How Utah foodies tackled remodeling the heart of the house.
“My favorite kitchen remodel projects are for serious cooks,” general contractor Mark Haslam says. “If you spend a lot of time in your kitchen it pays to do it right. It’s great to see someone who loves their finished kitchen and really uses it.” And he should know, since he’s a serious cook in his own right and has completed scores of both new construction and remodels as general contractor and owner of Utah-based Sausage Space LLC. I’ve had the pleasure of talking at length with Haslam about remodels in general, and kitchens in particular, over the course of his work on my family’s several-month renovation of our 1950s Holladay ranch-style home. “Kitchens are a complicated project and can have the most expensive elements in the house involved,” Haslam says, such as appliances, custom cabinets and re-configuring utilities like plumbing and gas lines. With these caveats in mind, “It takes time and a lot of attention to detail to get it done right.”
While not quite the globe-trotters that Julia and Paul Child were, in the 22 years that my husband, Mike, and I have been married, we’ve moved 12 times and have owned—and remodeled kitchens in—three houses. We’ve had pretty much every kitchen setup imaginable, from a Barbie-doll sized Boston apartment to our current Holladay ranch house addition and remodel, for which we hired Oregon-based architect Tristan Shepherd of Craft A+D to help with the planning phase (he designed 3 Cups coffee shop in Holladay, among other Utah projects). Which is a long way of saying we’ve set up a few home kitchens in our day. And when talking with fellow foodies who have undergone their own remodel projects—including a couple of worldly chefs—we’ve collectively concluded that there are some aspects of tackling a kitchen re-do that are rarely discerned by a quick search on Pinterest or a glance through a design magazine, especially for people who are serious about their cooking environment. While not an exhaustive punch list, here are some lessons my culinary-inclined compatriots and I have learned through our own trial and error, disclosed in the hopes that it’ll give Devour readers some food for thought when planning their own projects.
“People don’t stay in houses as long as they think they will,” says boutique real estate guru and cityhomeCollective Property Consultant and Designer Cody Derrick. “So I tell my clients ‘Live for today,’” not for a theoretical re-sale years from now. In addition to creating the restaurant spaces Pallet, Finca and HSL, Derrick has designed entertaining-oriented kitchens in four of his own homes and for dozens of clients. If the intent is to remodel and quickly flip a house for sale, Derrick acknowledges trends might make one home “pop” more than another on the market. However, for people who are planning to be in a house for several years, he strongly believes that the kitchen in particular should reflect the owner’s style and personality without getting hung up on current color schemes, design concepts or materials. “If it’s trending, it’s already done,” he says. “Whatever is trending now just reflects what someone did a year ago. By the time they’ve finished the project, photographed it and it’s showing up online or in magazines, designers have already moved on.”
He feels this is especially true for the “bigger is better” emphasis on oversized refrigerators and eight-plus burner commercial ranges, which might work for a big family or someone who entertains large groups frequently, but are an impractical expense for, say, people who cook using mostly fresh foods and host the occasional cocktail party. “A great kitchen has nothing to do with the size of my fridge. It has to do with the size of my life,” he says. “If you don’t need a freezer full of cardboard-box dinners, why have a huge freezer?” His solution? Under-counter mounted refrigerator and freezer cabinets that still have plenty of space for what he needs for the week or for an intimate dinner party. It’s a choice that opened up an entire upper wall that was formerly taken up by a full-sized refrigerator and a row of utilitarian cabinets that Derrick says made the space feel small and cramped. This adjustment also made more room for what Derrick loves most about his kitchen: his eclectic art collection and great lighting elements like the antique chandelier that originally hung in the dining room. “If you think through it, you can make any space work,” he says, noting that one of the great things about social media is that we have an opportunity to draw from other people’s experiences all over the world. “We can see that it’s extremely normal to live creatively and very well in a non-traditional or smaller space than we’ve been conditioned to think we need.”
