La mia cucina

La mia cucina (alla casa di Silvestro in Lecce, Italia). See Il Castello, to see and visit our other kitchen, at the castle, south of Lecce.

If you travel down the length of Italy, all the way down to the stunningly beautiful blond-stoned city of Lecce, there is a kitchen that I love more than any other. It’s extension of my nervous system, the physical rendering of how my brain works.

It wasn’t always beautiful. It fact, when first looking at the house, my mind failed to envision anything except squalor. The property agent showed me the place with a flash light in late afternoon in the middle of winter. It stank. Things scurried in dark corners. Never a good sign- with no running water- parts of the floor were still flooded. Not only was there no electricity but most rooms weren’t even wired. Never had been. Not only were there no utilities, even the faucets and knobs had been removed.

I continued looking but I asked to see the place again, if only to give myself a sense of momentum in my fruitless search. And then again three weeks later, the way you contemplate week-old leftovers in the refrigerator, as if they someone magically improved rather than further degraded.

Then, one night in a rented apartment across town I dreamed I was cooking. My free hand spun towards a knife and it was right where it should have been. I grabbed down a saute pan, right from the hook. I rested a colander in the stone sink. Edith Piaf drifted through the air. As did the smell of onions sauteing in good green olive oil. A massive herb garden called to me from just outside the kitchen door. It was such a vivid dream that I couldn’t shake it for the rest of the next day.  Each night that winter while drifting off, I encouraged my mind to recall the room again, the feeling of being in such a place. Each night I added little touches. A ready crock of wooden spoons always within reach. A handy place to keep cooking wine, good enough to drink. Pretty enamel pots, groaning to be used.

The agent huffed as we entered the house, yet again.

I sat on an abandoned wooden crate and stared at the walls for an hour, only this time….slowly, my subconscious became my conscience and I began to slowly…..slowly… see that this had been the place I had been dreaming about.

It was the way a diamond miner might not be able to explain it, he just knows to stop digging.

Over the course of a year, I worked very hard at converting the stable into my kitchen, forever careful not to convert it such much that I’d lose that sense of that it was, the formal stable for an aristocratic palace (which is now the rest of the school: a cookbook library and projection room, a smaller, secondary kitchen, a room dedicated to wine, a dinning room, a living room, etc).

I have never had any plastering or construction training whatsoever but with a stack of books and a trusted friend at a hardware store, I painted, sanded and restored, until the room around me slowly started to match that feeling I revisited each night the previous winter.

First-timers into the room often gasp or clap or even coo but for me the real beauty of the kitchen is its pragmatism: folks from all over the world enter my kitchen all the time and feel right at home, not an easy task to accomplish. (There is powerful psychology at play too. Consider how you feel about someone when you enter his or her kitchen. It is messy? Is is never used? Is it all toys and gadgets, that in the end produce nothing? Is it so sterile that it feels clinical. Or is the kind of place that welcomes you in, suggesting community, inclusiveness, that food is something we do together, ‘hey, grab a knife and help me with these carrots’. Room and person become one and the same.)

One of the ways I did this by putting everything on in the open, both as a way to make everything instantly accessible, but too, to convey a certain spirit, of openness, conviviality and that sort of country simplicity, where decorating is not something you put around your things, but your things themselves.

My staff and I labeled the entire room at one point, as many of our guests are in the process of learning Italian. It seems silly, but once you see this photograph, you’ll never forget that the word ‘scale’ is ‘bilancia’ in Italian, so powerful the association.

I built two marble tables, one for making pasta- and as general work table- the other as a 10 burner stove top. The boys at the marble yard just blinked at me when I requested a series of slits cut into the granite. Perfect blade protectors, the tables are now such a part of my life that I can’t imagine not working with them every day.

Now, there next to the knives I bought as a student during a trip to Germany reside the pots I bought in France, the year afterward. My grandmother’s colanders hang besides the ones I bought in Catalunya and then carried in a bag on my lap for the better part of a day. A saute pan that cost me a lot, back when I had so little.

A kitchen gypsy no more, now as I enter the kitchen and flip on the light and put on some music, I pour myself a tiny glass of red and throw open the doors to the herb garden, it always occurs to me that there is no place I’d rather be.