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Sunday Column: Goodbye awkward kitchen



In yesterday’s print edition of the AJC I wrote about our kitchen renovation. After many years we’re finally getting rid of a space that never really worked.

This kitchen was too inviting

I had pictured the demolition of our home’s kitchen like a cinematic car crash — a slow-motion ballet of violence. Shards of wood, ceramic and granite would go flying through the air. And our contractors, with sledgehammers slung over their shoulders, would be attacking the counters with an expression akin to bloodlust in their eyes.

But after hearing an hour of banging and crashing downstairs, I warily wander down to find appliances and cabinet doors missing. The loud crashes belied a precision-tuned dismantling. The kitchen looked much as it had before — ordinary, sad, grimy.

One young man who had a chaw of tobacco stuck under his lip had found a hidden bag of Japanese eggplant pickles and asked me many questions about them. He was clearly a budding foodie.



Did it feel like the heart was being ripped from our home? A little. This kitchen had been the selling point when we bought the house 13 years ago. We had moved from a house with a small, windowless, off-to-the-side kitchen that only two people could comfortably cook in. We had had too many dinner parties where guests wanted a part of the cooking action but had to clamor at the kitchen’s periphery, like clubgoers behind a velvet rope.

When we found this house, the kitchen was a brand new remodel with a sea of gleaming green granite. It had everything I wanted: a bank of windows, gas burners, dual ovens, an enormous pantry and a fantastic central island where I could stand, chop onions and look out to the lush green backyard. This split-level island was fancy, fancy — with a sink, dishwasher and prep area on its lower level and an L-shaped eating surface on its upper level. And it seemed like it was made for entertaining. Something about the kitchen cried, “Come one, come all.”

As soon as we moved in, an official from the Decatur Tour of Homes who had heard about the kitchen inquired if we wanted to be included. I demurred with a laugh. Anyone who knows about our unusual approach to house cleaning and home decoration knows that we don’t aspire to be on a tour of homes. But, still …

photo 2Our first really big dinner was a class party for our daughter’s new school, with about 20 sets of parents milling about. I made a big pot of Thai chicken curry. As I stood by the stove to fish out a piece and check for seasoning, the headmaster’s wife joined me. We ate chicken with our fingers as I added some more fish sauce and lime juice to brighten the sauce. This was what I had always wanted.

But then I found it was difficult to get the party served. That one 3-by-2 square of counter space where I could cook was also the one place where everyone wanted to drop their drinks. I kept moving the chips and salsa away from my counter, and it kept finding its way back. Because the space in front of the island was so narrow, everyone decided to join me on the cooking side. I couldn’t open the oven without asking three people to move.

Every subsequent party followed suit. With the whole downstairs to choose from, guests would inevitably stand between me and my tiny work surface.

Other issues soon began to surface. Those counters were fashioned from tile, not a solid slab. Let me be the first to say that grout and food prep do not mix. All those windows meant no hanging cabinets and, thus, no place for dishes until I retrofitted the coat closet. The fridge-stove-sink triangle had a sharp corner of granite tile poking into it. The L-shaped eating counter made for strange dinner table energy, as no one faces each other and no food could be passed across.

There was endless space in lower cabinets, which invited all kinds of clutter. Last weekend we cleaned out these things, pitching some and saving others. The Barney the Dinosaur cake pan? Pitched. The aluminum turkey roaster from my aunt who had Alzheimer’s? Saved (and never to be used).

Our new kitchen has been designed so four or five people who want to cook can do so, but others will be diverted by a wide, bright area with stools, counters and a drinks fridge. We have a friend who designs homes and talks often of “energy, ” and she seems thrilled with the energy potential of our new space.

An hour has passed since I started writing this column, and when I poke downstairs for a look, the granite counter (along with the colonies of microorganisms living in its grout) is gone.

“Good riddance, ” I think, before a rush of memories choke my mind: Of eight little girls after a sleepover huddled around that counter as I flip blueberry pancakes. Of snorting with laughter with my kids as we stretched a sheet of fresh pasta down the entire length of the counter. Of standing with my wife by that little square of usable space and burning our fingers on hot chestnuts. And of the countless times I ran smack into a guest as I turned from the stove, laughing and saying, “It looks like you need another glass of wine.”

37 comments Add your comment


July 26th, 2010
9:53 am

I’d love to do the same thing. Keep us updated on your progress and plans.

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Kim Severson and ajcdinecritic, John Kessler. John Kessler said: Sunday Column: Goodbye awkward kitchen [...]

