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Kitchen accomplished

There's an obvious center of gravity in Paula Wolfert's house. The Mediterranean food expert was drawn to Sonoma as a strangely natural place to build her ideal cooking space.

November 03, 2005|Charles Perry | Times Staff Writer

Sonoma, Calif. — SO this is where cookbook author Paula Wolfert has wound up: not somewhere in the Mediterranean but outside Sonoma. And not among the vineyards, either, but way, way out in the hills, where nothing edible grows, nothing but scrub and live oak.

To make it odder, Wolfert remains as indelibly Brooklynite in her attitudes as in her accent, so she still doesn't drive, despite having lived in California for 11 years. One of the first things she asks a guest, with her trademark disarming grin, is, "Would you mind just driving back up to the main road to check our mailbox?"

It's a house built in the woodsy, faintly Hobbity style that emanated from Marin County and Big Sur in the '60s, complete with oak tree branches growing up through holes in the pool deck. "Feels like a treehouse, doesn't it?" Wolfert marvels as she leads a tour.

At first glance, the dominant feature here seems to be the dramatic living room, with its two-story picture windows looking out on a little valley that's part of the property. Needless to say, though, the real center of gravity in this house is the kitchen, up in the loft that overlooks the living room.

It's a spacious kitchen, as you'd expect, lavishly stocked with cupboards and drawers (not that Wolfert isn't in serious danger of outgrowing all available storage space in the house). In the middle stands a huge island tiled with tumbled marble. On one wall, shelves of Mediterranean clay cookware reach to the ceiling. Blue-tiled counters extend almost all the way around the room.

It's also, let's say, an uncliched sort of space. Between its slanting ceiling and a basically diamond-shaped floor plan, the kitchen is full of odd sharp angles, left over from the original design of the house. (That must be why the island in the middle of the room ended up being built with six sides.)

There's a theatrical quality to this kitchen, underlined by the fact that it's completely open on one side to the dining area and the living room below it. Think of a restaurant display kitchen with just a touch of "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari."

Since the late 1950s, Wolfert has had kitchens in Paris, Morocco, New York, San Francisco and Connecticut (where she spent four accident-plagued years in what she suspects was a haunted house). By now, she's spent nine years here in Sonoma -- longer than she's lived anywhere except for Paris.

Because she likes it. "This place was something I deserved," she says, "after all the little, tiny kitchens I've slaved in over the years." In addition to all the space, she likes the sense of unspoiled nature and the bohemian tenor of her neighbors.

She came to the house in a New Yorker's sort of way: reading a New York Times story about a house in the area in which the homeowners used bookcases as decoration. "We'd moved out West for space in the first place," she says. "All our books were shoving us out of our home."

She and her husband, Bill Bayer, went to meet them and fell in love with the idea of a neighborhood where people would cover all their walls with bookcases. When they learned there was another house for sale nearby, in a New York/Northern California minute they sold off two properties they owned on the East Coast and moved up into these hills.

The main thing they did, after putting in lots of bookcases (a guest bedroom became a library), was create a new kitchen.

"When we got the house," Wolfert says, "there was just a narrow galley kitchen and a breakfast room here. We tore it all out."

San Francisco architect John Powers says: "She wanted volume, above all. We took a back wall out. And she wanted it very open, but with a sense of warmth. She is as authentic as her food, and the kitchen reflects her, sensuous and tactile."

Wolfert, the author of titles such as "Couscous and Other Good Food From Morocco," "The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean" and "Mediterranean Grains and Greens," wanted to have an Old World cooking hearth, so the kitchen has a wood-burning fireplace at waist level, outlined with tiles that suggest red brick.

"I cook in the hearth all the time too," Wolfert says. A pile of clay pots with soot-stained bottoms vouches for that.

Even her gas oven has earthy Mediterranean capabilities, thanks to one of those stoneware inserts that foodies were keen on a couple of years ago to make their home ovens cook more like brick ovens. "It really works," she says.

One thing Wolfert does not have is the sort of high-powered restaurant range that every Westside foodie longs to have. As a cookbook writer, she points out, she has to make her recipes usable in the ordinary home kitchen. So she's kept the Thermador range and convection oven the house came with.

Just then the phone rings. "It's from Tunisia," she apologizes, "so I have to take it." A Tunisian chef is coming to visit, it seems.

Wolfert is the sort of cook who likes having big, big dinner parties, so she has two dishwashers and a super-sized stainless steel sink.

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