the gorilla guide to tiny kitchens

It was easy for me because I started at zero. When I moved from the United States to Germany six years ago, I didn’t save any space in my suitcase for kitchen items. That first year I lived with a host family (who had their own designer mega-kitchen), and once I got my own apartment, the trash very quickly provided all the pots, pans, plates, silverware, and cups I needed, and regular visits to the flea market added a few other things that I didn’t need, but loved dearly for their textures, weight, or aesthetic.

My first apartment in Germany had a minuscule kitchen (I’d estimate it was probably about five or six square meters total). A dorm-sized fridge fit beneath the little counter space against the far wall. An electric double-burner/oven combination rested on top of a short stack of shelves set at a right angle to the fridge. Next to the oven was a sink, at a right angle to that the door, at a right angle to that a folding table that just barely allowed entrance when open. Against the wall that led out of the kitchen and into the rest of the one-room attic studio were floor to ceiling shelves that I happily filled with dried foods in glass containers, true to my food-hoarding habits.

It was tiny, but it was incredibly cozy. It was too small to cook in with more than two people (and even that was a stretch), but to me it felt like it was just the right size. And lucky for me, it schooled me in leaving most of the kitchen ware I found in the trash behind for someone else to covet.

I’ve been involved with a number of kitchens since, but the smallest of all is the winter kitchen I currently use. (I call it the winter kitchen because in the summer the Beard and I go back to using a four-meter trailer as our kitchen base—in the winter the place just doesn’t heat efficiently.) It consists of a sideboard about 150 cm in both length and height, half of the storage space within it, the space between it and the ceiling (which includes one shelf of about two meters in length), and one wooden wine crate shelf. I’d guestimate it at four square meters total.

All in all, it really isn’t much space to work with, so how do I deal? I thought that today, for all the tiny housers and declutterers (present and future) reading, I would share my thoughts on how to keep a functioning kitchen on such a small scale. May I present to you: The Click Clack Gorilla Small Kitchen Crash Course.

Keep nothing that you’re not madly, wildly, irreversibly in love with (or use at least once a week). This meeting of passion and practicality is the most important tip for turning a big kitchen into a small kitchen. Don’t bother with stuff you feel neutral about. Life’s too short, and moving clutter from one place to the next too annoying. Do you really want to have to spend time cleaning stuff you don’t love? When you could be doing something you do love instead? (And remember, don’t confuse nostalgic sentimentality with love.)

Pare down your kitchen ware. If you’re a human with a kitchen and 18 or more years of birthdays behind you, then you probably have a heap of kitchen stuff that you’ve accumulated, bought, and inherited piece by piece ever since you first moved out of your parent’s place. And it’s probably a lot more than you really need.

If your kitchen is teeny tiny, then you need to think long and hard about practicality. Keep only cups that can handle both hot and cold liquids. Metal mugs, for example, are really practical. Not only can use them for both cold and hot drinks, you can set them right on top of the wood stove to turn the former into the latter. Unfortunately, neither the trash nor the flea market has yet graced me with one that I liked.

As for all the bowls and plates and silverware, don’t keep more than the maximum number of guests you would ever invite into your home at one time—in the case of a small home like mine, this number is going to be last-refrain-at-the-limbo-bar low, and remember, you can always ask guests to bring their own should you be taken with the idea of giving a 50-person dinner party. Choose plates with high rims that can double as soup bowls. Get rid of everything—and I really mean every single thing—that doesn’t fall under “violent loves” or “incredibly useful.”

Rethink the way you cook. If you are used to cooking exotic things with heaps of unusual ingredients, then you need to have space to store those ingredients in your cupboards. If I didn’t already have a pretty simplistic approach to cooking, a kitchen this size would probably result in more frustration than joy. But I like to cook as simply as I live, and I’m just not interested in chasing down, using, or storing things I don’t use at least once a week, and in return I don’t need as much storage space.

Think multi-function. The more tricks that pot or bowl can turn, the more welcome it will be in an itty bitty kitchen. No one-trick gadgets.

Imagine—if you like silly visuals as much as I do—that you are the CEO of a company being forced to downsize amidst economic recession. Your current employees (i.e. all the items in your kitchen) are interviewing for the few remaining positions. Look at each one sternly and assess their skills—those who are most versatile are going to get (re)hired. Everyone else will get laid off and will have to trudge to the unemployment office (the thrift shop) to find a job in somebody else’s kitchen. Sure, they’ll grumble and you’ll feel guilty, but the truth is that they’ll be fine without you.