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jenna, Mike Doter. Mike Doter said: Sunday Column: Goodbye awkward kitchen: Atlanta Journal Constitution (blog)In yesterday's print edition of the AJC… [...]


July 26th, 2010
11:32 am

Hi. Most people I know couldn’t renovate a closet right now. Everyone is broke. Please, think a minute before parading your latest expenditure in front of us. Its insensitive. If you’re so hard up for stories why not have a look at what soup kitchens are serving. I think you are a good writer but this is a little hard to take.

markie mark

July 26th, 2010
11:53 am

wow A…..I don’t know about you, but broke as I am I want a diversion….not more news about how tough times are. If I want that, I can easily find it. What would you have him do, write this column in retrospect months after the fact?


July 26th, 2010
12:15 pm

To “A”, You seem very sad, and for that I’m sorry and hope your situation improves soon. But I’m glad to read about the kitchen renovation. At least one contractor and his employees are getting some work. The world, thank goodness, does not stop because some of us are having hard times. Mr. Kessler, by providing jobs even for a short project, is helping and I am happy to see it.

I look forward to reading more about the new kitchen. We redid ours five years ago and think it was the best thing we have done to improve our home. We love to cook, and spend a lot of time together there. We have enjoyed it. I hope Mr. Kessler and his family have the same results.

The Nerve

July 26th, 2010
12:17 pm

Good to see somebody moving this economy forward. Good luck. Any thought on putting a burner for wok?


July 26th, 2010
12:44 pm

Hey John, are you planning on keeping a log of all the meals you have while the kitchen is in transition – weird things from a toaster oven in the laundry room or a great new take out find? That could be fun to read! Good luck with the reno.


July 26th, 2010
1:02 pm

And “A” – you never truly know how someone pays for things – maybe JK and his family have saved up for years for this. Can’t assume just because someone is getting renovation done that they’re loaded. I am sorry to hear that you’re going through a tough time though!

Looking forward to hearing about the renovation JK and agree with “Foodie” – would be very interested to read how you all eat while the kitchen is out of commission! :)


July 26th, 2010
1:07 pm

Dammit John, why didn’t you call me? I coulda hooked you right up with the kitchen of your dreams. I would have even traded some work for some cooking advise lol.

It’s funny you mentioned the “budding foodie” carpenter. Years ago my brother in law was redoing the Capitol City Club I think it was. He had many long conversations with Chef Vossberg (think I spelled that right) duriong lunch and breaks. The upshot was that he eventually quit construction and took the Chef course at the Atlanta Art Institute. He’s now a certified CEC. Sadly he doesn’t chew baccy though…………..

I want to redo my kitchen. Unfortunately, there isn’t room to do anything meaningful to it so I need to blow out the back of the house. If I’m going to blow out the back of the house I may as well blow out the WHOLE back and expand all the way across. I figure at least 50 grand and I want to pay cash for it. Needless to say, I’m not doing it quite yet…………… I’m still about 48 grand short lol…… It will cost me more but I can do all the work and make all the cabinets :)

Please show pic’s when you finish, just reading your column gave me idea’s about things I’ve never though of.

@A: Might I suggest that in your poor pitiful broke state, you turn off the computer? That would not only save you money on your electric bill, but would choke down on your bitter envy. I guess I’m different than you. Rather than be bitter because John is doing what I can’t right now, I’m happy FOR him and look forward to seeing the end product.


July 26th, 2010
1:18 pm

Good luck! I too have a kitchen that looked great when we bought the house, and in reality had not enough cupboard space, tile counter tops that cracked & once you added the the dish drainer, coffee pot, microwave – no work space! I end up with a cutting boad on top of the two unused stove burners :-)


July 26th, 2010
3:25 pm

Do post pics of the progress. Look forward to seeing the finished product.

John Kessler

July 26th, 2010
3:30 pm

Hey, folks, please be nice with A. She expresses a point that did give me pause for a brief moment before I wrote this column.


July 26th, 2010
4:15 pm

John, I’m very glad you chose to share this adventure with everyone. I know with your sense of humor you will keep us up to date on all of the funny remodeling stories.


July 26th, 2010
4:28 pm

Looking forward to the after pictures..I was lucky enough that my husband did the reno on my kitchen..He did a great job, the only thing is that I wish my kitchen was much bigger..Oh well, can’t have everything can we..

@A..I hope whatever is happening with you right now, gets better..Unless you are always this bitter..

