At last, my unfashionable kitchen is back in style

In his report on the house that is now our home, the surveyor concluded that it was in fair nick for a building so venerable. He added, “Of course, you’ll want to take out the kitchen.” To which our joint reaction was, “But why?” The kitchen was high on the list of reasons why we fell in love with the house. It is large enough for people to sit around and chat without getting in the cook’s way, and has so many cupboards that we spent months after we moved in asking each other where we had put the sieve/whisk/frying pan.

It is also, I suppose, strikingly unmodish. There is no kitchen island; none of those spindly stools meant for perching rather than settling on; no operating-theatre lighting or polished concrete floor. Instead, we have a sturdy (if worm-eaten) kitchen table, surrounded by elderly, well-padded chairs; and in place of an island there is a sort of isthmus, made, like the cupboards, from that most unloved of materials, unvarnished pine. Practical, inelegant and profoundly cosy, it is what a kitchen should be: the heart of the house.

But our unfashionable kitchen is in some danger of finding itself back in vogue. During the pandemic, kitchens became a refuge (or a battleground) for working and learning from home. A sense of jeopardy tends to inspire a plangent longing for homeliness, and this, accompanied by the popularity of period dramas such as Downton Abbey, has fuelled nostalgia for a “below stairs” look.

Kitchen supplier deVol reports brisk sales of its heirloom designs (featuring diaphanous café curtains and a brass drawer handle known as the Butler’s Knob), while even Ikea is promoting a “traditional” kitchen. Very photogenic, they are, the various iterations of the homely look, with their butler’s sinks and rise-and-fall lighting.

But while I confess to a twinge of longing for a proper pantry and a utility room in which the cat’s litter tray is not the most prominent feature, I am convinced that the most desirable elements of a kitchen are not brass sinks (a thing, apparently), or haberdashers’ cabinets, but the (almost) cost-free intangibles: someone at the stove, cooking, and people around the table, talking and drinking and working, and looking forward to the elemental pleasure of eating a meal together.

A writer’s block

I have measured out my writing life at kitchen tables. But when inspiration fails, I have gratefully turned elsewhere: to the London Library, for its atmosphere of (slightly competitive) concentration; or the lovely Literaturhaus, in Berlin.

But the recently opened Manuscript Writing Café, in a Tokyo suburb, offers an ideal refuge for hard-up writers prone (as we all are) to procrastination. It costs 150 yen (91p) per half-hour, and the café offers basic refreshments, but its most important commodity is concentration. On entry, customers must give details of their writing project, and once an hour the proprietor, Takuya Kawai, asks politely but firmly how they are getting on. Completed projects are greeted by the ringing of a bell.

It might not have the louche charm of those famous Parisian writers’ haunts Les Deux Magots or the Café de Flore, but as a place for would-be writers to complete their languishing lockdown projects, the Manuscript Writing Café is surely poised to become a global franchise.

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