John Ota: searching for the perfect kitchen
“In The Kitchen, John Ota celebrates the room that is the heart of every home. As a designer who celebrates 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
With degrees from the School of Architecture at Columbia University and the University of British Columbia, John Ota has been involved with architecture and design since 1978, working in architecture offices in Toronto, New York and Vancouver. He has written freelance articles for the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, Azure Magazine, Canadian House and Home and Canadian Architect, among others.
John has chaired the awards committee of the Ontario Association of Architects and has served as a Board Member on the Toronto Historical Board. He 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 the exhibition, “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.
His new book, The Kitchen, published by Penguin Random House Canada, subtitled, a journey through history in search of the perfect design, is just that.
Bulletin Interview: John Ota
How did the idea for this book come about? Or maybe I should say, where did the idea come from, if not the kitchen?
In many ways, this book is a result of my mom. She loved to cook, eat, entertain and spend time in the kitchen. My mom grew up in Vancouver and after the internment during WW2, she moved to Montreal and graduated in 1954 in Home Economics from Sir George Williams University – now Concordia – and she worked at the cafeteria at the Montreal YWCA. She told me that the highest paid female in the country in the 1950s was the dietician at the Eatons Cafeteria and that’s why she went into Home Ec. So my mom could cook.
Fran and I both like to cook and entertain. But we’re in a house right now where the kitchen just isn’t working for us. It’s a little cramped, awkward and things are not in the right place. In fact, you could say that Fran hates our kitchen.
We want to renovate.
But I tend to be obsessive. Before I started to redesign, I wanted to know “everything” about the kitchen. I needed to know if there were good things from the past that we might have left behind.
So I went on a quest – the quest for the perfect kitchen.
That sounds like an exciting, but daunting, journey.
I travelled all over North America to explore examples of excellent kitchen designs throughout history to learn from them to improve our own kitchen. I wanted to find the origins of the kitchen, historical development, architectural layout, invention of kitchen appliances, origins of different foods, drinks and cooking methods. I visited the historical kitchens of Thomas Jefferson, Georgia O’Keefe, Julia Child, Louis Armstrong, Elvis Presley and many others. I wanted to cherry pick the best features of all the designs with the hope of incorporating them into our own perfect kitchen. And then I cooked in the kitchens and I ate the food. I had to – how else would I know if the kitchens worked?
Why a book? Why not just design a kitchen?
The goal of The Kitchen is to help people understand the history of the kitchen so that they can fully appreciate their food, their kitchen and their lives.
The kitchen is my favorite room in the house. And I wanted to share that love. When I worked on renovation projects earlier in my career, I had to measure entire mansions to draw up base drawings for the renovation. Even though I liked the parlours, entrances and conservatories of historic houses, I always like the kitchen the best. The other rooms were designed to impress people with the wealth, power, status and the good taste of the owners. But the kitchen was simple, basic, austere. It had a utilitarian look to it. A place designed for cooking and eating. And I like to eat! I always felt most comfortable in the kitchen. It had a clean, spare functional look to it. It is my favorite room in the house so I wanted to write about the evolution of the kitchen. It was a calling. It was something I had to do.
The French modernist architect Le Corbusier said the house is a machine for living in. What I like about the kitchen is that it is “a machine for cooking in.”
Oh yes, I also want Fran and me to be happy in our kitchen too.
What did you learn?
I learned we are so lucky today. We take so much for granted today in terms of cooking, eating, comfort and convenience. It’s only been in the last 60 – 70 years that eating, cooking, accessing food and life in the kitchen have become easier. Earlier, eating, cooking and life in the kitchen was a struggle – smoke, heat, cleaning, chopping, gutting, plucking, heavy lifting. We are so fortunate today and we don’t even know it.
I learned about the central place that the kitchen, eating and food has played in the lives of men and women over the centuries. Food is central to life. Everyone has to eat to survive. Food preparation is something that has been ignored by historians, yet it has determined so much of the way we live every day.
Right from the beginning of humankind it was men who hunted game and females who stoked the fires and prepared it. It has been this way from 200,000 years ago with homo sapiens in Africa, to the Medieval period, to the Victorian period. Life in the kitchen and gathering food was so difficult. You had to haul logs in to make a fire, cook over an open fire, and hunt game to eat. It was enormous work every day, from sunrise to sundown. It is really only in the last decades in human history that food has become easier to prepare food and the roles of men and women more equitable – and we don’t even realize it.
You recently created an art piece, My Happy Crazy Japanese Kitchen Table, that seems to have struck a nerve with people.
My Happy Crazy Japanese Kitchen Table began as an amusement, but it seems to have touched a sentimental nerve with many people. My dada ate Japanese style. My mom and the kids ate Canadian style. We were a happy crazy mixed up family.
My mom made three meals every night. One Japanese meal for my dad, one Canadian meal for the kids and one meal for my grandmother. She did this after teaching a full day at Riverdale Collegiate every day. Some days we ate a Japanese or a Canadian meal together. She didn’t seem to mind until after he was gone. Then she was very resentful about having to make all these dinners every night. She taught me and my brothers to cook (we all cook).
