Cooking up a storm in small spaces

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 May, 2011, 12:00am


The growing popularity of entertaining at home is driving an explosion of smart design ideas and appliances geared to turning even Hong Kong's small kitchens into functional, flexible and attractive work spaces.

'It's important for anyone who loves to cook to get hands-on with the planning of their kitchen - with a good designer, of course,' says Liz Seaton, owner of Gingers Catering.

Seaton runs her catering business from a spacious commercial kitchen; but in her 500 square foot home she operates from an 80 sqft open-plan kitchen where she sometimes prepare roast dinners for up to 10 friends.

But no matter the number of guests, she relies on just a handful of basic appliances. 'I can do almost everything I want with a good food processor, a small stove top, and a convection oven,' she says. 'I don't own a microwave.'

The focus, rather, is on maximising work and storage space. Working with her idea for a kitchen island, her designer came up with a 'peninsula' that gave her more storage space and an indispensible 2.2-metre food-preparation zone.

'I didn't think it was possible to get that much counter space out of such a small area, but my designer made it happen,' she says. 'There's no hard and fast rule about what should go where; it depends on your space and work flow when cooking.'

Seaton created a cubby hole as a catch-all for her most-used appliances, such as her food processor, milk foamer, toaster and hand-held mixer. When she wants things out of sight, down rolls the shutter.

'What works best for small kitchens is to keep the lines as clean as possible,' says Samson Ng, designer with kitchen specialist Euro Cucina. 'More and more people are willing to spend on attractive cabinetry.'

For example, a shallow shelving unit with sliding doors between the counter and overhead cabinets would be an ideal place to put spices and seasonings for easy reach. Ng also specialises in handle-less cabinets and built-in elements to conceal refrigerators and dishwasher units.

Ng says although drop tables offer additional work or serving surfaces, they can break the line and look of a kitchen. He suggests a pull-out counter that can extend up to a metre and is camouflaged as a kitchen drawer when retracted.

Also, imported kitchen cabinet brands such as Blum and Kessebohmer have product lines designed for compact kitchens that allow for some custom-sizing.

A feature gaining in popularity in Hong Kong's smaller kitchens are swing drawer units that bring 'dead' corners to life. Seaton has one on each corner, on either side of her sink.

'These were worth the expense,' she says. 'They are fantastic for organising my big pots and pans and large serving dishes. You might lose a little space to the mount and drawers, but the convenience trumps that.'

Depending on the brand and material, says Ng, each shelf - there are usually two to a unit - can support 50 to 70 kilograms in weight.

For six years food stylist and author Kit Mak created and tested recipes for her four cookbooks in her 100 sqft kitchen, although she has recently built a bigger show kitchen in Chai Wan.

'I've come to enjoy the benefits of induction cooking. Water boils almost instantly, and if I'm making something like a sauce or syrup, the heat is evenly dispersed so I don't get burn spots,' she says.

'But, for things like double-boiled soup, which needs the benefit of heat that reaches the side of the pot, and wok-fry, nothing replaces gas-tops.' Induction or radiant cook tops have become increasingly popular for their energy and time efficiency, and safety benefits. In small kitchens, their lower heat dispersion keeps the space cooler while cooking.

However, only cookware with flat bottoms can be used on these units; also, pots and pans made of glass and ceramics are unusable, as are those of solid copper or solid aluminium.

For Mak, and others who want the flexibility of Western and Asian cooking, a combination cook top may be the best of both worlds. Brands such as Whirlpool, Siemens, Electrolux and the more upmarket Miele and Bosch carry compact gas burners and induction cooktops that can be fitted side by side on counters.

One space saver Mak has found combines the convection oven with a microwave function. 'I was wary of this dual-function oven when I was first asked to test it,' Mak says of her Siemens combi-oven. 'But the functions are really quite separate. They just share the same cavity.

'If you need to defrost or heat up something quickly the microwave is very handy; then it's just a touch of a button to switch it over to the oven function, after which you adjust your temperature and heat dispersion as you would for any other oven.'

One appliance that both Seaton and Mak have embraced is the dishwasher. As European and American brands have begun to build compact lines for smaller homes, it has found a foothold in Hong Kong kitchens.

'I made space for a decent-sized dishwasher,' Seaton says. 'They do make small counter-top ones, but they don't hold much. I actually use mine as part of storage; it makes a world of difference when your dirty dishes are tucked away, rather than piled up by the sink, taking up space and looking messy.'

Mak concurs. 'Even if you have a helper, when you are the one doing the cooking there's only space for one person in a small kitchen,' she says. 'I test up to 15 recipes in one go, and I used to have to stop at least four times, clean everything up, then start again. Now, I just load the dishwasher as I go, turn on the half-hour cycle and have clean dishes non-stop. It makes cooking even more fun.'

Cooks everywhere thrive in well-equipped kitchens. Having a well-designed, high-functioning kitchen helps open the door to new culinary possibilities. And kitchens in Hong Kong are no longer tucked away; they are fast becoming the talking point to a home. Whether yours is a state-of-the art affair, or a cozy and well-used one, it's worth getting it right.