Working with one’s hands is key to feeling like you have a place in the universe. I thrive on the feeling that I can fix most minor problems. Restore. Rebuild. Maintain. It takes a certain wisdom to understand what is beyond my basic skills. A full kitchen renovation to repair a burst pipe and poor insulation, case in point: far beyond my skills.
In a house that was built in the 1920s, one will always have challenges with the construction. Sometimes the materials and workmanship are better, often mortar starts to fails, joints loosen, and stone crumbles. In our case, the place where the original house joined a mid-century addition became a wind tunnel. When Toronto held record lows below -20 Celsius for over a month, the pipe burst at a joint. Fair enough. So what to do with the flow when it is a frozen circle of Hell outside?
For us, we were fortunate enough to find our accomplice in a planned kitchen dismantle before the full disaster occurred: Steve Chiang from SSC Home Services. Like all good relationships, working or otherwise, we met Steve through his wife who I have worked with for over a decade. We were not certain what we wanted done, but my attitude with repairs is to always upgrade versus merely repairing the problem. I feel better spending money for an improved product in comparison to a patchwork quilt of repairs. After an hour long conversation with Steve, we decided to pull out the cabinets, replace the countertop, install new stainless appliances, sink, wall paint, a backsplash in travertine, and a natural material floor, while keeping the cabinets for re-install, re-plumbing the pipes so that the rise off of the floor, and reinsulating the gaps in the previously done work. The tasks completed on our final invoice are vast and worthy of a poem which might resemble the labours of Hercules.
The added challenge of renovating my kitchen is that it is, in fact, my kitchen. As a food photographer and aficionado of fine cooking, I have needs beyond paint colour and the current trends in design magazines. I need a timeless, working kitchen. I need a kitchen that will look good in photographs for many days ahead. I also want a place where family feels connected to each other, and where I am not worried about the floor needing to be replaced before I am dead. To ensure that we built the best kitchen for our needs, we spent our first year in the house without making any significant changes. We lived in the space and decided what we missed, what we were reaching for, and what did not need to be there. In the end, we ended up with an ideal kitchen for our needs. Note that there is a difference between needs and wants.
Steve’s first challenge was to get us and the two dogs out of the house. Fortunately, we had a wedding and a honeymoon to make happen at roughly the same time as the renovation. I seldom trust people in my space. I have a lot of delicate equipment and I hate people to be around unsupervised. I gave Steve the keys without any hesitation. He genuinely seemed to care about getting the job done, and appreciated that we were taking a bit of a chance on him by walking away to France for three weeks. In week one he was able to pull the cabinets, re-plumb the pipes, and put in the new stove exhaust. In week two, he started the floor from Hell. Literally, it looks like it was mined from the darkest regions of Hell, as it is a peacock slate originating from India in the richest black and purple tones you can imagine. I might also mention that it is rough, uneven and tragically difficult to work with. We saved significant money by choosing this natural material, but then knew we would pay dearly on the install costs. Poor Steve must have lost his mind trying to lay it perfectly. We were in Beaune, France. It was worth the money. He did a superb install. It is not perfect, but I did not want perfect. It is art and I want art. For a dishwasher install or wall paint, I do not want artistic licence, but a floor is the foundation for all that occurs in a room. I feel like I am standing on a solid mountain, and my mind constantly follows the patterns and colours as they weave across the floor.
For our appliances, we decided to go with Maytag stainless steel models. They are made in in the USA, and I still love the Maytag repairman commercials for their loneliness. Did I want a Wolf, La Cornue or AGA stove? Yes. Did I feel it made sense to pay $10,000 for a stove and then $3500 to install a gas line? Sadly…no. I found compromise: buy a nice Maytag stove with two separate ovens and splurge on a large Big Green Egg to allow me to cook meat at high heats which would wreck a consumer stovetop. It is a brilliant combination. I can slow cook a beef brisket for 6 hours, char steaks, bake bread, and anything else I could desire. Setting fire to rum for Bananas Foster might be challenging, but I can probably still oblige a few diners on a good night.
We also decided that we need a dishwasher. I was dying from constantly having dishes to do by hand every single night for thirty minutes. Steve was able to do the install for us by removing one base cabinet from the pulled counter cabinets. The dishwasher has been a Godsend, and I can now refocus any washing on large pots and my kitchen knives. Adding in a siligranite sink that was made in Canada and an American Standard Pekoe faucet helped build a space to clean food and cookware. As we found out after living in the kitchen for two weeks without a sink, while waiting for the Caesarstone counter to be installed by a separate service: water is 90% of a kitchen’s usage. The sink was tricky to install in the smaller base cabinets, and it was the second one we had physically tried, but with a few jerry-rigged pieces of lumber we were able to create a perfect feeling space.
Five weeks. A significant cost in both labour and materials. Time spent selecting and purchasing materials. All of these are challenges with renovating a kitchen, but with the right man doing the physical work things get done the right way. I really felt that way about working with Steve Chiang. He was honest. He was careful. He was a great choice for our desire to waste as little of the pre-existing kitchen materials as possible, while still insulating the area to avoid a similar frozen pipe issue in the future. Time will tell if we made the right choices for our lives. I feel that we did the best we could within the space we had. I love cooking in this kitchen, and the balance between the light and dark materials remind me of the fabulous kitchen of The Cook’s Atelier.
Fortunately, my professional photography allows me to offset the costs of a renovation like this. Unfortunately for me, such an offset demands that I work a few long nights on top of my teaching career to make the money. The photos from my latest session are at a whole other level in terms of style and clarity. A better kitchen allows for better work, and that may mean more interesting sessions in the long term. Regardless, I am content in the space, and I definitely am happy that I chose the right man to do the work I needed to be done properly and on time.