She used to wag her finger at me and say, “I never want you guys to depend on your wives to cook.” She was completely obsessed about that. So today her three boys all cook, love to eat and spend time in the kitchen.
She had a contract with my dad that she could work as long as she had dinner on the table for him at 5pm every day. It was the 1960s. Life was so different then.
So many people have come up to me and commented that they loved the kitchen table and that’s how they ate every night. Personally, it reminds me of sitting around the kitchen table with my aunts, uncles, cousins, parents and family, eating drinking, laughing, the aroma of cooking in the air and the sizzling of fried rice in the skillet behind me.
KEYS TO A GOOD KITCHEN
1. Sink with a view. Look out to nature, kids, birds. Can have a favorite art work or mosaic pattern. You spend a lot of time there, so enjoy it.
2. Design in quadrants: Baking, chopping, washing, prep.
3. Everything within a two-foot reach. Knives, cutting boards, dishes, bowls, vinegars, oils.
4. Nature is a good starting point. Building materials, flooring, views, smells. Bring outside in. Grow veggies and flowers close by.
5. Never have too much light – natural, overhead, casting no shadows.
6. Ergonomics – different levels for different tasks.
7. Two ovens are better than one – even a toaster oven.
8. Clean as you go – reduce cluttered counters.
9. Magnetic knife holder.
10. Subway tiles – they’re a classic, easy to wipe down, have been in style for over 100 years. Never looks dated. You can never go wrong. Shoji screen proportion.
Who should buy this book?
If you are into eating, cooking and architecture, this book is for you. This book uses the kitchen as the vehicle for describing the history of the North American house, kitchen design, role of women, food and cooking. There is no book on the market today that focuses on the kitchen to present these issues. The goal of The Kitchen is to help people understand the history of kitchens so that they can fully appreciate their food, their kitchen and their lives.
Was there a surprise during your search for the perfect kitchen?
Taste! The big surprise was that historical dishes taste as good if not better than we eat today. I thought bland – but no. The food was fabulous. Dishes burst my taste buds! Complete surprise. Ginger, Cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, pepper. Taste of coriander, cumin, chili, coconut milk in 1865 curry. We think we’re so sophisticated today. People originating recipe tastes – no those spices have been around for hundreds of years. Stronger flavours. More spice, more sugar, more flavour that today. More robust tangier sweeter sour. Today the food industry is aimed at a mass market to make money and cater to the lowest common denominator taste. The goal is to sell in enormous volume to as many as possible. The result is that our palette has become blander. But in previous times people wanted hotter, sweeter, spicier. Historically people demanded stronger flavours that today. It was not uncommon to put 5 – 10 spoons of sugar in coffee. The historical food tastes better than today. Fresher ingredients, fresh meat and fresh vegetables right out of the ground. Examples: pilgrim duck, quail, pumpkin, Jefferson mac and cheese, Texas bird pepper hot sauce, heirloom tomatoes, Point Ellice curry from the Victorian period. What a fabulous sensation for Victoria to have pungent Indian curry dinners in the 1890s.
Which was your favorite kitchen?
I like them all, but the kitchen that had the most impact on me was the Julia Child Kitchen at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC.
Before Julia Child moved back to her home state of California in 2001, she donated the kitchen from her Cambridge, Massachusetts, home to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. It is the actual kitchen, including cabinets, appliances, cookbooks, kitchen table, and hundreds of utensils. I went to the Smithsonian, and when I saw the Julia Child kitchen, my jaw dropped. I couldn’t believe it.
“My God, it looks just like my mom’s kitchen.”
At first glance, Julia Child’s kitchen is mass confusion. The walls are covered by beaters, ladles, strainers and spatulas, all hanging off pegboard. Everything is out on the counters including bottles of vinegars and olive oils, countless pepper grinders stashed into every nook and cranny, dozens and dozens of copper pans, pastry cutters, carving knives, whisks of every size.
It is the exact opposite of the white, clean, austere kitchens of today where everything is hidden away behind cupboard doors. I expected a supersonic kitchen with all the latest gadgets.
But, gradually, the longer I look, the more it all makes sense. Knives and forks are collected in canisters in one corner. Measuring cups hang next to the counter for baking duty. Multiple frying pans hang within reach of the big black stove. A jar of Skippy peanut butter sits out on the counter.
Unglamorous. But basic, homey, happy and completely functional for a person who loves to cook – just like my mom’s kitchen.
I am a minimalist. But Julia Child’s kitchen was a revelation. It has changed my whole attitude about not only about kitchens, but also interior design of the whole house. Not everything has to be put away. Not everything has to be perfect.
But on a larger scale, to me the kitchen tells a story about women in the 1960s. The ideal woman of that period was a perfect housewife, with a perfect house, with a perfect family. Through cooking, Julia demonstrated to American women that they didn’t have to be perfect. They could have minds of their own. They could be smart. And their kitchens could be cluttered.
Julia was an alternate role model. Not conventionally beautiful, not blessed with a silver-toned voice, but totally engaging, and committed to cooking, she was an example of a woman who was successful just being herself.