Voice of Reason

July 26th, 2010
4:35 pm

Hey A,

Don’t worry, I just called Congress. We’re officially banning HGTV until this economy gets back on track.

or all of the contractors at home

July 26th, 2010
4:51 pm

“Voice of Reason” – I agree banning HGTV, with one exception, check the date of the show on. I’m sure if that SOB was pre 2008, it failed and it didn’t sell. If it’s post 2008, at least you can learn from and see what you did right and what you did wrong. Good point though…:-)

For all of the contractors at home

July 26th, 2010
4:54 pm

Hit the send button by mistake…

“Voice of Reason” – I agree banning HGTV, with one exception, check the date of the show when it came on. I’m sure if that SOB was pre 2008, the project failed or the property didn’t sell. If it’s post 2008, at least you can learned something from it or you saw what you did right and what you did wrong.

Good point though…:-)


July 26th, 2010
5:55 pm

I rarely comment on this blog, but I am soooo excited to read about your renovation. Like many have expressed, it is exciting to take a peek into what others are accomplishing. Good luck, and please keep us posted.

@A – there are those who agree with you, but life can not come to a stand still because of a poor economy. Circumstances (money saved, deals from builders and suppliers, etc) have obviously made this the perfect time for this family to upgrade a part of the house that is very important to them and will add to the quality of their together times. I think we should all learn to be happy for the blessings others have received in the hopes that they will share our happiness when we are so blessed.


July 26th, 2010
6:29 pm

Really. It amazes me that people spend all this money on kitchens. For what? 50 years ago, people gathered in the living room or den. I liked that. Now, people want to gather in the kitchen. Not only is that plebian, it contributes to contamination of food surfaces and dishes by having everyone congregate in an area of food preparation. Keep the kitchen small and uninviting, as it should be. It is a place for cooks, servers and maids, not guests. Just put the thing in the basement where it belongs: out of sight.


July 26th, 2010
6:42 pm

A – Even though we are hard up right now, I enjoyed this column. My husband recently landed a new job but it doesn’t start til October and til then we are slowly drip, dripping our money away. It is a long time to wait and my husband has two Masters and speaks 5 languages. Last winter we had to spend a lot of money replacing a boiler and leaking heaters. We have four children and for two weeks we had no heat, hot water and when the boiler was being installed, no water for 4 days. Currently, our oven hasn’t worked for a year (The money spent on the heating was suppose to get us a new kitchen but heat was deemed more important in the winter and now food is more important than a new kitchen), the ceiling in our kitchen needs to be repaired because of a bathroom leak overhead, we have no sink in one of the upstairs bathrooms (source of the leak) and no shower in the other (another leak). We live in the UK because my husband is English and this year we may not be able to visit my family there in Georgia and the children will once again not be able to see their grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. We once went 6 years without visiting because we couldn’t afford it. I hope thats not the case this time as I promised my mom that we would visit as soon as possible. Then this afternoon, one of our neighbors children was mugged for his bike right outside his house and ours by a group of teenagers and now I am worried about letting the kids out to play even in our yard. …………. ON THE OTHER HAND, We love each other and the kids are amazing. I am currently trying to get my husband to use some of this time to start writing a book as he has some amazing ideas and I have just started painting again after not painting since I was a teen (I am decent already after a month if I do say so myself). We are also lucky to have the money to fall back on (we hope it will last :) ). The kids are smart, intellegent and giving, Both of the boys are advanced in math and science. The youngest was behind his classmates by two years at the end of last year because he had a hearing problem that was corrected. This year he made up those two years and is in the advanced class for his school year next year. We are just working on his spelling because he has a speech problem that is a result of his hearing problem and he can’t pronounce some words correctly which in turn affects his spelling. What an amazing little boy as he has never complained about it. So all in all, things are ok and I can enjoy reading about other people good news and share in their good fortune.


July 26th, 2010
10:00 pm

What wonderful attitudes from almost everyone. I also will love reading about the renovation, even though we cannot do ours yet. Why not drool over the new and fun? Who wants more drab and gloomy news, as several already said! Go JOHN!


July 26th, 2010
10:21 pm

So did you donate the old cabinets to Habitat for Humanity or anything… or just pitch them all into a landfill?


