Brave new kitchen (no room for cooking)

New York Times

John Pawson is a name that carries as much weight in food circles as Alain Ducasse does at Home Depot. Architects instantly recognize him as a master of minimalism. But cooks, even those outfitted with everything by Alessi, are not thinking of him — or any other designer — when they light up the stove. Apparently all that is about to change.

In a universe where everyone who eats is automatically an expert, the worlds of design and food have suddenly begun to collide. Mr. Pawson, the British architect who created the signature Calvin Klein store, has compiled a cookbook. Another is on the way next month from a gaggle of big-name architects with designs on food, including Philippe Starck and Marc Newson. A top curator at the Museum of Modern Art is developing a heavily illustrated book on classic dishes like empanadas and tortellini that focuses not on taste and technique but only on shape and style. Mr. Starck even makes pasta. Architects have always put their imprint on dining rooms and dinnerware. Michael Graves produces for Alessi (teapots) as well as for Target (toasters). Sir Terence Conran designed a restaurant empire from the ashtrays up. Russel Wright’s sleek china is being reincarnated all over.

Now designers are encroaching on the kitchen and the refrigerator. The bowl or the pot seems to fascinate them less than what it holds. Lately they have noticed things like soup and salad and well-formed pasta, and they have decided to educate everyone else. Some of them are so bossy they make Martha Stewart seem like a kindly aunt.

Mr. Pawson’s cookbook, “Living and Eating,” is billed by its American publisher, Clarkson Potter, as nothing less than “the recipe for a simple, perfect lifestyle.” The recipes, by the British Vogue food writer Annie Bell, are surprisingly robust and appealing. But the austere photographs, taken in the architect’s London home, are the antithesis of the messy pleasure of cooking. Anyone who can look at them without wanting to splatter canned tomatoes all over the stark white counters is a nobler person than I am.

“Food by Design,” due out next month from Booth-Clibborn Editions, takes a more lighthearted approach, according to Simon Jordan, who compiled it with the editor, Antonio G. Gardoni, and another partner in Jump Studios in London. Twenty-five international architects and designers were each asked to contribute a recipe, a visual interpretation of it and a personal story about it. The responses include the Italian architect Antonio Citterio’s straightforward spaghetti sauce and Mr. Starck’s hard-cooked eggs, halved and topped with exotica like caviar and sea urchin.

Mr. Jordan said some contributions were “manifesto based,” like the highly conceptual sketch from Droog Design in the Netherlands, and others unabashedly personal, like a photograph of those eggs, strategically placed over Mr. Starck’s eyes and in his mouth. “They’re quirky and have a sense of humor, but at the same time they’re quite opulent,” Mr. Jordan said.

These guys apparently know their food, though. They also persuaded the famed Spanish chef Ferran Adri? of El Bulli to participate. “He takes a very architectural approach to food,” Mr. Jordan said. “He literally seems to see it as construction, and that fit the conceit of the book.”

Paola Antonelli, a design curator at the Museum of Modern Art, also approaches food from a designer’s distant universe. Her book project, she said, will cover 300 or so “basic foods from all over the world that are related to design: pasta, samosas, crepes, croissants.” Categories will include “envelopes,” like ravioli and dumplings, and “structured layers,” like the club sandwich.

Ms. Antonelli, whose exhibitions illustrate her belief that touching is understanding, said her project grew out of an article she wrote for I.D. Magazine on pasta as an embodiment of design.

“It was about how different kinds of pastas have different functions — macaroni works well with meat sauce because it has a big hole that collects the meat inside and has ribbed surfaces so they absorb more,” she said.

“If you don’t think of it,” she added, “you don’t realize it’s design.”

There’s a slight arrogance underlying this new trend. Architects seem almost to wear mental bumper stickers that read, “Designers do it to perfection.” But any home cook who has tried to mix peas and linguine already understands that function dictates form, that the shape of pasta is a primary consideration in choosing a sauce. And chefs like Mr. Adri? and Thomas Keller have proven for years that other disciplines could just as well leave stylish food to the professionals. Mr. Keller’s cornets filled with salmon tartare, or his truffle custards served in eggshells topped with caviar, are the quintessence of intelligent, and beautiful, design that actually has real taste.

