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Making the Perfect Kitchen

Or, the Trouble With Glancey


What price perfection? For those of us in the United States, $40, or in Canada, $60. That's what Clarkson Potter is charging for the book "Living and Eating," a "recipe for a simple, perfect lifestyle" by British authors John Pawson and Annie Bell.

Pawson is a modern architect known in London for his designs of minimalist restaurants with Far Eastern themes. Bell is a food writer with the Independent newspaper. As the book's many photographs reveal, they are attractive people. Pawson has a beautiful home and Bell produces exquisite-looking food. In this new book they endeavor to impart their style to us.

Traditionally, the best way to "read" a cookbook is by cooking a dish or two and seeing how they turn out. But in my case, the quest for style came before food. Perhaps it was a New Year's impulse. Maybe it was a case of deep-seated longing. But just once, just for a moment, I wanted a shot at perfection.

Pawson and Bell begin their book by exhorting us to clear the clutter: "Get rid of everything which is unnecessary and distracting and you are left with what actually matters," they say. In the book, only a fruit bowl adorns the Italian stone counter of John Pawson's kitchen. As I surveyed my kitchen, I was sure that the fruit bowl was in there somewhere. But that is not to say the things obscuring it did not matter, I argued to myself.

As I scanned the room, I ran through a defensive mental inventory of my clutter. The stock pot matters, I thought. It lives on the stove. Next to the stove, the chopping board matters. So do mustard pots filled with spoons and spatulas, a scale that also holds pot-holders and dish-towels, the salt dish, pepper grinder, a 1970s tray from Habitat with an African motif, knife blocks and a fat jar.

Over on the main run of counter surrounding the kitchen sink, there was a certain jumble, yes, but you just had to know the system. To the right of the sink go keys, pocket junk, parking tickets, newspapers and bicycle helmet. Aha! There was the fruit bowl, under the newspapers.

Above it, the window ledge was lined with milk bottles holding salvia cuttings, bags of poppy seeds, half of a perfectly useable nutmeg, some spare change, some safety pins, some wildflower seeds collected on a seaside walk in Pt. Reyes and some ripening--whoops, rotten--cherry tomatoes.

Next to the sink, there was the chipped pink flower pot with the sponges, the bottle of dishwashing liquid, the hand soap, the moisturizer and, often as not, a bottle of Ironite plant food. Not pretty, maybe, but if you wanted clean dishes, moisturized hands and green plants, they all mattered.

Within the sink, the main basin was empty and shone. There's perfection for you, I thought. A plastic compost bucket with vegetable trimmings resided in the smaller basin. It was lidded. The top was wiped. It didn't smell.

But it couldn't be accused of design merit. I turned to page 28 and looked under "Waste Disposal." Garbage disposals are noisy, the authors complain. "There is something unnatural about these conveniences--perhaps it is the nature of the waste they ingest. A conscientious country dweller would simply trail out to the compost heap."

Hmm, I thought. Do country folks in Britain really "trail out to the compost heap" every time they have a potato peel, orange rind or coffee grind? Here in downtown Los Angeles, we need buckets in our sinks and go out to the heap when a) it's light outside and b) the bucket's full.

But it was not the moment to get bogged down with cultural differences involving the disposal of lettuce bottoms and apple cores. My eye moved on with the clutter inventory. To the left of the bucket, there was another basic necessity: the dish-drainer, where the cast-iron frying pan lives when it's not being used, along with a coffee mug, a coffee pot and most of my knives.

Then, as the counter took another sharp left out into the room, expanding into something of a breakfast bar-cum-work station, there was the jug used to measure out bird seed. Total necessity. Two watering cans, one for filling the dog bowl, the other to, well, keep it company. The gym bag went there because it held a wet bathing suit that would fester if I put it anywhere else and forgot to remove the suit. The dog food dish was there because it was half full of kibble left behind by a thin terrier, then put out of reach of a waddling Lab. The muddy tennis balls belonged to the Lab.

This, I insisted to myself, was not a messy kitchen. Granted, the muddy tennis balls shouldn't be on the counter. I put them in their rightful home, the bread drawer, and stood back to regard my favorite room.

It still was not perfection.

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