The Three Kitchens of My Life

“Over the years, the kitchens I grew up in and around continued to draw me in, like a moth to a flame, as though I might recapture whatever innocence I’d lost in that warm, fragrant space.”

Sasha Martin

My Childhood Kitchen

Yes, it was small. A small rectangle that if three adults were in it, there was no more space to get in; except if you were a kid which you would end squeezing between someone’s legs or sitting on the counter. The counter, black marble, matched perfectly with the pitch black oven, but didn’t darkened the room; not even a little bit. This is a kitchen that was always bright and warm. It was a room I associated as golden. The orange, yellow and redish curtains dyed the long, tall and white cabinets with those same colors. But the real golden effect came from the bright sunlight that came through the big window all day long.

I didn’t spend so much time in this particular kitchen, but there’s something about it coming in as an adult that takes me back to my childhood. Warm golden sunrise light filled it in the summer time and the warmth is increased by the heat of the oven on with two scones plates risen slowly filling the room with another warm smell. The smell of home; the smell of someone caring for one. Just the thought of putting homemade fresh strawberry jam, just taken out from the fridge, slowly melting on the warm scon melts my mouth. Those scones my grandma baked that immediately dissolved once they touched one’s tongue. If she hadn’t finished baking, she would set me on the counter and let me stare at her as her hands did magic and somehow I felt special she was revealing her secret to me and she wanted me to get my hands dirty with her, but I shook my head every time. I was a small kid, I didn’t want to know the trick; I just wanted to taste the magic that came out of the oven. There were other smells filling the air – early and needed adult coffee, which even though I didn’t like the idea of drinking it, I didn’t dislike the smell, and of course, the proper child drink, cold Nesquick which somehow tasted different at my grandma’s. We used to drink our morning and afternoon Nesquick’s on red old-plastic glasses which deviate the taste of the chocolate a bit more bitter or maybe it was a different milk my grandma had. I was a kid; I didn’t pay attention to these sort of things. But it was my grandma’s special Nesquick and I looked forward to drink it every time we went.

My grandma’s apartment was icey in winter. The heater didn’t work and since it was an old building, no one bothered to fix it. And even though it was icey, there was still warmth enough to make me look forward to my stays with her. The kitchen was no different. It didn’t loose its warmth even in the dark and cold early mornings when one could notice we were the only crazy ones that woke up so early on a Sunday, but the heat of the oven on and the smell of scones or maybe even a cake warmed the tiny room with a feeling of belonging and caring for their loved ones.

Throughout the entire year, this kitchen got the afternoon sun which made it unbearable in the summer time and very pleasant to stay in during the winter. There was no way one would cook in that kitchen during the summer, but my grandma did it anyway. How she did it, I don’t know. But that was her; always in the kitchen with her apron on which surprisingly was almost always clean. But even though one couldn’t stand to be in that kitchen in the afternoon, there was only smell I remembered and cared about. Sweet chocolate cake warming up in the oven. Our special family cake. And water heating up for the afternoon tea. When the cake was ready, my sister and I couldn’t wait so we had the honor to put the cake from the pan onto the serving plate and covered it with the magical powdered sugar which would slowly melt a little as soon as it touched the warm cake making our fingers sticky and sweet every time we would grab a slice.

Even though this was mainly a pastry kitchen, my memories of the late evenings changed into a savory one. It was still golden but with a slight touch of orange and red. The oven always on and warming the tiny room, but this time it smell of elevating yeast, tomatoes, ham and delicious melting cheese which I could already feel melting in my mouth with a spiced touch of oregano. The rectangle pizza was always cut in perfect squares and I could hear the crunch of the perfect golden crust as the knife went through it and trying to let go the sticky cheese letting me know it was ready for me.

Without even knowing it at the time, this is the kitchen that whispered in my ear all the secret family recipes letting me know this was a family tradition and that someday I’ll carry on with the it. It was in my blood. This was a kitchen that was all about the passion, sharing with loved ones and secrets whispering it was alright not to follow the recipe through and through and give it a special unique touch. It was a family kitchen.