Architects’ new grasping for a larger presence in food is a natural outgrowth of their dominance in the restaurant realm. David Rockwell is the Wolfgang Puck of blueprints, for example, and his name often appears before the chef’s in a press release. More and more architects now design menus as well as lighting. Mr. Starck has gone so far as to open his own restaurant, Bon, in Paris. If every restaurant is a stage, more and more actors want a role. The home kitchen is just the natural Second City.

Mr. Jordan of Jump Studios said he and his partners, like many in their field, “have a little bit of an obsession with food.” Much of their work revolves around it as well, as their projects involve combining food and design through restaurants, cutlery and packaging for ice cream. “And you can’t pick up a magazine without seeing one or the other,” he said.

Ms. Antonelli has another explanation for her and her colleagues’ desire to be literal arbiters of taste, and it is not any desire to “make food into Prada.”

“It has a lot to do with Nigella,” she said, referring to Nigella Lawson, the roundly admired host of “Nigella Bites” on the E! network. “And Martha Stewart. It has to do with the media and the star system, the star system in architecture and design. It’s one way to get encouragement.”

And get rich? “No,” she said. “It’s a matter of ego.”

No shortage of that is on display in Mr. Pawson’s cookbook. He begins with a treatise on paring down the kitchen and ends with advice on how to outfit it to produce his ideas of food. In his mind, a warming oven for dinner plates is essential. But one glass, a goblet, suits all beverages, from tap water to the most extraordinary wine. (The photos of him, Ms. Bell and assorted guests quaffing Champagne from that wide-bodied bubble-dissipating glass will go right to your head.)

Under Pawson’s Rules of Order, all food must meet rigid criteria. Taste comes second, after texture and before fragrance and temperature. Pity the poor cook who tries to served warmed-over roast beef.

Mr. Pawson did not respond to requests for an interview, so it is hard to know what or whether he actually wrote. But the tone of the headnotes that accompany the recipes is flowery to the point of Victorian. Radishes to be eaten with butter and salt should be first stored in the refrigerator, “wallowing in icy water.” Sweet potatoes “need the interruption of a few spices.” As the introduction to a recipe for scallop and bacon brochettes, Ms. Bell writes: “Combining a shellfish of such elevated piscatorial standing as scallops with swine seems ‘louche.’ Then again, oysters angelically ride the same path to great acclaim.”

Few Pawson prescriptions would qualify as minimalist by American standards, though. Ingredients and technique for a straightforward tart with smoked haddock, leeks and Gruy?re cover a full page, in fine print. A round of Camembert, baked in its wooden box and served with endive leaves for dipping, is one of the few profoundly simple ideas.

Many of the most enticing recipes could have been taken straight out of Alice Waters or Elizabeth David. Ms. Bell’s roasted almonds, for instance, are done much as Ms. David describes in “Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen.”

But I’m afraid I disrupted an Easter dinner party with Mr. Pawson’s idea of a dish meant to be “something to graze on while standing around.” Prosciutto with parsnip salad sounded fascinating, thanks to the headnote mentioning that pigs are fond of parsnips. And the flavors were surprisingly harmonious, thanks largely to the addition of a handful of raisins. The recipe was forceful on how to present this offbeat combination — meat on one side of a platter, salad on the other — but no one at lunch knew how to eat it. This was sit-down food, and my poor hostess had to tear up her table setting so we could tackle this assemblage the only sensible way, with knife and fork.

It seems as if that kind of disconnect is often the outcome when an architect confronts the most ephemeral art form. When my consort and I renovated our 1929 kitchen, we hired a brilliant designer named Frederick Schwartz, who was right on our wavelength on budget (hamburger), style (retro) and creativity (excessive). He had designed other home kitchens as well as restaurants, so we had total confidence.

And it was shaken only once, when he presented his mock-up. I studied it a long time before saying: “It’s beautiful. But where do we put the ugly stuff?” There was no place in this clever kitchen for a trash can. And yet cooking is all about garbage. Garbage for a good cause, but garbage nonetheless.

Our hired genius wound up designing a clever slot under a counter alongside the stove, the perfect solution in a kitchen that still feels perfect 10 years later. Still, I think of that oversight whenever I hear the words “architect” and “food” in a single sentence.

It’s one thing to let Martha Stewart dictate your tarts — she was once a caterer and has her name on credible cookbooks. But it’s another to let a designer tell you how to roast and serve a chicken. Who, after all, would trust a Ducasse high-rise?