Kitchens that really cook: Your ideal food-prep room needn't be a dream

Former pastry chef Robert Simmelink loves his handy speed cart on wheels.

WHAT DO you love about your kitchen? Given the time most of us spend there, it should be an easy question to answer.

But what if your kitchen is more of a kitchen nightmare?

Contemplating a redo of this key space can be scary. The kitchen has become the place to gather, entertain, plug in a laptop, charge the cell phone and more. How can you incorporate all this and more into a redesign?

One good thing about kitchens, though, is that everybody has one. And when you ask people what they like about theirs, you're likely to get a wealth of ideas to improve yours, too.


Rack and roll


Robert and Mary Lou Simmelink are in the middle of a remodel of their home in Shorewood, Wis., but already love their "speed rack on wheels." It sits next to the stove, under a counter, ready to be pressed (or pushed) into service.

Which happens a lot.

"I used to be a pastry chef, so I had used speed racks for years in my professional life, but it never occurred to me that one would be useful at home," said Mary Lou. "I saw a picture in a kitchen-inspiration design book that included one and it was an 'aha!' - or really a 'duh!' moment."

Robert, an executive chef, said that they use the half-size rack next to their stove "for hot trays coming out of the oven. . . . We can also park hot sauté pans just before plating. I plan to use it to stage platters of food and 'backup' food when we entertain. "


Too expensive? Improvise


Dean and Valerie Ferber know a thing or two about shopping around. The previous owners of the Ferbers' cottage-style home had an antique bread table. It gave the antique-loving Ferbers an idea.

The Hales Corners, Wis., couple scouted flea markets, antique shops and estate sales. At one antiques mall, they spotted the perfect piece: a woodworker's bench. But at $1,100, it was too pricey.

At an auction, they found a bench covered with paint and equipped with two vises. Where others might have seen a mess, the Ferbers saw potential. But first they had to win it.

Bidding started near the price of that first bench they'd seen, but there were no takers. The price dropped to $500, then $250, then $100. Finally, Dean Ferber raised his auction paddle. The auctioneer asked for $125, and a man in front held up his hand. Dean Ferber bid $150 - and the 1880s work bench was theirs.


Redesign wins by a nose


For Elizabeth A. Gorzalski, a yearlong remodel began with one realization. "It took me seven years to accept my wheelchair status," said Gorzalski, who was in a car accident and also has a muscular disorder. "When I finally . . . accepted it, I redesigned my kitchen so I could entertain and cook and enjoy it."

With professional contractors' help, she now has a kitchen that works for her. It started with a unique measurement. Her cabinetmaker told her, "Let's measure where your nose is. We won't put anything higher than your nose."

One element she's especially fond of: The space below the counter at the stove that her wheelchair neatly slides under, "allowing me to cook safely," she said.


Subterranean suds


Sometimes it's the small details that please the most.

"I love my soap dispenser," said Trudy Hannam, of Cedarburg, Wis., with more than a little excitement. "I got a new kitchen faucet this year, and my son installed it. He also had a special drill that he could use to make a hole in my sink and added a soap dispenser.

"Now I don't have to bend over several times a day to get soap from under my sink when it is needed. It is absolutely wonderful! It fills from the top easily and directs a stream where needed."


The corner pocket


Terry Crevensten lived with her 1960s kitchen for more than 20 years. Last summer, the kitchen finally was gutted, and a family room and a mudroom added to the Cedarburg, Wis., ranch house.

She put a lot of thought into organizing and making the most of the space, including the creation of a "lunch-making station." But her favorite element was a designer's suggestion to move the sink to a corner.

"Although you can put carousels in the corner cabinets, they're still not great, and the corner counter can be a problem," she said. "The design also put a niche above the sink and spotlight lighting, so we have some artwork there."


Small space, big ideas


Kendall Polster is a welder who makes art and designs restaurants for a living. So he unleashed his talents on a challenging space: his own small kitchen.

"I put in a restaurant-grade, deep double sink," he said. "I built the sink cabinet more as a piece of furniture on legs, not built to the floor as a traditional kitchen cabinet. I made it using all recycled oak . . . except for the maple I used in the 2-inch-thick pullout cutting board. The sink cabinet ended up only costing me about $60 in materials."


Warming up to memories


Stacia Hickey had limited resources to remodel her kitchen in Whitefish Bay, Wis., so she had to get creative - and learn to live with some things, like a vintage countertop. Now she's happy about that.

"Our counters and backsplash are a cool, authentic red Formica that is in great condition for being 60 years old," she said.

"What I like the best is the sense of history my kitchen has. The older items remind me of the two families who lived here before us. I like to think about the happy times we are adding to theirs in this kitchen - birthday cakes, holiday dinners, breakfast on a child's first day of school and all the little moments that add up to a lifetime of happy memories."


Let there be light


Lori Cannestra, a self-described "kitchen design junkie," did a big kitchen remodel and loves her new custom spice rack, phone niche and home-organizing corner.

But one small detail stands out for her: "Our simple, under-cabinet outlet strip. Tucking an outlet strip under the cabinets, rather than traditional receptacles every three feet, enhances the beauty of our tiled backsplash by allowing an uninterrupted, clean line across the length of the wall."


Roundly praised


Not every kitchen attribute requires a makeover. Putting a lazy Susan kitchen-tool organizer next to her stove has proven to be indispensable for Joan Dean, of Menomonee Falls, Wis.

"It holds measuring spoons, wooden spoons, various knives, spatulas, a garlic press, two scissors, whisks, potato peeler, bottle openers, pizza cutters and more," Dean said. She ordered it 25 years ago from Rodale Press' Organic Gardening magazine.

"I could not cook or bake without my kitchen-tool organizer," she said.


Measure by measure


Making every inch of cabinet space count was a personal mission for Deborah Kramer when she remodeled her kitchen in Onalaska, Wis. She measured cans and boxes to make sure they fit in the drawers she had in mind. To get every inch of space to work, she had pantry drawers designed to fit next to a long row of wine cubby holes.

"I had them plan the wine rack first and then make the drawers with the remaining space," she said. "These pantry drawers pull completely out so no canned good is unseen."