I went looking for Julia Child’s kitchen, and I found it. But I also rediscovered my mom’s kitchen. And her challenges as a wife, as a mom and her creative outlet in cooking. Julia Child’s kitchen gave me a better understanding of my mom and the women of her generation. It had an enormous impact on me.
You visited the homes of Thomas Jefferson, Georgia O’Keefe, Julia Child, Frank Lloyd Wright among many others. Am I right in thinking you were especially thrilled to find yourself in Graceland? (Answer: “Uh-huh-huh.”)
I was all shook up! The Elvis kitchen says Welcome to 1977! People enter this kitchen and gasp. Next they laugh. Unlike other rooms in the house, designed with flash and pizzazz, the kitchen has a homey, unpretentious look.
The first thing that hits you is the vast amount of color – Tiffany lamps. Dark wood cabinets wrap around the room.
There is an avocado green sink and matching green Kitchen Aid dishwasher. The appliance wall has a harvest gold refrigerator and electric stove top. Mismatching is most evident on the floor, with the wall-to-wall kitchen carpet.
While in the 1970s, kitchens were an explosion of color, in the 80s and 90s, homeowners began to tire of the colour and turned to a minimalist white kitchen. But the 70’s was also the beginning of the open concept kitchen as the kitchen slowly opened up to the rest of the house as families – not just women began to cook.
I liked the Elvis Kitchen. I am not advocating avocado green or harvest gold, But I like the fun, vibrancy and individual expression of the period. My mom had a bright orange kitchen with orange cupboards and orange kitchen chairs. It has an enthusiasm for cooking and eating and in the book I like to inspire and enthusiasm for cooking and eating like my mom did for me.
Cooking is love, it’s memories, it’s culture and comfort. The kitchen is a vehicle for learning about history, food and architecture.
It sounds like an amazing journey you embarked on. And a lot more than Amy and I put into renovating our own kitchen! I can’t wait to read the book.
I was so excited and honoured to step into these kitchens and tried to express my fascination, observations, taste sensations to readers. I include stories, tips and little tidbits to inform an appreciation of eating and kitchens. The book is written in simple language targeted toward homeowners, home makers, cooks, foodies, history readers, interior designers and architects who are planning to renovate kitchens and who are interested in the kitchen. I list the historical features that could be incorporated into a contemporary setting. The book includes photographs and renderings about the history of the kitchen and the architectural development of the house in an innovative and engaging way.
I tried to express pleasures of tastes, smells, sounds, architecture, as well as the agony of carrying waffle iron and boiling pots of water and heavy buckets of coal up five flights of stairs. Step inside the book and be immersed in all these kitchens.
Every demographic and culture has nostalgia for food. It is comfort, culture and our roots.
Everyone has to eat. It is something we all have in common. And now that the world is so connected we want to know more about each other, we want to experience what people eat in other parts of the world. There is a curiousity about each other and each other’s food. I applaud it. Food is a vehicle for meeting each other, learning about different cultures and a vehicle for learning about history. Bravo!
Last question: How’s your renovation coming?
Still in the planning stages. We’re looking at expanding the kitchen downstairs to the basement. We need more space. We’ve already located a freezer, storage and stove downstaitrs. It just isn’t official yet. Historically, a lot of people used space in the basement to expand kitchen activites. I’m looking forward to it!
Thursday March 19, 5pm – 7pm
Book launch of The Kitchen by John Ota, one man’s quest for the perfect kitchen. Inform Interiors Showroom, 97 Water Street, Vancouver
RSVP to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sunday March 22, 2pm
John Ota at the Saanich Pioneer Museum
Saanichton, BC, speaking about The Kitchen
Email for tickets: email@example.com
Japanese Canadian Brown Noodle Chow Mein
This is my all time fav JC recipe. I can eat this all day. And the next day, and the next day. I always have happy memories of eating this with college football games on TV because we always ate it on New Years Day watching the Rose Bowl or the Cotton Bowl with my cousins.
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 clove minced garlic
1/2 tsp minced ginger
3/4 lb chicken or pork
1 large onion
2 stalks celery
1/2 lb mushrooms
In large pot on medium heat, saute garlic and ginger.
Thinly slice chicken or pork and stir fry.
Cut onion, celery, mushrooms, carrot into slices. Rinse and drain bean sprouts. Add onion, mushrooms and carrots to meat and stir fry. Add sugar, shoyu and onion powder. Add bean sprouts and mix.
Add mein noodles and mix. Cover until noodles are soft. Place on serving platter.
I served this almost as a joke one Christmas dinner for starters. We also served fancy, expensive French cheeses, pate and baguette. But what do you think was completely eaten up? Shoyu weiners, of course.
Weiners, sliced on diagonal
Vegetable oil for frying
1/3 cup shoyu
1/4 to 1/2 cup brown sugar
Cut weiners diagonally into 1 inch slices.
In frying pan on medium, heat 1 tbsp vegetable oil. Saute weiners until slightly browned. Add shoyu and brown sugar. Turn heat to medium-high and cook until sugar dissolves and sauce is slightly thick. Serve.
From Just Add Shoyu, Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre.