Sunday, September 27, 2020

The Kitchen by John Ota


A couple of months ago, my brother Colin sent me The Kitchen, by John Ota, a fellow Torontonian who took part in a U of T webinar on "The Evolution of the Kitchen." Knowing that I like to cook, eat, and spend time in kitchens, Colin figured I would like the book, and I did!

I read it slowly, sometimes only a chapter at a time, in between other books, but that is one of my favorite ways to read non-fiction.

The premise of the book is that John and his wife are designing their dream kitchen and so John visits a number of kitchens in the U.S. and Canada to get ideas on functionality, décor, esthetics, and ergonomics. Each chapter focuses on one particular kitchen from a particular time period and includes a cooking session, usually in the actual kitchen being profiled, as well as an annotated layout and recipe of what John and the resident food expert made.

Here are the kitchens John visited:

Pilgrim Kitchen - Plymouth, MA (1627) - I would love to visit this kitchen, and John talked a lot about comfort food. Life was hard in Plymouth Colony, and cooking was challenging but the recipes yielded good, hearty food.

Thomas Jefferson Kitchen at Monticello - VA (1809) - another place that is on my short list to visit. The kitchen, staffed by slaves, and the food prepared there reflected Jefferson's passion for innovation in horticulture and architecture.

Hermann-Grima House Kitchen, New Orleans (1831) - this kitchen in the French Quarter focused on Creole recipes, but the French Toast that John and his guide cook up sounds divine.

Point Ellice House Kitchen, Victoria, BC (1890) - we're planning a trip to WA/BC next September and I have already added this house to our itinerary. A lot of the focus here was on the kind of gracious living that comes from having a staff of servants, think Downton Abbey. Interestingly, the dish that John made in this kitchen was Hindoostanee Curry. Indian dishes became popular in Canada during the second half of the nineteenth century when most of India came under British rule.

Levine Tenement Kitchen, NYC (1897) - I visited the Tenement Museum on the lower east side of NYC a few years ago, and toured some of the apartments. The recipe for this kitchen is matzo ball soup, and it does sound delicious!

Gamble House Kitchen, Pasadena, CA (1909) - another site that I've also visited. We went for the Arts and Crafts architecture and really enjoyed touring the house, but I don't know that the kitchen was included in the tour. I mostly remember how dark it was inside with all that wood and minimal artificial lighting. John helped prepare pinwheel sandwiches and "Automobile" salad for a picnic. 

Spadina House Kitchen, Toronto (1920) - another Victorian house, decked out for Christmas when John visited, and the shortbread he makes with a 90-year old guide sounds heavenly.

Georgia O'Keefe Kitchen, Abiquiu, NM (1949) - I love the Southwest and the Santa Fe and Taos areas, but I've never visited Abiquiu. This chapter is all about garden-fresh produce and living close to the earth. Georgia liked good food and taught her cooks how to cook what she liked. John attended a Georgia O'Keefe-inspired cooking class at the Santa Fe School of Cooking. This is now on my list of things to do on our next trip to Santa Fe!

Frank Lloyd Kitchen at Kentuck Knob, Mill Run, PA (1956) - what could be more apt than to prepare a Baked Alaska in a mid-century modern kitchen? I've never actually had Baked Alaska, but I think I need to figure out how to try one. Is it on any menus anywhere anymore?

Julia Child Kitchen, Smithsonian Museum, Washington, D.C. (1961) - yep, I also visited this kitchen during a Spring Break with the kids in DC. I loved this chapter because Julia's kitchen reminded John of his mom's kitchen and how she cooked and how it was such a creative outlet for her. I think I once tried to make Julia's cheese soufflé - it was yummy but without the right airiness that John describes in the one he makes. 

Louis Armstrong Kitchen, Queens, NYC (1970) - red beans and rice, turquoise kitchen, jazz, family and friends singing Hello, Dolly. I love red beans and rice--want to try this recipe.

Elvis Presley Kitchen at Graceland, Memphis, TN (1977) and Honeymoon Hideaway Kitchen in Palm Springs, CA (1960s) - visiting the kitchen was fun, but I really enjoyed the Elvis party that John and his wife hosted for fellow Elvis fans...meatloaf and fried peanut butter sandwiches for dessert. He said both were great.

Pearlstone Kitchen, Vancouver Island, BC (2016) - my dream kitchen - high on a cliff, looking out over the ocean. My dream lifestyle - harvesting everything you need from the earth, the ocean, and the air, all within a stone's throw of your home. Sort of full circle to where we started at Plymouth, but with modern conveniences!

As you can tell, I loved this book. Enjoyed the time travel, the recipes, the insights and observations, and the love of food, company, and conversation.


  1. Wow, that sounds like a very enlightening book, especially matching the recipes with the kitchens' owners and time periods. I'll put it on my tbr list too. We've been renovating our old kitchen a bit, so it sounds like just the thing for now.

    1. He does glean lots of good ideas from the kitchens he visits. Good look with your renovation. We've remodeled our kitchen twice in the 28 years we've lived in our house--the end result is always worth the hassle.

  2. Interesting book Jane - I've been to Plymouth Rock and the Julia Child's Smithsonian one as well.

  3. Sounds like a book to savor! :)

  4. Would love to visit the kitchens in Monticello and Santa Fe especially! someday will be able to travel again ... I hope. thanks for this review.

  5. I'm so glad you pointed this book out. I love kitchen history and while this won't be a page-turner read, I'm looking forward to reading it slowly from time to time just like you did!