On the other end of the design spectrum: One of Derrick’s previous homes in Olympus Cove, which featured a wide-open and light-filled mid-century modern aesthetic. “Whether it’s a Marmalade Victorian or more streamlined mid-mod homes, I’m attracted to spaces with history,” he says. “The tough part when you remodel a kitchen is to make it feel like it ‘fits’ with the rest of the home’s bones,” without the room seeming like a design anachronism. Derrick and I talked about this quite a bit when I was designing my own kitchen, which started out as a dark, narrow galley space without enough room for even a standard refrigerator or for two people to work back-to-back. We punched out the back of the house for an addition and removed the enclosed basement staircase, opening up the entire back of the home for better flow to the dining room, living room and the back yard for entertaining. For our needs, the 8-by-4-foot work island is a practical organization of space geared toward feeding my ravenous kids and their friends, and accommodating my frequent canning marathons and charcuterie projects. During hunting season, it provides a continuous easy-to-clean space for butchering a haunch of elk or a brace of ducks. And, yes, I do have a huge-ass case freezer; it’s in the basement. But something that Derrick, Julia Child and I all have in common is the timeless concept of kitchen as a “living” and interactive room. “A kitchen is not a part of the home if it doesn’t have chairs in it,” Derrick says.
For some cooks, incorporating a signature or very personal design element is a crucial consideration for the entire project, dictating the overall concept for the space. In chef Frody Volgger’s recent remodel of the home he bought 19 years ago, he wanted a commercial range with some powerful BTU’s. Which necessitated a serious exhaust hood. Fortunately, he already had terrific ceiling height to accommodate both, and had been eyeing a custom copper range hood on the floor display at Mountainland Design for a couple of years. “I heard they were going to change out the display, so I struck a very good deal on the hood,” at less than a third of the retail price, “and I walked with it,” Volgger says. He removed a pony wall separating the kitchen from the living room, allowing him to build a 6-by-7-foot dining table abutting the backside of the range, instead of incorporating the stove into an island. The table sits on top of a double bank of back-to-back recessed cabinets, allowing seating for 8 to 10 guests. “I entertain a lot and have huge pots and massive platters. I needed big, deep cabinets to store everything,” Volgger says. But his cooking space itself is limited to a tidy two or three steps of movement in any direction, an organizational plan based upon his experience as a chef working in restaurant kitchens all over the world.
Volgger’s friend and neighbor Paul Rowland (owner of Utah Smart Homes) agrees that Volgger’s design is a unique solution for a one-of-a-kind individual. Between the art Volgger has collected from all over the world to the top-of-the-line sound system built into the walls, Rowland says “Frody’s house is like a restaurant. We eat like kings.” While we enjoyed a hearty dinner of braised pork belly with roasted herbed potatoes and cabbage pan-seared with bacon from Salt & Smoke Artisan Meats (Volgger’s custom butcher shop), Volgger occasionally called out to his Smart Home system installed by Rowland. He delightfully commanded his Amazon Dot, which comes with the default name Alexa: “Alexa! Exhaust at 100 percent,” or “Alexa! Lights at 50 percent” throughout the evening. Rowland believes that Smart Home systems are a great solution for busy cooks to direct their environment easily with just a voice prompt. “It’s all about efficiency,” Volgger says. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he has substantial gardens right out his back door, shelves holding hundreds of cookbooks in his nearby den and wine storage in pretty much every room of his house.
Joel LaSalle, president of The LaSalle Restaurant Group, has become pretty proficient at planning both commercial and home kitchen remodels over the years. “Commercial space needs to be efficient and non-accessible so that [cooks] are not bothered, distracted or social with any guest or outside influences,” he says. Home kitchens also should be planned around efficiency first, which LaSalle recommends be set up “so that your work area—prep area for cutting up, mixing and preparing ingredients—is comfortable” but that personal kitchens should also be “socially accessible so that a home cook can be as comfortable as possible and still can interact with family, friends and guests” while cooking.