July 26th, 2010
10:37 pm

If you think your kitchen is so horrible (I think it looks wonderful BTW), you would dynamite mine. It is clean but that is all I can say for it. Cracks me up how all these people (HGTV wins the award) have a perfectly nice room and just curl their lips in derision.
I second the comment of why people should stay in the living room and den. I hate people coming into my kitchen and bringing all their germs and odors with them. They want to breathe all over the food prep.
Amazing little story but not at all unexpected.
Your standard of living is way over the top, my dear, and a very common attitude which is one of the reasons why we are having this economic attitude adjustment, uh, recession.
Cheryl in Newnan, GA

JIMBOB (aka James Robert)

July 26th, 2010
10:45 pm

I see nothing wrong with the article. John, you should consider getting a hot water spigot for the sink, I think insinkerator makes them. We use ours all the time.

A filtered water tap, and soap dispensing tap could be nice too. Holes will need to be cut for each.


July 26th, 2010
11:51 pm

Thank you, Kessler. I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.


July 27th, 2010
12:01 am

Wow! To all of the remarks -wow!

Rule .303

July 27th, 2010
11:12 am

John, I’ve contacted the editor’s desk. As an ex-Con, I’m offended that the AJC contributes so much coverage to crime. Really, you guys are making it hard on us. Also, since I’m fat, I’m offended that you take so much time to food and restaurant reviews. It’s offensive to us lazy fat people. On top of that I’m unemployed and a miserable failure, so please stop writing about your expensive kitchen remodeling — it’s offensive to us unemployed miserable failures. I’m about to contact Rodney Ho too, because since I don’t have cable TV, I think he should stop writing about TV and entertainment. Jim Galloway should stop covering politics because I once ran for city dog catcher and got CRUSHED in a landslide, so for all of us failed politicians, it’s just offensive to have to pickup the paper and read about the Handel/Deal runoff…it’s just not fair. Oh, and the sports section should be shut down seeing that I couldn’t even walk a 1/4 mile without being winded, so it’s really insulting to have to read about the Tour de France…

One miserable malcontent.

John Kessler

July 27th, 2010
11:30 am

I’m heartened that more wit than vitriol is going into these comments. And I’m glad that we’ve all stopped to think about whether or not it’s in good taste to write about a fairly (though far from excessively) expensive kitchen remodel in these times. But let’s get back to the subject at hand.

First, we have a good friend who remodels homes (too high end for us), and I asked him about donating the cabinetry to charity. He told me there’s a glut of it in warehouses — big home remodeling boom followed by housing bust — and ours was of poor enough quality that it wouldn’t be of any use.

Also, I know the kitchen doesn’t look half bad in the before picture, but just imagine to the left is a thin corridor with a door to the deck and five large bar chairs where no one wanted to be. Around to the right is the Southern exposure, blocked by a too-large pantry, so on the brightest day the kitchen was dark and gloomy. And I did mention the grouted tile countertops that had seen a decade of chicken-breading projects. I may not have mentioned the cracked tile floor, the three-burner range and other special features.

Nor did I mention the fact that the poor level of finish in the kitchen was a detriment when we once tried to sell the house.

Rule .303

July 27th, 2010
11:56 am

I put in granite countertops a couple of years ago and tried to donate my white cast iron sink to Habitat for Humanity and to a couple of other similar organizations and no one would touch it for the same reason. I ended up just selling it on Craigslist.

Anyway, no one should be ashamed for being successful and actually having some disposable income.

Oh, and more pics please :)

[...] Atlanta Journal Constitution (blog) [...]

The Nerve

July 27th, 2010
2:23 pm

I would give up most of my kitchen gadgets for a vent over the stove that was powerful enough to suck all the air out of the room. All I have is one of those horrid microwave over the stove top deals that sucks up the air and grease….to just blows it out the top of the microwave into room. What’s the point? HATE it. Oh well…one day I’ll have one of those…and a wood burning pizza oven.


July 27th, 2010
2:41 pm

Well, for what it’s worth A, many people are renovating rather than “upgrading” to bigger/newer houses.

There’s also something to be said about maintaining your housing value. If you’re considering selling in the next five or so years, you probably want to renovate the hot areas that will turn away potential buyers. While not everyone may consider a man-cave or spa quality master bath as priorities, most people consider kitchens to be vital.


July 29th, 2010
2:09 pm

where’s the “after” picture??? Am I missing something here?

[...] I wrote previously, the open floor plan of our former kitchen invited everyone to come and congregate between the [...]

Left Wing

July 30th, 2010
5:00 pm

I never comment but I really enjoyed this article. Good work! Keep us posted!

Mr. Skill

August 7th, 2010
12:50 pm

yes, please take your time when planing home Improvements, write all your plans on a piece of paper, before calling a home improvement and renovation team.