Cultural Diversity in the Kitchen

Cultural diversity has historically provided many opportunities for expanding our design experience, particularly in the kitchen and never more so than in recent years.

Immigration accounted for 38% of U.S. population growth in the 1980s, and it will contribute 47% to the increase in the '90s. About one million immigrant households enter the U.S. each year, the majority of them Asian, Hispanic and Latin American.

We use our homes to represent what's important to us, and based on these values, our clients are calling for responsive design. What follows are some ideas to keep in mind.

Getting information
Responding to the design demands of clients from a variety of cultures will often require more than our personal knowledge and experience. My kitchen, for example, includes a lefse grill, a rosette'iron and several other items that are part of my Scandinavian heritage, and not found in everyone's kitchen. Thus, I can easily plan for the size of the work area needed'for rolling lefse or the pot for pickling herring. However, when asked to design my first kosher kitchen,'I needed guidance.

As with any project, the best sources of information were my clients. We combined their knowledge of their culture and my know-ledge of the products/features that might work in their space, and then headed to an expert their rabbi.

My next step was to talk with two designers I knew who could, and should, write the book on kosher kitchens.

In the end, everyone won: The kitchen was a success, and I added to my understanding of design. The experience also added to my appreciation of what I don't know, and what resources are available to teach me and other kitchen designers.

Today, a favorite resource person for me is the Feng Shui consultant I work with to learn about this art of harmony in energy between people and their environment, and to ensure that the spaces I create are balanced for each client.

While the experience I've related above gave me a good basis for designing a kosher kitchen, I continue to learn, because each client's priorities varies based on his or her personal preferences. More than ever, it remains critical to listen.

Materials & finishes
The art and literature of a culture offer great guidance in terms of the colors, materials and motifs or signs of a group. Colors like the soft neutrals and the strong use of contrast seen in Asian cultures, or the bold colors of some Hispanic cultures can provide an excellent link to a client's heritage.

The use of stone and natural materials, as well as finishing techniques, can also be a statement of culture. Often, our clients' personal preferences can guide us to the materials that represent their culture. Incorporating an heirloom or collection of family treasures, for example, can create the focal point and the color palette for the space.

The colors, textures and other'
elements that are significant to a culture can be incorporated into the architectural details, as well as in the cabinetry, backsplash and other decorative aspects of the space.

Over time, products are introduced and adapted as our cultural differences are integrated into the mainstream of design. Fifteen years ago, for instance, the only gas-powered wok I could locate came from the California relative of my Connecticut client. Today, in contrast, several major manufacturers offer one.

From the fast cooking stir-fry of Asian cultures to the slow cooking of European cultures, our products and their installation are adapting to the diversity of our cooking customs. Recently, I saw a Japanese appliance called a fish cooker in a showroom in Seattle, but I'm not yet aware of one that's made to conform to U.S. standards.'

Five years ago, pizza ovens were common only in commercial kitchens; however, at a recent trade show, I saw two manufacturers offering them.

One note to remember: With the use of strong spices and heavier oils found in certain Asian and Latin cultures, high-function ventilation is a key consideration.

The biggest single aspect of many ethnic groups is the inclusion of'the extended family. In terms of kitchen design, this strengthens the need for space for multiple cooks'of varying sizes. In addition, the eating area should be more generous, for larger numbers of people and a greater variety of activities.

In some cases a secondary outdoor kitchen or cooking area'may provide the desired ventilation and dissipation of the humidity and heat build-up. This may also be the most natural spot for that wood-fired "pizza oven" or the tandoor oven used in some Indian cultures. If an outdoor kitchen is planned, the main kitchen and eating area will usually be adjacent. If not, supplemental space may be desired.

A prep sink and generous chopping area, possibly with a disposal waste chute, would be especially useful for the large amount of chopping that is part of many kitchen cultures. Generous freezer space will be appropriate for some because of batch cooking. And generous refrigerator space, possibly at several points of use, would be best for fresh vegetable-based cooking. A lowered area to roll bread, a drying rack for pasta'for extra storage for unusual'equipment will need to be determined with the client.

Historically, our traditions and the link to our heritage have influenced design of our homes and our kitchens. The influence of diversity in greater numbers among our clients offers us the opportunity to learn, at the same time as we respond to clients' varying needs.