Take a kitchen. Strip it back to its basic elements. What have you got? A space with a source of heat and water, and somewhere cool and dry for storage. But, in truth, a kitchen has always been much more than that.
Throughout the ages, kitchens have also been places where people come together, cook together, work together, eat together, and keep warm. As such, they’re living breathing spaces: full of energy, purpose, and community.
The history of the kitchen is as old as that of humankind itself – Neanderthals gathering together on the rugged steppes and grassy plains, roasting hulking slabs of meat over raging flames, the smoke billowing into a prehistoric sky.
And in this coming together, with food as the focal point, came the bonds that began to unite people, a sense of community that kept people safe and sowed the seeds of civilisation.
Eventually, perhaps finally fed up of their barbecues getting perpetually rained upon, humankind brought cooking indoors, into their mud-huts and yurts. Still, kitchens remained resolutely communal spaces, with cooking very much a collective endeavour. And this tradition continued right down the centuries, from the open public kitchens of the Romans to the longhouses of the Middle Ages.
But then things started to change. The wealthiest had begun separating the kitchen from the rest of the home, concerned as they were about the smoke and smells (and frankly the slaves and servants) invading their pristine living quarters.
And then in Renaissance times, the chimney arrived, moving the hearth from the centre of a home to the back wall. Then living-room stoves meant kitchens were no longer required for warmth. And so the kitchen became relegated to a small separate room tucked away at the back of the home.
And so it remained. A hidden room. Unloved. For it was accommodating an activity – cooking – that was seen as damningly menial.
And since this time-consuming chore invariably landed on the woman, society had come to isolate women not just from the workplace, but in some ways from the rest of the home as well. And so in a dark corner of its history, the kitchen had become a symbol, and even a tool, for the subjugation of women.
But recent decades have brought a revolution. Various factors, all interrelated, have played a role. And sometimes revolutions can start with the humblest of beginnings: so cue the unassuming extractor fan – funneller extraordinaire of smoke and smells.
This modern chimney proved to be the liberator of the kitchen. For rather than being a culinary panic room, barricaded off from the rest of the home as an architectural afterthought, the kitchen could now connect seamlessly to the rest of the home, or even accommodate its own living or dining space. Finally we could enjoy our Netflix box-sets without having our clothes and carpets steeped in unseemly cooking odours.
Such change was also fuelled by trends in home design, and the realisation that, with all its fixtures and fittings, kitchens could offer the perfect canvas. But kitchens weren’t just pieces of art, or things to behold, and neither did they have to be fancy schmancy or the preserve of the wealthy.
For rather than a static canvas, kitchens are more like a stage, replete with props in the form of tools, gadgets and gizmos, and constantly humming with the flow of human drama that unfurls over its tiles or lino.
Crucially, the open spaces have allowed other activities to proceed alongside the cooking, from discussing the day’s ups and downs, to sharing stories, to kids playing up and down the aisle. Just like it was in ancient times.
And as kitchen walls have come down, so have other barriers: cooking itself has opened up to people not so previously involved before. The image of the archetypal 1950’s Fairy Liquid housewife, labouring in an isolated kitchen, now feels outdated. These days, both men and women share kitchen spaces, and even if the duties aren’t equally shared quite as yet, kitchens are at least more accessible and egalitarian places than they used to be.
And helping all this along is a genuine and burgeoning interest in cooking. Society places an increasing value on it, a far cry from its historic and universal association with hardship and drudgery. Just look at the proliferation of books, blogs, magazine columns and TV programmes all dedicated to food these days.
As a kid, the kitchen was the room in the house that drew me in the most, with its enticing smells and promises of something nice. I loved to watch my mum cook and bake, and I’d be thrilled at any opportunity to join in. (My dad on the other hand could somehow burn a boiled egg.. but at least he always pitched in with the washing up!)
In this way, I began to learn about cooking’s ways and rhythms – when’s best to snatch a chocolate-chip cookie from the rack, and when to nab a steaming bowl of chicken soup for a Friday afternoon snack. And from these roots, cooking became something I learned to embrace and cherish.
Fast forward to the present day, and I still enjoy any opportunity I get to be in the kitchen. And although ours is a narrow space, it opens out to the rest of the home, meaning I can chat to my boys as they run about, and they can readily peer on to the kitchen counter, see what’s going on, and increasingly ask to be part of it.
The more we are exposed to cooking, the more we feel the confidence to have a go ourselves. My oldest loves to chop vegetables, my youngest likes stirring and mixing. And there’ll come a time, hopefully, when they’ll find themselves in their own kitchens and cook up their own dishes, and feel the same kind of utter joy and pleasure when feeding their own families and friends.
It’s not often, though, that you have the sense of sitting in someone’s kitchen when you’re actually at a restaurant. Yes, there’s the developing trend in London of counter-stools that overlook the chefs at work – Barrafina, The Palomar and Plot Kitchen for instance – but as entertaining as that can be, you’re still somewhat separate.
Which is why Brat feels different: Brat feels like actually being inside a kitchen.
Okay, so if you end up on the ‘other’ side of the room, you’ll probably wonder what on earth I’m going on about. In fact, with its oak-panelled walls and tables lined up in semi-communal rows, it’d probably feel more like Hogwarts than home.
But by the oven, there’s only a kitchen-island separating it from the diners, the sense of domesticity heightened further by a sunny vase of daffodils sitting atop its counter. All around, chefs hover and buzz like industrious white-aproned bees: chopping and slicing and stirring and whisking and mashing and mixing. And being so close, the temptation is to peer over and, like an over-eager child, dip a furtive finger into a bowl of sauce.
Just behind is a wood-oven, into which the chefs periodically insert whole fish, duck, and proper joints of meat – all enticingly licked by the flames or infused by smoke. And adjacent to that, more stoves and a counter, and more chefs preparing the produce.
I love this blurring of the spaces for cooking and eating. But none of this would work if the food isn’t up to scratch. Luckily no worries there, for the food coming out of Brat’s kitchen truly sings.
Given the wood fire, it’s of no surprise that most dishes are smoked or charred. Take the smoked cod’s roe – on one hand it’s cool and creamy, but it’s also rich, heady and redolent of fire from its dallying encounter with smoke.
Fire also does magic things to some cuts of lamb – a throwback to those prehistoric times – whilst the charring of leeks intensifies their vegetal allium flavours, mellowed by a mild cheese sauce.
Simply-roasted lemon-sole wooes with its sweet delicate flesh that melts on the tongue – an ephemeral moment that reminds us that even the best things come to an end, a fleeting hint of loss and death.
But before missing that dish too keenly, something delectable then suddenly appears – a ‘burnt’ cheesecake with a perfect pink foil of poached rhubarb by its side.
Kitchens have indeed changed greatly throughout history. But until recently, restaurants have generally stuck to the same trusted formula, with kitchens and the cooking wizardry hidden mysteriously behind impenetrable swing doors. But now the wrecking ball is out, breaking down the barriers between the experience of food and its preparation. The revolution’s in full swing, and at the forefront is Brat.
Another barrier that’s crumbling is gender inequality in professional kitchens: women have long been under-represented in the food and restaurant industries, but like with domestic kitchens, things are finally improving; organisations like Women Of Food and Parabere Forum are doing great work to champion gender equality. On another note, as this piece is admittedly rather Western-centric (and even then, with a fair few generalisations thrown in!), if you’d like to share any of your own experiences of the kitchen, and particularly those in other countries, then please do so in the Comments below. Finally, if you’ve liked this piece on Brat, you may also be interested in my article on ‘home and homeship’ and review of Campania & Jones.
Brat Restaurant, London