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The Perfect Kitchen: The Essential Ingredients to Make This Room Magic

Often referred to as the “heart” of the home, the kitchen is a place of gathering, creating, experimenting, tasting and entertaining. Any host knows that no matter how many trays of hors d’oeuvres are scattered throughout the living areas, guests always find their way to the kitchen, drawn by the magnetic buzz of busyness and the aromas of culinary alchemy.

As the contemporary home continues to evolve with trends and technology, how does the kitchen—in its perpetual balancing act between form and function—keep up? We asked three professionals to describe the perfect modern kitchen, as defined by their own varied experiences and points of view.

THE CHEF

While the kitchen is certainly a place of beauty, no one understands the importance of its functionality like a chef does. After 10 years of tenure at the Valley’s premier Japanese restaurant, Roka Akor, Jason Alford (now at Pa’La in Phoenix) was offered a unique position as executive chef for Scottsdale-based design firm, Bulthaup, where he was immersed in the hybrid world of professional cooking and luxury kitchens. “I come from a commercial background that focuses on functionality, where design usually takes a back seat,” he explains. “Bulthaup exposed me to high-end residential kitchen design that celebrates performance as well as aesthetics, and I think it’s crucial to find the right designers to help you achieve simplicity and efficiency in your cooking space.”

For Alford, this means a place where his passions for collaborative cooking and hospitality can cohabitate harmoniously. “I am drawn to open-concept kitchens with the main cooking areas facing a bar or a great room,” he describes. “Growing up in restaurant galley kitchens, you miss out on the energy of being connected with the dining space and your guests.”

Architect Darci Hazelbaker prefers open shelving in a kitchen, as it promotes mindfulness in choosing dishware and celebrates beloved items. (ha-ru.co)

“I am partial to natural and elemental highlights in a kitchen, such as wood, stone and fire,” he adds. “A dream kitchen would be a large space with open-flame cooking—almost a cabin feel but with an updated touch and a nice mountain view. The most essential part of a kitchen is wherever people gather around, and an open fire naturally draws visitors in. The smells, sights and feeling of community emanate from that point.” While Alford prefers to cook on a charwood or charcoal fire, for an indoor kitchen, he uses induction and a combi-steam oven that allows humidity control.

Additionally, Alford values “simple forms, refined materials and furnishings, and ingredients and tools from local artisans that permeate the experience of creating a meal—whether it’s the table you’re eating on or the plates that are used for serving,” he says. “Objects that balance form and function and are interwoven with a backstory are the unique details that make a gathering truly special.”

THE ARCHITECT

Darci Hazelbaker is one half of the eponymous Tucson-based architecture firm Hazelbaker Rush. Her experience in designing functional, minimalistic homes in the desert with her partner, Dale Rush, has centered her philosophy on environmental responsibility around the concept of longevity. “When Dale and I think about sustainability, we focus on timelessness,” she explains. “Designing in a way that avoids trends and thinks long-term is one of the best ways to be sustainable in our minds. We choose simple geometry, natural materials that age gracefully and a return to basics—keeping it honest and simple. I gravitate toward more furniture-based kitchens—imagine if your kitchen was able to go with you when you moved homes?”

A streamlined minimalistic kitchen outfitted in refined materials sets the stage for some cooking magic. (bulthaupaz.com)
An open floor plan, large island and unimpeded access to surrounding living areas makes this kitchen thoroughly modern and perfect for collaborative, communal cooking. (bulthaupaz.‌com)

Hazelbaker’s approach is almost shockingly simple in its sensibility. A kitchen designed not only for physical durability but also for stylistic endurance essentially eliminates the need to keep up with trends, reducing the amount of materials needed for future remodels. “We are living with a finite amount of resources; the more conservation-minded one can be, the more it will pay off in the long run for our environment. Valuing materials, being wise about how one uses them, and investing in products and materials that will last a long time is one of the best decisions a homeowner can make.

“I prefer to keep the kitchen centrally located near the main living and dining areas, regardless of whether it is open-plan or concealed,” says the architect. “The kitchen has to work as a place in which to entertain friends or read the Sunday news, and it should be set up in a way for some serious cooking to occur. I love kitchens in which you can experience the activity and the process of making. My favorites, while they might vary in size and style, have always been the ones that are bustling with activity—water boiling on the stove, timers dinging, the oven opening and closing, the wafting aromas that move through a house.

“For me, it’s important to keep it simple,” she continues. “My perfect kitchen would have an open floor plan and be highly efficient: a place for many to gather; open shelving to display the objects you love and that bring you joy; everything has its place and no space is wasted.” While Hazelbaker notes that there are plenty of great products and appliances on the market, she doesn’t believe you have to break the bank or have all the latest gadgets and machines to have a great kitchen. “At the heart of it, cooking is a primitive act, and I believe the passion comes from being engaged with the ingredients and the process of creating.”

By using durable, classic natural materials, such as wood, stone and marble, this kitchen will stand the test of time. (ha-ru.co)

THE INTERIOR DESIGNER

Illuminated by large windows and ample lighting fixtures, this cozy farmhouse-style kitchen features countertops with varying heights that allow for ease when prepping and serving food. Interior designer Mary Knott also included two sinks to make cleanup a breeze. (maryfisherdesigns.com)

“Our house is our refuge, and homeowners need to live in a place surrounded by beauty, comfort and safety,” explains interior designer Mary Knott, who specializes in creating ergonomic residential spaces. Ergonomics, as Knott defines it, is the science of designing places and things to fit people, which is a more complicated process than simply considering counter depth or cabinet height. “Ergonomic design in kitchens requires a great deal of time and research to meet all the physical characteristics of the homeowner,” she says.

“In my perfect kitchen,” elaborates Knott, “appliances would be placed side by side and elevated off the floor to enable access without bending. Cabinetry would be suspended from the wall, which allows for varied counter heights throughout the space. Countertops would be 36 inches deep and at the proper height for comfortably prepping and cooking.

“Great kitchens are never designed in isolation,” she continues. “The aesthetic style and finishes from other rooms within the home must be integrated, but choosing durable fabrics and materials is especially important in the kitchen. The bright desert sun, moisture and daily wear and tear must all be considered.” While her selections are functional and comfortable, Knott never sacrifices style. “I’d use a leathered natural stone for my counter surface, and the floor covering would be cork to provide resilience while standing at the various workstations. A combination of natural wood and cabinetry finished in ultradurable auto body paint provides an aesthetic mix to unify the social space of the kitchen with the work spaces. I’d ensure that all cabinet interiors are lighted and have full-extension sliding drawers.”

Knott believes that fixtures that focus on ease of use and simplicity are key elements in an ergonomic kitchen. A touch-control faucet is especially helpful, and centralizing lighting and appliance control to one or two panels keeps things simple and visually uncluttered. She also notes that installing various-sized sinks throughout the kitchen helps define different workstations and can serve multiple purposes. “A shallow, wide sink in the main cooking area is great for food prep, while a larger, deeper sink is more suitable for washing dishes.” However, for Knott, the most important element in good kitchen design is light. “When a kitchen has a balanced mix of both natural and artificial light, the colors and textures come alive, you ensure safe movement and food preparation, and the whole space can elicit an emotional response.”

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