From the mid-20th century to our current day, most kitchens are ideally organized around the so-called “work triangle” built around the prep area which LaSalle calls the kitchen’s “cockpit.” It’s an invisible path connecting the refrigerator, sink and stove with at least one cutting-board-compatible counter space in line with a side of the triangle. This concept developed in the early 20th century following the lead of scientific industrial time-motion efficiency studies (also known as “Taylorism” after one of the field’s biggest proponents). Shortly thereafter, indoor plumbing was integrated in most American homes and by the 1930s, many households could replace their old “ice box” with an electric refrigerator. Around the same time, manufacturers and construction companies encouraged cost-saving efforts aimed at using more interchangeable parts and standardizing equipment dimensions. This especially became the norm during the boom of new construction following World War II. Ideally, this kitchen “work triangle” had sides between 4 and 9 feet long, necessitating only a few steps between tasks.
As described by Pamela Heyne in her book In Julia’s Kitchen: Practical and Convivial Kitchen Design Inspired by Julia Child, the Childs interrupted the usual flow of the conceptual “work triangle” ideal by moving the refrigerator to the side of the room in order to accommodate a dining table seating up to six people. While not usually noted during her television broadcasts, Child preferred to do as many tasks as possible while seated at her table chatting with guests, rather than stand facing out over an island. And her Cambridge kitchen took the “everything at your fingertips” concept to the extreme: Every pot and pan hung on a pegboard-mounted hook with an outline drawn on the wall so that each piece of equipment would be replaced to her specifications. Knives hung on magnetized strips mounted to the wall, and she had containers full of mixing spoons and other equipment divided by task lined up on her countertops.
One of my favorite remodel recommendations comes from contractor Mark Haslam who advises, “it’s worth it to spend more on things you touch.” In his experience, better quality pays off for frequently used components like cabinet hardware, sink faucets and countertops. And it’s one of the aspects of their kitchens that most of the people I talked with verbalized as being their favorite thing about their remodels.
Log Haven Executive Chef Dave Jones agrees. “Almost every night I walk into my kitchen”—which he and his wife, Jackie, remodeled themselves over a six-month period—“and I say ‘man, I love this granite.’” There’s a lot to love about the distinctive Brazilian seafoam green stone countertop, which Jones fell head-over-heels for but didn’t think they could afford on their initial remodel budget. Fortunately, he located a slab that had a fissure, making it unusable for a larger countertop expanse. Working with a fabricator, they were able to adapt it perfectly for Jones’ U-shaped space.
Jones repainted the home’s original hardwood cabinets but kept the same kitchen configuration, since, as he says, “everything was at my fingertips. It’s a pretty well-organized space already.” He and Jackie made a couple of modifications requiring some construction moxie: removing an overhead cabinet to accommodate the new French-door refrigerator, and installing an exterior ventilation shaft for the restaurant-quality exhaust hood the upgraded gas range required. Jones also says you don’t have to spend a fortune on appliances to get chef-approved results. He’s a big fan of the 30-inch slide-in five-burner Kitchen Aid gas range that they installed. “It’s got a lot of BTU’s and a good range of control,” at a fraction of the price point of other manufacturers. Jones also recommends patience for finding the best deals on equipment. “We checked the online prices at a few stores every day looking for the appliances we wanted,” he says. “We waited three months to catch when the price dropped on the fridge, and ended up saving about $500 in one day.”
Cody Derrick used a similar budget-friendly strategy for outfitting his custom kitchen in The Maryland historic building in downtown SLC. He says he found his Viking range at the “ding and dent” store, and he used stainless panels from Ikea instead of custom cabinet fronts. Where he did choose to go big? The countertops. “People say ‘don’t put marble in the kitchen,’ that it won’t wear well and stains easily,” Derrick says. But that’s what he appreciates most about the material. “I love old-world spaces. Like being in a Paris kitchen with a red-wine ring stained into the marble countertop. Was it made last night, or 100 years ago? In either case, it’s beautiful,” he says, because it’s a reflection of people really using and interacting in the space.
