Just as my husband’s and my bank account was at low tide last fall, I decided it would be a good time to renovate our 13-year-old kitchen. If we were going to lose everything, at least it would look nice.
The kitchen had been a workhorse. When we moved to our Brooklyn Heights apartment in 2002, it had recently been gut-renovated by the previous owners, who gave it a perfect layout and larded it with status appliances – a 6-burner Viking stove, a Miele dishwasher, and a Sub-Zero fridge. All it lacked was an abundance of cabinet space, so we had a pantry custom built in the adjacent dining room. In the 10 years that followed, I gave the appliances a serious workout. Merrill and I tested 1,400 recipes in it for one of my books, and Food52 has used the kitchen for weekly photo shoots since we launched the site.
The kitchen comfortably fit 2 cooks, even 3, and I generally liked its bones. But it had been done to full 1990s luxury splendor, which meant cherry wood and shiny green marble. Did I mention that I hate cherry wood? Almost worse than I loathe tile backsplashes. Especially tile with fruit shapes on it. And shiny marble countertops. Unless they’re white Carrera marble, and even then I’d want to lose the gloss. No matter what tricks our wonderful Food52 photographers pulled, the kitchen looked orange, and so did the food.
Being in the kitchen felt like one of those anxiety dreams where I was forced to go to a great party wearing big hair and a boxy 1980s power suit. Last fall, I told my husband that if we were never going to be able to move/upgrade/afford a car, we should at least improve -- to the extent we could afford it -- the place where I spend the most time, the place that represented Food52, and what Merrill and I were building. So we ended up with that strange thing – a compromise, in the form of a reckless renovation.
It was also a great decision, one that made me wish I’d done all our previous renovations on the tightest possible budget. First, because you don’t make lazy decisions, get bitten by the-most-expensive-must-be-the-best bug, or buy everything at once.
Second, because you must work harder and more creatively to get the details done -- every little knob that you track down on sale, every fixture from a little-known shop in Brooklyn, feels like a triumph, and you appreciate the results so much more. I’ve never been this happy with a renovation.
But I needed help. I work around the clock. I have kids. And I’d grown so irrationally angry at the kitchen that I needed someone to help me filter the bile.
I couldn’t have done any of the work without Lithe Sebesta, a designer (and now friend) who, as luck would have it, was just getting her design business off the ground. She was the person several friends pointed to when I asked for help. They revered her off-kilter yet impeccable style and her knack for spotting under-priced design treasures. They said she would take our style into account while gently pruning and nudging objects into place. I told her we had absolutely no more than $15,000 to spend, including her fee. And then I told her this several more times. She didn’t flinch.
And so we got to work. Within a few months, I had not only a serene grey kitchen, I also had a refurbished and streamlined dining area, all for less than the budget. Here’s how we did it:
1. The bulk of the work was resurfacing, and the bulk of the expense was in painting and electrical work. Lithe and I removed the superfluous moldings on the cabinetry and painted it all pale grey. We also painted the interiors of the cabinets that had glass fronts a battleship grey so they’d appear like dioramas, perfect for highlighting glassware and all the little dishes we use at Food52 for props. And we removed some of the cabinet doors to expose my bakeware. I’m not one for fancy kitchens; my dream kitchen would feel very much like a workshop with open shelving and tools at the ready.
2. Replacing the marble countertop would have been onerous and expensive, so Lithe suggested we hone it to dull the shine and make it appear muted and lighter. Marble specialists do not want to hone marble without sealing it. The Israeli guy we hired tried to talk us out of it. He let us know we were in for a world of stains and suffering. But we heard none of it. I like neat paint jobs but I want marble to show its wear and tear. Bring on the oil spots and water rings!
3. Replacing the tile backsplash would also have been prohibitive, so our contractor, Keith McAlpine Design, came up with an ingenious way to mask it with faux concrete-covered boards, which we matched to be in the same color family as the cabinets. Whoever guts the kitchen next will think we were cheapskates for just covering the tile, and we were!
4. We removed the recessed ceiling lights, whose light made everyone look like they had triangles for noses. In their place, Lithe found beautiful porcelain lights with glass bell shades, which were 40% off. We splurged on Edison bulbs.
6. At IKEA, we rounded up a new faucet and utensil rails for over the sink and near the stove. Counters are for working, not for plopping your stuff; lifting up the paper towels, utensils and dish soap is key. And I ordered a magnetic knife strip from Michael Ruhlman (also available on OpenSky).
7. One of the design details I love most about the original kitchen is its low-height woodblock countertop. It’s perfect for chopping and has a pull-out garbage drawer beneath it so you can sweep vegetable trimmings and the like directly into the garbage. The old countertop was ash, which cast yellow light and took years off of our Food52 photographers’ lives. The new counter is American Black Walnut by John Boos, ordered online from Butcher Block Co., and installed by Blackbird Designs.
8. We painted our refrigerator’s wooden front and, at Lithe’s suggestion, added a steel strip on the side so there would be a place to pin our kids’ drawings and photos with magnets.
9. The only art in our dining room is a large photo of an old woman wearing a shirt made with tripe arms (yes, tripe; it’s a long story). Lithe spotted a lamp at Artecnica that echoed the tripe’s honeycomb pattern. The Grand Trianon lamp is made of Tyvek, so it was just $180.
10. Our 100-year-old mahogany dining table and chairs were handed down from my husband’s grandparents. Lovely and charming as they were, they were also dark as night. We left the tabletop as is and had the chairs sanded down and recovered them with suiting fabric from Lithe’s secret source in the Garment District. Suddenly their Victorian look transformed to something more Scandinavian. Lithe then mixed the resurrected chairs with other worn wood chairs from around the apartment so the feel was less pre-fab dining set and more vintage ensemble.
11. In return for the mess and stress and fiscal peril of renovation, all my sweet husband asked for was a toaster. And so I got him this one made by Alessi.
Photos (except the toaster) by James Ransom
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