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Architecture General

The Kitchen

A journey through time-and the homes of Julia Child, Georgia O'Keeffe, Elvis Presley and many others-in search of the perfect design

by (author) John Ota

Random House Canada
Initial publish date
Feb 2020
General, Decorating, Remodeling & Renovation
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Feb 2020
    List Price

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One man's quest to seek out--and be inspired by--the great historic kitchens of Canada and the USA.

John Ota was a man on a mission--to put together the perfect kitchen. He and his wife had been making do with a room that was frankly no great advertisement for John's architectural expertise. It just about did the job but for a room that's supposed to be the beating heart of a home and a joy to cook in, the Otas' left a lot to be desired. And so John set out on a quest across North America, exploring examples of excellent designs throughout history, to learn from them and apply their lessons to his own restoration. Along the way, he learned about the origins and evolution of the kitchen, its architecture and its appliances. He cooked, with expert instruction. And he learned too about the homes and their occupants, who range from pilgrims to President Thomas Jefferson, from turn of the century tenement dwellers to 21st century Vancouver idealists, from Julia Child to Georgia O'Keeffe, and from Elvis Presley to Louis Armstrong.

John Ota has a refreshingly upbeat approach and a hunger for knowledge (and indeed for food). His energy and enthusiasm are contagious, and his insights of lasting value. Illustrated throughout, with photographs and also with drawings by the author, this is a book for homeowners, home makers, interior designers, cooks, armchair historians, and for anyone who--like John Ota before them--is looking for inspiration for a renovation.

About the author

Contributor Notes

John Ota has been involved with architecture and design since 1978. He has written freelance articles for the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, Azure Magazine, Canadian House and Home and Canadian Architect. He has worked in architecture offices in Toronto, New York and Vancouver and has degrees from the School of Architecture at Columbia University and the University of British Columbia.

John has chaired the awards commitee of the Ontario Association of Architects. He has served as a Board Member on the Toronto Historical Board and has worked at the Ontario Ministry of Culture as the government lead on the Renaissance ROM project, the AGO Transformation project and the Revitalization of Ontario Place. In 2004, he was the lead curator on an exhibition called "Living Spaces, 21 contemporary Canadian houses" that toured Canada. John has acted as a guest critic at the Ryerson University School of Architecture and as an advisor to the Architecture Gallery at Harbourfront Centre in Toronto.

Excerpt: The Kitchen: A journey through time-and the homes of Julia Child, Georgia O'Keeffe, Elvis Presley and many others-in search of the perfect design (by (author) John Ota)

My love for kitchens began at an early age. My happiest childhood memories are of spending time in the kitchen in our family home. I grew up in a working-class neighbourhood in Toronto. My dad built boats and my mom was a high school art teacher. We were not wealthy, but I never felt poor, and the shelves of the refrigerator always groaned from the weight of stews, knishes, dai baos, sushi, coq au vin and lasagnas. We loved to eat. My two younger brothers and I ate so continuously that my dad used to watch in horror as his paycheque was devoured before his eyes.

The kitchen was the hub of the house. All breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks were consumed there. But almost more important than the meals, it was also the place of family discussions, talks about holiday plans, hockey games, report cards, politics, hosting neighbours and relatives and my mom’s daily report about her teaching day.

Our kitchen was the opposite of today’s sleek white ideal. It was semi-organized chaos surrounded by loud orange-and-green wallpaper. Flour, sugar, tea and coffee in scratched-up canisters held together with masking tape out on counters; salt, pepper, sugar in open plastic cups by the stove; bottles of olive oil and vinegar everywhere; knives, can openers, bottle openers, rice cooker within easy reach; mountains of cookbooks stacked against the walls. It was a kitchen for cooking in, not for being photographed.

From my architecture and historic preservation studies, and later at work, I found that most people did not share my reverence for the kitchen. Most would ooh and aah over the elaborate architectural details elsewhere in historic houses. I enjoyed those too, but I was always more drawn to the room others ignored. When I told colleagues about my obsession, they would tilt their heads and look at me strangely, as if to say, “You’re not a real preservationist.” To most of them, historical preservation was about the entrance halls, palm rooms and parlours.

I’ve worked in the field of architecture for over forty years, as a writer, designer, historic preservationist and curator, so people often want to talk to me about their house renovations. The first question I ask them is, “What is your perfect kitchen?” It’s the ice breaker. The kitchen is the subject of everyone’s strongest, truest opinions. Without exception, when asked about the kitchen, people express their wants, visions and wish lists to me.

