JUDY and Dan Amsler have a new kitchen and a million questions. Some are simple: Where's the coldest place to store sea bass in a Sub-Zero? Others are as perplexing as a calculus quiz: How fast does heat dissipate from a three-ply pan on a 15,000-BTU gas range?
"I haven't had time to read the manuals," Judy confesses a week after her kitchen remodel was completed and the day she and Dan are to host their book group for a four-course dinner in their Hancock Park home.
"It's not too late to order takeout," Dan jokes as Judy forces a smile.
With sophisticated, professional-quality appliances and high-design gizmos going into residential kitchens, many would-be home chefs haven't a clue how to operate the latest technology. The infrequent cook who wants to make a Thanksgiving turkey might stare blankly at the keypad and wonder: Convection, radiant, bake, roast, speed-cook or steam?
Appliances are smarter and supercharged. One drawer refrigerator converts to a freezer and back to a refrigerator again -- if you know how to program it. Some ovens now can be controlled via voice command or remote control, which isn't much help for those who haven't yet figured out how to program their TiVo. And those hulking cooktops from restaurant suppliers such as Viking? Occasional home cooks learn the hard way that big burners need to be reined in when simply simmering a sauce.
Top-of-the-line appliances can add at least $20,000 to the price of the average kitchen remodel, which according to Remodeling magazine runs about $60,000 when you add in new cabinets, countertops, flooring, lighting and other fixtures.
The funny thing is, industry experts say, many of those $5,000 ranges won't be put to the test too often.
"People are spending less time cooking in kitchens but more money remodeling them because they want the best to impress their neighbors," says Mark Connelly, senior director of appliances and home improvement for Consumer Reports.
Connelly, a no-nonsense guy who's been testing kitchen appliances for 18 years, says manufacturers are adding unnecessary options to differentiate themselves. TVs are embedded in refrigerators, toasters have convection-oven modes, faucets come with hands-free functions. "There are sanitary reasons for having one in an airport bathroom but not in your kitchen," he says.
And those Starbucks-style coffee machines?
"You can spend $15 on a drip coffee maker or thousands on a fancy coffee maker," he says, "and they both make a good cup of coffee -- if you use quality coffee."
As kitchen appliances become more complex, Connelly says, owners look for simple ways to use them.
"People spending a lot on an appliance want as many buttons as possible to justify the cost," he says, "but most of the time they're using the same selection as on their old appliance."
THE Amslers took a different approach to understanding their new $100,000 kitchen. They got help.
"Look at this man go," Dan says while watching former chef and veteran kitchen designer Donald Silvers slice up a cucumber whip-fast with his French knife. Silvers designed the Amslers' 9-foot-by-20-foot kitchen for a flat fee -- $5,000 plus the cost of drawings -- that includes a novel service: He cooks dinner with the new equipment for as many guests as the homeowners can fit around their dining table.
The point: Watch and learn.
On this Saturday night, Silvers is stationed at the prep area. At his fingertips is everything needed to make a shrimp appetizer with white wine and truffle oil, followed by a jicama salad, Chilean sea bass and a cheese course.
"There are a lot of people who don't cook this way," says Silvers, whose Los Angeles company is called Kitchen Design With Cooking in Mind. "But there are others who would like to and can't because they're limited by their kitchen's poor arrangement."
He pulls a pan of roasted tomatoes straight from the hot DCS oven and sets it on the granite countertop. Judy shrieks.
"Can you do that?" she asks.
Silvers reminds her that granite is stone and can take the heat.
Now it's time to see if the Amslers can.
Judy is put to work sautéing cucumbers for the mushroom-and-pine nut lentils. Dan's across the way, washing bowls and wooden spoons as they pile up. His station has the largest sink, a 28-inch-wide stainless, as well as a Miele dishwasher and storage for silverware and dishes.
Whether a kitchen is being used to make dinner for 12 or breakfast for one, it should have separate stations for preparing food, cooking, serving and cleaning up. Silvers has used this concept for the last 30 years, whether consulting on dinky apartment spaces or the Spelling mansion's 4,000-square-foot kitchen and pantry in Holmby Hills. There, a U-shaped, 22-foot-long island is long enough to prepare 750 dinners.
"The concept to provide work areas is the same for all kitchens," Silvers says, "only the scale changes."