Front-burner issues from a kitchen renovation


Special To The Washington Post

A few months ago I took the plunge and had my kitchen redone. For years I’d put it off because it was so expensive. Also, as a cookbook author and food writer, I spend nearly all of my waking hours in and around the kitchen. Being without one for six to eight weeks seemed unimaginable. The one I had inherited from our house’s previous owner was functional, if not my style. But after eight years of heavy-duty usage, the range and dishwasher were at death’s door, and water damage had caused the laminate countertops to buckle and wave. Finally, a redo became necessary.

Now that it’s over and I can think straight again, I’m passing along a few lessons learned along the way:

1. You are the boss

For nearly the entire two-plus months that my kitchen was under renovation, the project manager stopped by almost every morning to talk with the crew and get the ball rolling. And, as promised, he kept the project on schedule. Still, it became clear to me early on that I needed to keep a close eye on things to make sure the work was being done the way I wanted and that mistakes weren’t being made. Turns out a lot were. Some were small; for example, the hood insert over the range was installed backward so that the lights shone right into your eyes. There was carpentry work that had to be redone or finessed. One mistake was egregious (see No. 5). To the contractor’s credit, he addressed all the issues as they came up and followed through until they were resolved.

2. Indecision is not your friend

Throughout the life of your project, you will be faced with choices. Many choices. Such as: Granite countertops or marble? Soapstone or limestone? Polished or honed? What about wood? Should your countertop edges be rounded or squared? How about beveled? In my case, the toughest choice — aesthetically anyway — was deciding on a tile backsplash. In my heart of hearts I wanted Italian ceramic tiles, to go with the Italian ceramic bowls and platters I’ve amassed over the years. But in my other heart of hearts, I wanted arts-and-crafts-style tiles, so that I might put to use a collection of decorative tiles I’d accumulated during my years living near Pewabic Pottery, an arts-and-crafts studio in Detroit. However, my house is a suburban Colonial, which goes with neither. After weeks of looking, I finally found simple handmade green subway tiles from California that somehow, magically, brought everything together. But my indecision added time to the project.

3. Get the marble

There will be times when well-meaning people — friends, designers, craftsmen — try to steer you away from something you really want, usually because it doesn’t make practical sense. In spite of my inherent indecisiveness, I knew from the beginning that I wanted to replace the battered old laminate countertops with marble. Nearly everyone, down to the marble purveyors themselves, tried to dissuade me, pointing out the stone’s flaws: It scratches easily, it becomes etched with spots from acid spills; it’s prone to chipping. I got the marble anyway, and every day I see new etches and scratches — though, thankfully, no chips. And every day I love it more. I roll out pie crusts and sheets of pasta on it. It makes me think of the old marble-topped worktable in my grandmother’s kitchen in Rome.

4. Save a little, splurge a little

Yes, material me wanted custom cabinets. But the professional cook in me wanted a heavy-duty French range that I’d had my eye on for a long time. The solution? Semi-custom cabinets — not quite as top-drawer (pun intended) as the custom line, but still good construction, with a decent array of styles and finishes. What we saved on cabinets we put toward that range, the focal point of the kitchen and, practically speaking, where I do most of my work.

5. Expect one nightmare

In my case it was an electrician who miswired that new range. Although I felt foolish, even patronizing, I had made the electrician and project manager watch a manufacturer’s video on how to uncrate, move and install the range. I was assured that it was in good hands. Even so, the electrician used the wrong electric cord, one that was way too powerful. He also broke a part trying to install it and didn’t tell me about it — just wrapped it all up in electrical tape and hid the mess behind the back panel. When I tried to ignite a burner, just about every electrical connection in the appliance got fried. It took an appliance repair specialist many hours of work over three visits to fix it. The contractor apologized profusely and repeatedly and paid for all the repairs.

6. No pain, no gain

It’s hard to kick yourself out of your own kitchen for two months. The kitchen truly is the heart of our home, and not having one drove the kids up to their rooms, which to me was almost as bad as the range debacle. We set up a makeshift kitchen in the garage, which was fun for about five minutes. But in the end, the cliche is right: You’ll forget (most of) the bad stuff (see No. 5) and, with a little luck, be satisfied you made the leap.

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