My Teenage Kitchen

This is the kitchen I actually grew up with, but this time around, I was more interested in what was going and even more curious. I was curious enough to want to know the trick behind the magic. I stared at the flour, sugar and eggs mixed together and form an interesting new thing. I wanted to see how everything mixed in perfect harmony to create the delicious pastries that had me and everyone else lick their fingers. In this kitchen, at this time of my life, I became an apprentice. A pastry apprentice non the less. Without even realizing it, I was getting more involved in carrying on the family tradition. It came naturally to me.
This is the kitchen that showed me that pastry was not only to savor it but also, it was art. A serious and breathtaking form of art. It was beautiful to the sight and tasty to the palate. It’s the kitchen where I learned the harmony of working with chocolate and how refined, noble and delicate it is, the perfection, seductiveness and gentleness of French pastries and the masterful strong richness of German pastry.

It was still small, but a longer rectangle than my childhood kitchen. Being a longer kitchen, there was more counter space available. A more fancy black with silver glimpses here and there marble covered the long counter surfaces which worked perfectly to cool down the temperature of the chocolate to be able to tempered it for gourmet chocolates and the brown wood cupboards with occasional glass doors which made it possible for the different glasses and plates to shine through and resonate with the greyish walls, the two big shinning Kenwoods mixers and the old silver and sticky scale gave a more silver feeling to the room. But the long room was still and also warm. The warmth came from the never-ending turned-off oven, almost all the stoves on cooking something in bain-marie and the constant coming and going from my mom who couldn’t stay still for obvious reasons: she needed to be precise and take things off the stove or and oven when they were ready at the same she make room on the occupied counters filled with different baking pans already filled with dough and pastry waiting to get inside the oven and rise.

This kitchen started out as my childhood one, using secret family tricks and not exact measurements. After all, this is the next generation of my childhood kitchen. But all of that changed when the cook of this kitchen, my mom, decided to become a professional pastry chef. This was the turning point for me. This is when I started being more invested in the kitchen and wanting to learn more even though my mom became more strict as she advanced with her studies: leave her enough space to concentrate, have my hair tied – no falling hairs in the pastries – measurements needed to be precise – not a little less, not a little more – and use the corresponding utensils. The kitchen was still a fun place to be, but it turned into something more. By day, it was practice time filling the long room with recipe pages, white powder and different colorful stains and by night, it was studying time – open books with all the different techniques covered the counters as I helped my mom memorize them as we munched on something she baked earlier that afternoon and analyzing the consistency of it comparing it to what we were learning. I learned the importance of a flawless presentation which would resembled to an art piece, not wanting to touch it in fear of ruining it, but most importantly, I learned the importance of the combination of flavors and how they mixed and interact with each other. I learned the difference of dark chocolate in contact with marzipan in regards with milk chocolate or the soft touch that praline added to it. I learned the difference in flavor of good and great chocolate and the different characteristics sugar may portray depending on the baker’s needs.

Contrary to my grandma, my mom’s professional white apron was never white and her face always had a new stain, whether it was turning her hair white or chocolate spots which camouflaged perfectly with her freckles and some loosened hairs due sweat; just like a professional pastry chef. And the kitchen was no different: chocolate stains on the floor covered by patches of flour here and there; even the fridge or the freezer were occupied or stained with red and brown stains from red fruits and chocolate or full of cookie pastry needing to chill before going in the oven.

In a matter of months, I witnessed my mom go from an apprentice painter who was just experimenting with colors and figuring out techniques as she went throwing a bit a pump of flour here and a pump of sugar there not caring about the boundaries she had in her bowl, but caring about the masterful product that would come out from the oven moments later, to mastering the precision and perfection of the art of the craft. Her fingers playing with food with the dexterity of a croupier. Her precision and gentleness was seductive. The way she carefully removed the protective plastic from every creamy cheesecake without a single imperfection or leftover cream as if it was as delicate as porcelain; the way she chopped big dark blocks of chocolate with the chocolate knife – yes, she had a massive elegant knife just for chocolate; that’s how precise pastry is – or the way she roally played with the different types of tips manifesting the grace of the craft.. The way she carefully shaped meringue with the kitchen blowtorch or pressed the thermometer with just enough pressure without allowing any air to come in and lower the temperature of the pastry. The way she skilfully handled the icing handle or the dough scraper to temper chocolate mirrored the grace and precision of a ballet dancer and the tenderness of a sculptor.

