It remains the hearth of the home no matter how it’s been dressed up. Ever since tenement life went the way of the Dodo and separate dining rooms were placed on the endangered species list, kitchen design has become big business. No longer a strictly utilitarian part of the household best kept hidden if possible, this room is now the place where all the action is. Naturally, we want to be there.

People go to some trouble and not a little expense to prettify these reformed engine rooms and there’s not a thing wrong with that. Down on the farm in 19th century south Wales my hardworking great-grandmother was a gifted cook, handy with a hatchet but largely unaware of any style concepts in her culinary domain. This unfussy woman was, nevertheless, the happy owner of a nifty kitchen table that had two usable sides, one more presentable than the other.

Unapologetic workstation

Little House on the PrairieThe Postman Only Rings Twice

When it comes to disguising the savage, bestial origins of food preparation, perhaps less is more. There’s only so much masquerading one can do before the cosmetic surgery becomes risible. Besides, the best cooks I know care not what their kitchens look like so long as they work. The best home-cooked meals I’ve eaten have invariably been cooked in kitchens where the focus was on the food and the company, not the decor.

Whether one’s preference is for antique copper saucepans dangling from the ceiling or stark concrete and chrome, the wow factor no kitchen should be without can come from only one secret ingredient: generous amounts of conviviality.

This is why I’m mystified by the popularity of detached kitchen islands. Not to be confused with decent countertops that also serve as clever room dividers; stand-alone islands are a different proposition altogether. Pity the wretch trapped behind one. Supposedly a principle of good kitchen design, I’m unconvinced by the arguments. There’s a lot of talk about the sacred geometry of the kitchen “triangle”, the importance of having seamless trajectories between sink, fridge and oven. The theory is you stand in one place where everything needed is easily accessible without your having to take a single step. God forbid we should have to suffer the exhausting inconvenience of taking more than a step to get from one corner of our triangle to the other.

In practice the only thing these freestanding lumps manage to do is create irksome obstructions to both the workflow and the social scene. Often they’re oval, with mean little curved shelves impossible to put anything on and strangely shaped wee cupboards inside which nothing really fits. There’s room for only one person to cook comfortably, your guests have to sidle alongside you apologetically, they get in the way and you lose the fun of putting a meal together with friends. Too many cooks might spoil the broth but that doesn’t mean the chef should be cast into solitary confinement.

Impediments

The beating heart of every household is all about people breaking bread together, telling stories, learning new tricks, forming bonds, offering welcomes, providing nourishment for body and soul. As long as we have that, we have all we need. Does it really matter if we’re “on trend” or not? When the trend is for badly designed islands then I’d rather be unfashionable, thank you. The search for a replica of the family table in Wales continues. Apart from enjoying its deeply satisfying ability to multitask, there is unfinished business to conclude. Kate O’Toole is an actress and a recovering Facebook addict

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