In years past when Jay Garner of Richmond, Va., prepared what has become one of his family’s signature meals — the sailor sandwich, a grilled combination of pastrami, knockwurst and Swiss cheese on mustard-laden rye bread — he could, at best, cook two at once in a frying pan.
But after an extensive kitchen renovation that included the installation of a $2,500 gas range with a built-in griddle, Garner boasts that he can now make six at a time, and with better results. The fact that Garner hasn’t yet concocted sailor sandwiches in batches that large is only partially relevant to understanding why the 43-year-old technology consultant and food enthusiast believes it was worth spending $33,000 to outfit his kitchen with restaurant-style equipment and marbletop counters.
“My wife loves it,” he said. “She likes it when people come over and say, ’Wow!”
Garner is not alone in his quest to improve his cooking and the look of his home with industrial-chic kitchen appliances and cookware. His preference for high-quality and expensive equipment, such as a Wolf range, All-Clad pans and J.A. Henckels knives, is emblematic of the growing seriousness with which many Americans approach food and cooking.
The so-called foodie subculture has moved gradually from the fringes to the mainstream over several decades — from Julia Child and Jacques Pepin teaching cooking on public television to the proliferation of farmers’ markets to the creation of a 24-hour cable food channel — and industry insiders predict it will only pick up steam in the years ahead.
“The fact that we’re giving food this kind of attention means that it just gets bigger from here,” said Ruth Reichl, editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine.
Garner and the rest of America’s foodies are no longer satisfied merely mimicking cookbook techniques, buying funny-looking organic mushrooms or getting adventurous about where they go out to eat. Increasingly, they want the tools of the trade, too, and they want them on display — even if they aren’t always getting as much use as planned.
“These are things that I hope to use more in the future when I have more time,” 37-year-old Washington resident Kat Song said of the appliances she recently bought while remodeling her kitchen: a Wolf stove, a SubZero refrigerator and a Miele dishwasher. Of course, with one young child and another on the way, Song said it’ll be a few years before she whips up many meals just for fun.
Just because more Americans are interested in food and spending big bucks on their kitchens, don’t get the wrong impression. On average, stoves and ovens are getting less of a workout each year, said Harry Balzer, a Chicago-based vice president at NPD Group, a consumer marketing research firm.
On a nightly basis, fewer than 50 percent of at-home dinners were cooked on a stove in 2004, down from 67 percent in 1985, according to an NPD survey. Ovens were used 28 percent of the time, down from 31 percent over the same period.
Balzer said the extra spending on restaurant-quality stainless steel appliances and cookware “is aspirational,” reflecting a lifestyle busy Americans would like to have, in which they spend more time preparing meals in the kitchen, rather than ordering takeout for the sake of convenience.
“The movement is really toward recreational cooking,” he said.
Manufacturers and retailers say the rising interest in high-end stoves, refrigerators and cookware has intensified competition to the point that profit margins are not as sweet as they once were, but business remains very good.
Dvorson’s, a Sausalito, Calif.-based retailer of food service equipment, has seen its annual sales more than triple to almost $4 million since 1997, according to 39-year-old Josh Dvorson, who now runs the business that his father started more than 50 years ago. Internet sales have been a major contributor to the company’s growth, Dvorson said, but the ease with which consumers can comparison-shop online has also kept prices in check.
The Viking Range Corp. of Greenwood, Miss., has made a decent name for itself by selling “commercial type” ranges since the 1980s; the company’s percentage sales growth has been in the double digits over the past three years, compared with single-digit growth before that, according to Bob Woods, vice president of sales.
The company’s headquarters has even become a tourist destination, attracting some 5,000 people per year.
“Between the interest in kitchen design and the interest in food, it’s a great category to be in right now,” said Michele Bedard, head of marketing at Subzero Freezer Company Inc.
The high quality and the wow factor in kitchens is not just about America’s surging interest in food. One of the biggest trends in home design is the creation of a “great room,” in which the kitchen is not walled off from the rest of the house.
“The cook doesn’t want to be locked away in the kitchen anymore. He or she wants to be around the guests,” said Reichl. “That means that kitchen appliances suddenly become like a sofa and table — things that everybody is going to look at. I think it’s a real indication of where we are in food culture today.”
Mark Erickson, vice president of continuing education at the Culinary Institute of America, said the public’s growing interest in cooking is evident in the rising popularity of the institute’s weekend adult education programs, its one-week culinary “boot-camp” for nonprofessionals and its chef-guided tours around the world — a program that was developed for professionals but which quickly attracted the enthusiasm of weekend warriors willing to pay $5,000 to learn how to cook like the locals do in India, Spain and Vietnam.
But there is another indicator, Erickson said, and it’s closer to home.
“People think of their kitchens as bragging rights,” he said. “Instead of talking about their BMWs, they’re talking about the quality of their ranges.”