One thing that everyone I talked to had in common, enough so that it’s almost a cliché was that their kitchen remodels cost more and took longer than anyone had initially anticipated. SLC-based architect John Oderda and his wife, Katie, had been planning their Olympus Cove mid-century modern home remodel—which included tearing out some walls necessitating a bit of engineering work for support beams—for six years. “John had the plans drawn up for a while, so we knew what would go in each cabinet and the size and type of appliances we wanted,” Katie says. “We ‘gifted’ ourselves a range here and a dishwasher there every year until we had the time and money to go through with the big project.”
With their three preschool-aged children, they decided to move into a condo during construction rather than live with the disruption. “We planned on eight to 12 weeks, but because of permitting hold-ups,” which are a common complaint, “it ended up being a project we started in February and we were using the kitchen by June,” John says.
For my own project, we started demolition last April and were hopeful that we could be in the house by mid-August. Because of a delay running the gas line for the addition, we ended up moving our family—two adults, two teenaged boys and two Labradors—into our pop-up camping trailer in our side yard until late September. Eventually we were able to set up the basement as ad hoc living quarters with a microwave and mini fridge while construction continued in the upper floor of the house, and we were able to celebrate Thanksgiving using the new kitchen with much satisfaction. Sure, there are still wires hanging out of the walls, some shelves that need to be installed and a long winter of painting ahead of us, but it’s good to have a solid roof over our heads as the snow falls.
It’s the details that add up on the bottom line. “Scope creep will get you,” John says, for costs like deciding to reposition components mid-project, custom lighting or materials upgrades. “If I can make a plug for the profession, hire an architect,” he says. They’ll be able to help you realistically figure out your needs from the start.”
Joel LaSalle notes that the “biggest common challenge is figuring out an efficient layout of the kitchen. Outside of that, making sure that power supply, gas and water are all accessible for the new plan,” is key. “It can be expensive to re-locate these utilities.” (See “Pro Tip: The Kitchen Sink Is Key” on p. 32.)
Even without major utilities reorganization, small costs can add up to big bottom lines. “Changes that seem simple add up to a lot more money, so budget wisely and allow for a 20 percent contingency,” LaSalle recommends.
Both serious foodies (and throwers of epic cocktail parties), John and Katie Oderda designed their space so that they could comfortably work together in the kitchen while they cooked and interacted with their children and guests. Their four-year-old daughter, Margaret, says her favorite part of the kitchen is “the yellow stools” at the long island, which Katie says have “completely changed our morning game with the kids” for fuss-free breakfasts. Margaret’s older brother Owen loves the “kids’ cabinet” where backpacks and school supplies are stored accessibly yet out of sight. After designing elementary school classrooms, John integrated some kid-friendly features into their family kitchen, including a floor-to-ceiling cabinet door constructed from a magnetic white-board. “It’s an expensive material, but totally reasonable if you’re only using a little bit of it,” John says. Menu planning notes, children’s art and family messages all coexist with style.
My husband, Mike, and I used a similar task-oriented approach to designing our busy space in collaboration with architect Tristan Shepherd. We moved most of our “morning routine” equipment—coffee station, toaster oven, kettle—to the walk-in pantry, along with storage space for bulky equipment we don’t use every day and a second dishwasher for the inevitable party glassware overflow. This has allowed more space for accommodating my orchestration of dinner parties and day-long canning or butchering adventures. “Darby can have her big project going on and the boys and I can still get to the pantry, refrigerator and microwave without us all tripping over each other,” Mike says. That even includes the canine members of our family: There’s a big kennel-sized dog bed built into the kitchen island so the pups can still be at my side without getting underfoot. Well, until food hits the floor—then all bets are off.
Cody Derrick agrees that these tips are a few constants that can help when designing a kitchen space with both function and impeccable form. “The kitchen is really an extension of the living room in a well-designed space. If we’re conscious and aware of how we use space we’ll make it a pleasant place for gathering rather than having a frustrated cook or making guests feel that they’re in the way,” he says. Contractor Mark Haslam concurs. “There’s a lot of emotion associated with kitchens. We all have strong feelings about them, and we spend a lot of time in that space. It should be a happy connection.”