The one place this metaphor can’t go, but my conscience demands my efforts to live small consider, is that I’ll give the most beautiful plate the job every time. While I wouldn’t recommend this to CEOs making decisions about lay-offs, I love being surrounded by beautiful things, and I find it important to maintain a balance of both beauty and practicality.

Conjure storage space out of thin air. Hang things! Hang things everywhere! I hang knives on a magnetic strip on the wall, wine glasses in a nifty wooden holder from the ceiling, and everything else with a handle or a hook from a bar affixed on the wall above my counter space. This frees up an incredible amount of room, and you’ll never have to move anything off the counter to wipe away crumbs or dust.

Share your stuff. This one can be a bit tricky because successful sharing (of anything really, but especially kitchen items) requires good communication skills and a healthy sense of responsibility. Everyone involved in the share needs to be able to use the item when they need it (for example, a permanent “spot” that where the item is always returned so it is easy for all to find and access), and everyone who uses the item (or items) needs to make sure it is clean and ready to be used again when they are finished.

You don’t want to find the pan you need encrusted with your buddy’s tomato sauce as much as the next person doesn’t want to find the bread form encrusted with last week’s rye loaf. This makes cooking frustrating and sharing (damn near) impossible. Shared kitchens are always one of the biggest contention points of communal living, and yet, if you can manage it, sharing kitchen items with your neighbors is also be one of the easiest ways to own less stuff.

Rethink everything—including the kitchen sink. I no longer use a refrigerator. I cook on one electric hot plate or on my wood stove. If I want to bake, I need to visit someone with a little more space in their kitchen. I wash the dishes in a large metal bowl that I hang outside when I’m not using it. Yes, these things are extreme. No, these changes aren’t for everyone. But they are possible. If having an itty bitty kitchen would make you happy, then just remember there is nothing in your kitchen that you couldn’t live without. In this case, the wheel can be reinvented.

The rewards. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t really love cleaning or doing the dishes. But with fewer kitchen stuff and a smaller space, I have less to clean. And because I really really REALLY fucking love every single thing I have kept, I find that when the dirty dishes reach critical mass, I no longer really mind doing them.

Anyone have any of their own tiny kitchen tips to share? I’m always looking for a new way to hang things from the ceiling or clear out shelves, and just writing this all down has me plotting a few changes in my kitchen niche to tackle as the spring air pumps me full of unprecedented energy.

This post was a part of Simple Lives Thursday at GNOWFGLINS.

0 Comments on “the gorilla guide to tiny kitchens

  1. No tips that could top yours, our kitchen is tiny by american-house standards, but the space feels like plenty to me, I should document it sometime…

    Did you go to the festival yesterday, I want to hear stories from that! No mardi gras in MN this year, but hopefully will get to do a little celebrating on St. Patty’s next week, do they have that in Germany?

  2. I don’t know if I have any additional tips, because I find my kitchen stuff tends to overflow- and most of it does get used fairly often. Maybe not once a week (for example, the pressure canner only gets used in the summer, but then it gets used a lot), but I use the same rule I use for my clothes: if I can hide it away and find it six months later and not have missed it, then it’s time for it to go. Even if upon rediscovery I have second thoughts.

    My favorite space saver in my kitchen though is my garlic basket. For all the garlic we save, it is crucial to have a place to put it where it will stay nice and dry- and the hanging basket does just that:

    Needless to say you’ve inspired me to do another cull. It’s easy right now since a lot of stuff taking up space isn’t mine…

  3. FVM: Oo, yes please document your kitchen! We didn’t end up going into town for the massacre on Monday, but since you asked, I was thinking of writing a more detailed tale of last year’s adventure there. Streets were pissed on, members of the party were lost, and the entire city scurried with people collecting bottles to their profit. Seems worth a more detailed post indeed…

    Lindsey: Your welcome! Glad it was helpful. 🙂

    Fishie: That happens to me with clothes too. I usually pack some things away in the summer/winter, and when I unapck then I tend to have completely forgotten what was in there. I usually don’t get rid of them then though, just think of it like shopping in my own closet: All the thrill of getting something new with none of the expense.

  4. Pingback: dumpster find of the week: and the kitchen grows | click clack gorilla

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