Kitchen Makeover: The chef at Modesto gets a kitchen she wants to come home to

Ever wonder how St. Louis would fare as the setting for some of your favorite reality shows? “The Amazing Race”? Contestants would have to navigate to Downtown, during rush hour, without using a major east-west artery. “Iron Chef”? Provel ice cream, anyone? “The Apprentice”? Aspiring Trump-ettes would work the line at Ted Drewes.

Recently we worked to pull off our own St. Louis reality show: “Top Chef” meets “Top Design.”

We paired up local chef Grace Dinsmoor with a team of design experts in order to reorganize and update her home kitchen.

And while those reality shows generally serve up a huge steaming pile of drama, we managed to achieve a great look without resorting to bodily harm or crimes against design.

Dinsmoor is the chef at Modesto, which serves an array of Spanish tapas. At work, her kitchen is highly organized and on display for everyone to see. At home, however, it’s a different story. Dinsmoor recently moved into a 1920s-era brick bungalow in the Holly Hills neighborhood. The house has tons of charm, but the kitchen was not up to her exacting standards.

The space in the kitchen was great, but “it lack[ed] functional storage,” Dinsmoor said. Since she puts in tremendously long hours at the restaurant, Dinsmoor doesn’t often sit down to a traditional family dinner. She does, however, entertain – a lot. “[I’ve] always had the party house,” Dinsmoor explained. Events can range from more formal gatherings to spontaneous parties. “[I] may have 60 people come over at 1 a.m., after the restaurant closes.”

The dark, ungainly cabinets and laminate countertops in Dinsmoor’s kitchen don’t really reflect her Old World sensibilities. As anyone who’s enjoyed the food at Modesto can imagine, Dinsmoor coveted a more old-fashioned, Mediterranean feel. And although she craved storage, it wasn’t necessarily for pantry items – Dinsmoor doesn’t keep a lot of canned goods on hand – rather, she needed a place for her large-scale, professional-weight pots and pans. The chef admitted that sooner or later, the kitchen would need a total rehab, but that’s an operation second only to childbirth in terms of its pain and mess. So she hoped for a few quick fixes that would liven up the space and give her extra storage.

Chef extraordinaire, meet designer extraordinaire.

Designer Meredith Wanamaker of St. Louis-based The Lawrence Group stepped in to help translate Dinsmoor’s needs into reality.

“Grace wanted to improve the flow of operation. She needed the space to work better together,” Wanamaker said. “The existing storage configuration didn’t work. Nothing was where she wanted it to be.”

Wanamaker believed that with a more efficient use of space, all of Dinsmoor’s goals could be realized. The kitchen contains two fairly large pantry areas, and Wanamaker advocated removing the existing shelving and replacing it with adjustable pieces. The main pantry had shelving mounted on the inside of the doors, but it kept the doors from closing and would need to be removed. A good number of the cabinets were so deep as to be unusable. They, too, would need a makeover.

In terms of color scheme, Dinsmoor prefers Mediterranean tones, especially orange. “Orange is my feel-good color,” Dinsmoor laughed. Any plans would also need to accommodate the chef’s two children – four-legged children, that is. Dinsmoor shares space with two large mixed-breed dogs, Dulcinea and Sancho. She especially needed a more attractive way to store what seemed like several tons of dog food. Wanamaker vowed this would not just be an impossible dream.

Over the years, Dinsmoor has accumulated a number of chef figurines along with a sizable collection of Fiestaware. Wanamaker wanted to group the collections together to create a more cohesive and visually appealing look.

Wanamaker trolled the aisles of Cornucopia, Kirkwood’s kitchenware mecca. “Cornucopia has a treasure trove of Fiestaware,” she noted. She picked out some gorgeous serving pieces, including a cobalt water pitcher and an orange Le Creuset Dutch oven heavy enough that it could be used for weight training in a pinch. Dinsmoor felt she was well stocked in the “kitchen gadget” department; she tends to avoid a lot of high-tech devices anyway. However, her eyes did light up like Britney Spears in a barber shop when Wanamaker pulled out new silicone basting brushes and an enormous metal whisk.

Decorative touches also arrived by way of World Market in Brentwood. Wanamaker drew inspiration from an attractive cotton rug that could be used to dress up a floor that has seen better days. Filled with shades of blue and brown, the rug served as a catalyst for other visual embellishments. Wanamaker also scored a ceramic beverage container that will serve as decoration most of the time but can be pulled out to hold sodas or bottled water during a party.

Wanamaker worked extensively with The Container Store, which recently opened in Brentwood, to improve the functionality of the kitchen. Elfa shelving, which can be easily adjusted to accommodate even the tallest stock pot, was installed in both pantry areas. She chose a platinum finish for the shelving units because she felt it was more reflective of a professional kitchen.

Scott Paul, an organization expert at The Container Store, suggested a multi-drawer Elfa kitchen cart be housed in the main pantry; it includes a butcher-block top and casters. The drawers actually looked more like fine mesh baskets and can store a variety of cookware or utensils. The butcher-block top serves as an extra prep area or could be covered with a cloth and used as a serving piece during parties.

Pieces that can do double duty are imperative if you’re trying to give a kitchen a face-lift without breaking the bank. Look for items that are functional, of course, but also seek out those with your design aesthetic. Choose utensils or cookware in a shade that complements your overall décor scheme, rather than boring white or black. This will provide a pop of color without breaking the bank. Wanamaker found an ornately carved wooden tray at World Market that usually holds coffee accoutrements but is nice enough to use as a serving piece during parties.

Shelving and storage don’t have to be the flyover country of the design world, they can serve as a focal point in the kitchen. In Dinsmoor’s kitchen, eight 14-by-14-inch galvanized steel cubes were placed underneath the overhang of the breakfast bar. Previously, the area had gone unused because it lacked the depth for comfortable seating. But with the steel cubes from The Container Store – voila! – a whole area of storage and display opened up.

The galvanized surface of the cubes added just a touch of urban sophistication to the Mediterranean feel of the room. Wanamaker added X-shaped dividers to a few cubes for wine storage and shelves to a few others to give even more visual panache to the area.

One of the problem areas in Dinsmoor’s kitchen was the depth of some of the cabinets. They are too deep for practical use. As she put it, “if I have to get out the step stool to get something, it’s not happening. It might as well go out to the garage sale.” Case in point, a deep cabinet proved an awkward holding compartment for dried spices, and reaching all the way to the back of the cabinet was awkward, rendering almost half the space unusable. But when equipped with a pull-down spice rack, it instantly became 100 percent usable. The spices are now right at eye level, easy to both see and reach.

Also doing double duty in the kitchen are the countertops. While they are not the countertops of Dinsmoor’s dreams, they are functional and just need a few accessories to bring them to life. An 11-inch slate turntable from The Container Store sits next to the oven, allowing easy access to all the luscious oils and salts that Dinsmoor uses for home cooking. “I’m proud of the materials I use,” she said. “I don’t want to hide them away.”

Wanamaker believed the final product did not stray very far from the vision she and Dinsmoor created together. “Everything came together very well. It is now more usable for her.”

Overall, Dinsmoor found the experience to be extremely positive, completely changing her perception of a previously cramped and dark space. “It’s nice to walk in and not feel cluttered.” She particularly enjoyed the chance to work with Paul and Wanamaker. “I felt Meredith really knew me. ... From now on, I would always go with a professional,” she said, adding that both designers worked hard to bring her vision to life. “I learned I don’t need everything out in the same space.” Now she is ready to tackle some larger cosmetic issues with the kitchen, namely a new floor. But in terms of this project? “I wouldn’t change a thing.”