“I’d love a long, sweeping island.”

“I need more counter space.”

“A big stainless steel refrigerator would be wonderful.”

Their real passion is not for the living room or the bathroom or the dining room. Renovations begin in and flow from the kitchen, because it is the centre of everything that happens in the house.

Each of us has a vision of the perfect kitchen. I have designed, written about and fallen in love with small and large kitchens, old and new kitchens, with big budgets and small, for clients and for friends. And I have met people with unique ideas for the perfect kitchen.

In one project, all the building materials, appliances and floor plans were considered with the family dog in mind. I understood. I was a dog in my previous life. On another high-end project, the client specified mirrored tile for the backsplash. When I commented that the mirrored tile might be a problem to keep clean during cooking, she shrugged and replied, “So who cooks?”

Well, I do. Cooking—and eating—are among my greatest pleasures.

I make no great claims for myself as a cook. I mostly rustle up straightforward roasts, soups and salads. But I also love experimenting in unfamiliar (to me) culinary areas (currently, Japanese delicacies like grilled sea bream with miso). My favourite place to be is the kitchen. To me, the kitchen is not just the most important room in my house. It is the centre of my life.

In 2005, my wife, Franny, and I built our own house in a contemporary style. At the time, to control costs, we held back on some nice things for the kitchen. But today our lives have changed. Most evenings we cook at home, our entertaining has happily increased, and although I do most of the cooking, Franny has been doing more.

With both of us spending more time around food, Franny wants to renovate the kitchen. It’s a cramped and crowded space for two people. And while I’ve grown accustomed to its inadequacies, Franny views the room with the critical eye of the newly converted.

It’s awkwardly laid out, she says. Its constituent parts are “not in the right place.”

Let’s face it—my wife hates the kitchen.

I find this disturbing, because I try to keep my wife happy.

And so I embarked on a quest. I decided to explore examples of excellent kitchen designs from throughout North American history in order to learn from them so I could improve our own. I would delve into the origins of the kitchen and examine how its architecture evolved in response to new appliances, cooking methods and the shift from cooking being done by invisible servants in separate buildings to its being the one activity that draws the family together.

And because I wanted to do more than just put together different elements from great kitchens, I began my quest by distilling a raison d’être.

I wrote down the three things I wanted my perfect kitchen to do:

Stimulate creativity: Sriracha, native wild rice, dandelion greens—every time I turn around I want to explore another new ingredient. I need updated kitchen equipment, like a bigger kitchen fan to draw away smoke so that I can blacken catfish. We would experiment more with elaborate dishes like croquembouche if we had laid out our counter more efficiently. I’d love for the kitchento stoke our cooking passion.

Make cooking easier: When we entertain guests we do our best to make sure they have fun. But if the cooking is easier while we’re in the kitchen, we’ll have more fun too.

Encourage celebration: I would love a kitchen that brings people together—laugh, eat, cook, share, connect with memories, feelings and our past. My mom had a cluttered kitchen and more than good food came out of it. I want a kitchen floor we can dance on.

This book and the kitchen it will inspire are gifts to my wife. But this book is also for everyone who loves cooking and eating and wants a better understanding of their kitchen. Or, indeed, wants a better kitchen.

Everybody has something that turns their crank, and while I am honoured to have worked on a variety of building types in my life, including sports domes, museums, art galleries, churches, courthouses and the tiki bar of a pool cabana, my heart has always been in the kitchen.

I especially like historic kitchens. Sometimes, as I walk around them looking at the appliances, the implements, the knick-knacks, I can almost hear the past occupants speaking to me down the centuries.

I love talking to people about their kitchens—the type of sink they chose, the stove, the fridge, the flooring, how they entertain. Most of all, I love talking to people about what they make to eat in there.

Oh, well. I can’t help it. I love kitchens. And I love my wife.

I went in search of our perfect kitchen.

Editorial Reviews

“In The Kitchen, John Ota celebrates the room that is the heart of every home. As a designer dedicated to minimalism, Ota’s journey challenges him to rethink what’s important. From the warm memories of his mother’s lovingly chaotic cooking space to the premeditated clutter of Julia Child’s iconic kitchen, he digs deep to explore how our idea of the room has evolved; what it has been and what it will become. Impeccably researched and beautifully written, there is no other book I know of that is quite like it.” Bonnie Stern

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