This is the kitchen that made me want to become a chef.

My Adult Kitchen

I knew from watching films and TV and having been in friend’s kitchens that not all kitchens were in a rectangle form, thin and small and even though I always loved the idea of a big and open kitchen, that’s how I thought kitchens were supposed to be. Contrary to the previous two kitchens, this one is almost square based and big enough for at least four adults to move comfortably in it as they danced to the rhythm of fire and chopping vegetables.

This is just a pure and exclusive savory kitchen where salt and pepper meet every single ingredient. With two bottles of wine opened – one to cook and one airing the wine inside waiting to be served in two elegant glasses, – colorful vegetables all around bringing the big and dark counter to life and with two salmons already marinated with peach jam ready to be cooked, this is the kitchen not only where I became an adult, but mostly importantly, a sous-chef.

This kitchen is so distinctive and unique from the other ones. Yes, it’s family based, but not blood-related family. This time around, it’s my U.S. auntie I found – or she found me – being the chef and passing on her own family traditions and secrets to her new sous-chef. The way she cooks and moves in the kitchen made me want to upgrade my game so every time I find myself there, I roll up my sleeves and watch every single move she makes like a hack. It was time to incorporate new family traditions. My auntie’s childhood tricks and traditions, savory traditions involving peanut butter, cheeseburgers and the famous American barbecue, are my new feeling and sense of home and warmth of someone caring for me.

The almost square-form kitchen has dark brownish marble with light brown wood cupboards and the big silver stove – like the ones in professional kitchens and the ones I always dreamed of having – with the massive two-door fridge has bright yellow illumination giving it an interesting bronze but still warm feeling. The stove and the Instant Pot are always on ready to pour chicken or beef broth followed by all sorts of spices: different types of salt, rosemary, parsley, red pepper, paprika, garlic powder. The stove always on with an iron pot with melted butter which could be normal butter, garlic butter or even some sort of special oil like avocado or coconut oil was always whispering when it was time to put the meat and when it was time to start playing with ingredients to bring it to life. My auntie taught me the importance of sauces and the depth and knowledge it brings to each meal and how spiced-variety the sauces can be. Who would have imagined we can use peanut, almond or cashew butter to make a sauce? An even a spicy one? Speaking of the devil, I also learned how to balance the spiciness with each meal and sauce.

There is some precision needed in this kitchen mostly temperature wise, especially for beef, lamb and even salmon. Here, in this kitchen, I realized the quintessential importance of the thermometer for the savory aspect of cooking. The relevance of having the right temperature is not up for discussion, especially when trying different types of cooked meat. Y discovered other chef and sous-chef important utensils such us the roner clip or different knife techniques for different vegetables – one doesn’t cut onions or peas the same way. I felt I was in a professional kitchen. I learned about food history, food culture from different countries and within the same one and how to analyze each combination of spices and flavors and feel they exploded together inside one’s palate.

In the previous kitchens, it was all about greasing, mixing, whisking, mixing, spreading, frosting, here, in this kitchen, it’s all about chopping, carving, boiling. When in the previous kitchens all the cupboards and fridge were filled with flour, sugar, cornstarch, baking powder, cinnamon, vanilla and almond extract, eggs, butter, cream, this kitchen is filled with all sorts of green vegetables, oils, spices, salts and sauces.

Our passion for cooking, being in a kitchen, playing with all its elements and exploring the mysteries of flavor with an open wine bottle and two full glasses of the drink of the Gods while telling stories of culture, tradition and family brings my auntie from the other end of the world and me together in a way I could never imagined I would call home. This is a kitchen about history and culture which allows me to master the other aspect of cooking and as a person.