What Dirt Candy Can Teach The World About Being Small

Dirt Candy is small. Really small. Really, really, really small. Just look at this tiny kitchen:

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What does that have to do with you? Well, if you’re one of 35 million Americans who lives in an apartment, then you probably have a tiny kitchen, too. Or maybe you live in a house that was built without a kitchen for some reason and you've had to construct one yourself. In a closet. Either way, over the past six years of running Dirt Candy I’ve learned a lot about how to make the most of an absurdly small amount of space and some of my tips might help you.

First off, realize that you’re starting out ahead of the game. I have to squeeze three or four people into my kitchen every night, you just have to fit you. So, you’re winning already. Pour yourself a glass of victory wine. Then contemplate the most important rule of small kitchens:

Don’t have more than you need.

Let me do that again:

Don't have more than you need.

If it takes you more than sixty seconds to find a piece of equipment or all six of your water glasses or those bowls you like, then you’ve got a problem. Sixty seconds is the general rule of thumb. If your kitchen is as small as Dirt Candy's I’d say cut that number down to thirty seconds.

You know how the rule for closets is if you haven’t worn something in a year, throw it out? The same holds true for kitchens. “But what about…?” I hear you ask. “I’ve got this thing over here I might…?” you begin. And I agree: it is hard to throw things away. But you have to, and when you do you’ll be so much happier.

So you're committed to reducing but you can't seem to get started? Allow me...

First, quality, not quantity. You don’t need two peelers, you just need one good one. I guarantee you will never need an emergency back-up peeler. If you’ve got two of something, you’ve got to be tough and play Sophie’s Choice. Put them next to each other on the counter: Which is nicer? Which is in better condition? Which one do you use more often? Keep that one, send the other one packing. Cry about it later.

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Second, if you’re having a hard time being all Meryl Streep about it, get a box and put in all your questionable items. By questionable items I mean mixer attachments, weird tools you bought once for some purpose you no longer remember, bamboo skewers, strange spoons, plastic attachments for your blender, anything that you cannot use to kill a vegetable. All that stuff, into the box. Now put that box in the closet or under your bed. Over the next six months if you find yourself pulling that box out for stuff, then keep it. If you don’t even remember what’s in there six months later, then that’s a good sign you can get rid of it all.

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Third, if you’re REALLY having a problem deciding, then write down every single piece of equipment and every single bowl and plate you use over the course of the next month. At the end of the 30 days, look at what you use again and again and what you never used at all. Then pull out that box and start packing. Yes, in some unforeseen situation in the far future you might need that giant colander, but when that time comes you can buy a new one or borrow one from the neighbors. Until then, you need the space more than you need the possible future colander.

Fourth, you don’t need more than three knives unless you’re a butcher. Seriously. You need a regular chef’s knife, maybe a paring knife, and a bread knife. If you’re not butchering meat or fish on a regular basis, then you don’t need all those extra knives. To the thrift store they go. Then, get a whetstone and a steel, learn how to use them (it’s not hard and there are a million how-to videos on YouTube), and keep your three knives super-sharp. Trust me, you’ll be happier.

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Fifth, you probably have everyday plates and special occasion plates. If your kitchen is small you’ve only got so much cabinet space to go around. Free more up by taking all those special occasion plates and boxing them up and storing somewhere else. Right now, they’re just taking up valuable real estate.

Sixth, get one set of nested mixing bowls. That’s all you need. All others — to the thrift store.

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So now your kitchen is emptier, which feels good, but how do you use it?

The most important thing is to make sure that the things you use regularly (the saucepan, the whisk, your knife) are front and center, not hiding behind a bunch of other stuff. Plates and serving pieces you rarely use go on the high shelves, your everyday plates and bowls go down low. Put those mixing bowls where you can grab them the second you open your cabinet doors.

The same with ingredients. Get a speed rail or rack near your stove and put your olive oil, salt, and pepper right there where you don’t have to go digging for them when you’re cooking. Throw out your old spices and move the ones you use the most to the front.

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The best spices of all.

Get some hooks. When space is limited, hooks are your best friends. We hang everything at Dirt Candy so that if one of my chefs needs a pan it’s right there in their face and they can just grab it off the hook. If they need a mandolin, it’s dangling by the sink, it’s not hiding in the back of some drawer. In a small kitchen, hooks are your best friends. You can order super-powerful magnetic hooks, or just drill them in yourself, or hang them from pipes.

Then, at some point, I guarantee, you’ll be cooking and run out of pans or mixing bowls or knives and you’ll curse my name. You’ll think, “I never should have listened to that stupid girl because now I don’t have enough mixing bowls.” No, you have plenty. The trick to running a small kitchen is: clean as you cook. At Dirt Candy I only have the number of pots and pans that can be used at one time, so that when they’re dirty my chefs are forced to clean them. That way, they’re cleaning as they go. When service is done there are dirty dishes, but it’s not a mountain of dirty dishes, just a small, manageable hillock. You probably only need two pans, but you have to get used to cleaning them as you cook. Once you form the habit it’s hard to go back.

My tips won’t help everyone, and I'm building a bigger restaurant for a reason (you’d be amazed at how many things I can’t do in a microscopic kitchen), but by being tough-minded about cutting back on your junk, emphasizing quality over quantity, by reorganizing so the things you need are right in front of you, and by cleaning as you go, you can change how you use even the tiniest kitchen without resorting to crazy expensive renovations.