Entertaining Kitchen Design

Ed. Note: Merrily Jackson’s dearest, her husband Jim Jackson, recently passed away. Patricia O’Dell has stepped in to pen Entertaining IN KC this month.

In Patricia O’Dell’s kitchen, open shelves, honed marble countertops, classic cabinet fronts, and a beamed ceiling work together to make a small kitchen that works big. Photos by Aaron Leimkuehler

One of the biggest decisions in whether to move houses may be related to the state of your kitchen. Kitchen renovations are daunting and expensive projects. Unlike a dinner dish gone bad, missteps in a kitchen renovation are likely at least semi-permanent. Unless you have the luxury of creating a pantry, much of your storage will be in kitchen cabinets or on shelves. It’s an unfortunate mistake if you’re only thinking about everyday dishes and glassware, but overlook platters, pitchers, and ice buckets, because once your renovation is complete, you’re going to want to celebrate—often.

Know Yourself
When considering storage, the place to begin is with how you entertain and how often. If you’re in silk, stilettos, and pearls regularly, you may need space for silver platters, four types of stemware, and certainly an accessible spot to chill bubbles. If you’re purely backyard and blue jeans, it’s a good idea to have a place for large platters, be they pewter or melamine, and a large tray—I’m thinking galvanized steel or rattan—for flatware and napkins. Some of these things need storage space that may be deeper than standard-size shelves or cabinets.

The other thing I’d like to mention is that, if you’re reading an entertaining column, you may not be able to resist the perfect low vase, the fourth set of salad servers (because you only had three and two of those were wood and one was pewter and the black iron ones would be perfect for the graduation barbecue). So, it’s important to be honest with yourself about what kind of storage you need and how much of it actually has to be in the kitchen.

Plan Accordingly
My husband and I redid our kitchen during a global pandemic, with our five children coming and going. Our house in Brookside was built in 1914, and the kitchen is an old porch. The space is 14 feet by 8 feet. While one of my real estate friends asked, “Don’t you want to just blow out the back of the house?” we didn’t. So, we had to plan carefully.

The existing kitchen had upper cabinets, and a really interesting corner range situation, which created a total of about 12 square feet of wasted space. I’m not certain how the pantry came to be, but it was likely an old closet, which meant that its door and the outside entrance were diagonal from one another and could not be open at the same time. The walls were acid green when I bought the house, and I’d painted them charcoal in an effort to do—something. It was basically a poorly laid-out cave.

In addition, the ceiling was about two feet lower than the other ceilings in the house. We’d done some investigation and determined that we could raise them. Ultimately, this was the only construction piece of the project.

Define Priorities
Before we met with the designer, we’d decided open shelving for everyday plate and glass storage would be both convenient and make the space seem bigger. I was 100 percent-I’m-not-going-to-budge committed to a white kitchen. Also, I wanted storage for as many things as possible to keep the countertops bare. Fortunately, my husband was amenable to all this. He’s a chef, and his only real priority was the BTUs on the range.

We did create one indulgence. We really wanted a dry bar in the kitchen, and the pantry was the obvious place to put it. We’ve both collected glasses for every occasion and cocktail shakers, spoons, stirs, and bottle openers. We wanted them to have their own home, and we liked the idea of a somewhat ceremonial spot to fix a drink at the end of the day. The act is physical punctuation.

With all this information in hand, we met with a kitchen designer and after some minor tweaking, we were off to the races (and a fair amount of carry out).

Open shelving in the kitchen and the dry bar works well for us. It did create more visual space and, not to exaggerate the energy it takes to open a cabinet door, it feels easier. Despite its size, it’s still the place everyone ends up when we entertain.

Trust the Experts
I did not appreciate the wisdom of our cabinet fabricators, who suggested deep drawers under the dry bar. But this provides great storage for thicker cutting boards, large bowls, a large-ish collection of Weck jars, and other food storage. The two small top drawers conveniently hold a collection of wine and bottle openers, a set of vintage silver cocktail stirs and linen cocktail napkins. You know, essentials.

The built-in dividers for flatware and kitchen towels did not seem necessary, but in the day-to-day use of the kitchen, they provide some civility for one of us (me) who is incredibly messy. (This can be witnessed in the drawer holding Weck jars and food storage.)

Follow Your Instincts
But one of the things that I love, I barely see. I really love clean countertops. I do not need decorative flour and sugar containers, and my beloved Kitchen Aid is stored on the landing to the basement. That the spice and cooking utensil storage is in a slide-out cabinet by the range delights me every single time I pull it open.

We did have one last minute change. I ran across an image that I’ve saved ten years ago or more of a wet bar designed by Carrier and Co. in New York that had the most charming hanging pendant light. We had small inset ceiling lights planned for the space already, and they were necessary. This change was somewhat—well, entirely—decorative. After an initial furrowed brow, my husband agreed.

It was a very good idea.

Add a Dash of Pizazz

The recipe for a well-stocked bar goes beyond booze. As with all things related to entertaining, presentation matters.

The Well-Stocked Bar
2-102 servings

When my oldest two sons turned 21 years old, I gave them pretty hefty collections of vintage barware for their birthdays. I’ve hunted and gathered a good bit of barware myself, and love setting up the bar. But it doesn’t need to be elaborate. Below is everything you need to entertain crowds large and small, planned and impromptu, civilized and rowdy.

  • Ice Bucket
  • Tongs or large spoon
  • Booze
  • Glasses
  • Shakers
  • Stirs
  • Peeler
  • Stainless Steel Picks
  • More glasses

If you’re entertaining a crowd, by which I mean more than four people, and you don’t have a built-in ice maker, have twice as much ice as you think you need. You can make ahead and stockpile or pick up a bag. It’s inexpensive, and while I hate waste, if you end up with ice you don’t need—it’s just water. That said, put the ice in a pleasing bucket or bowl with tongs or a large spoon for filling the glasses.

In general, I have a backup bottle of every spirit on hand if I’m entertaining a large crowd. As I’m not 22 years old, I don’t use handles of alcohol. Regular, and preferably handsome, bottles look better and don’t overwhelm the bar.

You can get by with a single style of glass. I probably wouldn’t, because I love barware and a glass for every occasion is part of the fun. That said, the CB2 Marta double old-fashioned glass is a workhorse. It’s perfect for everything from beer to wine to a single-malt Scotch and beyond. Also, it’s ridiculously inexpensive, so you can have dozens. In addition, I like having coupes on hand. It’s a lovely presentation for shaken cocktails and Champagne.

An attractive cocktail shaker is a staple. You can find them in glass, chrome, and sterling, and everything in between. If you don’t have one, you can’t ask if someone wants their martini shaken or stirred, and that would be a shame.

Unless you’re drinking something straight up, it’s likely your drink will have a garnish. Citrus garnishes will require a sharp knife or peeler. Lemons or limes are happy to be independent, but a maraschino cherry is better off on a pick, preferably stainless steel. (Speaking of cherries, do try Luxardo, which are soaked in Luxardo marasca cherry syrup—and are 100 percent delicious and resemble the maraschino cherries from your childhood, not at all.)

My only other suggestion is to have good spirits, and I mean yours. If you’re nervous or fretting or annoyed with your co-host for showing up five minutes before the event and after the work—let it go. The key ingredient to any party is a relaxed and happy host. Cheers!

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