Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The (Kitchen) Bermuda Triangle

There is a thing in kitchen design called the “golden triangle” or “work triangle.” This concept puts the three most-used kitchen items…the stove, the fridge, and the sink… within just a few steps of each other and provides counter top space between them. It is not a new or even a high-end concept: my father and step-mother bought a modest new tract home in the early 1960s that incorporated this concept to great effect.

It doesn’t matter how beautiful your kitchen is, how fine the finishes, how modern, trendy and up-to-date the lighting is, if the kitchen is not laid out efficiently, it is going to be a nightmare to work in. A golden triangle layout puts you within easy reach of the fridge, stove and sink, with food prep space in between them. I have had several kitchens of this design and they are excellent, efficient, workspaces.

South Africa has never heard of the Golden Triangle. South African kitchens are more like the Bermuda Triangle, a space given to disaster for even the most casual, laissez-faire cook. Even in new homes, the kitchens here are horrendous, classic examples of inefficient design and poor layout, and a testament to having been designed with no thought given to function. Oh, many of them are lovely…the kitchen in my rented house is beautiful---and spacious, too---but it is an absolute nightmare to cook in because the layout, in a word, sucks.

I paced it off the other day…eight paces from stove to the kitchen sink (which is in another room), ten paces from the sink to the refrigerator (which is in yet another room), twelve paces from the fridge back to the stove. This is about double the optimum distance between the major points in the kitchen...imagine carrying a heavy pot of pasta and boiling water into another room to drain it! I’ll give a bit of credit for good thinking…a small round prep sink has been installed a few feet from the stove but, unfortunately, it was installed in a corner, set well back from the edge of the countertop, and one needs to have the arms of and orang-utan to use it without neck and back strain.

Sadly, this kitchen with the lovely window overlooking a lush garden (in front of which there is no sink but should be), is typically South African. The lighting consists of a single light fitting in the centre of the ceiling…the kind you might put in an entry way and which uses only one dim bulb…and a light in the exhaust hood above the stove. That’s it…no task lighting, no wall sconces, no downlighters…and when I try to chop veggies after dark, invariably my shadow falls on everything because there is but a single light in the centre of the kitchen which, wherever I might be standing, is behind me.

This lack of forethought and planning is typical of the South African kitchen. This is a country where the vast majority of middle-class families have household help…the PC phrase is “domestic workers,” but the truth is, we have maids. And a rather large percentage of South African kitchens have a second room attached to them and that room is called a scullery. Originally the scullery was intended for washing up…that was where the grubby work was done, like washing pots and such. But, because the scullery is a rather amorphous space, without any hard and fast conceptual rules to keep it honest, South African kitchen designers (and redesigners and homeowners) each have their own ideas of what a scullery is/should be…and the result is nothing short of disastrous.

The scullery in my house isn’t too bad. It has a tall cupboard for cleaning supplies, brooms, etc., a double kitchen sink (remember, the kitchen has only that puny little prep sink) and space beneath the counter top for a washing machine and dishwasher (washers are all front loaders here). There is a door to the garage and another door out to the “drying yard” with the clothes lines. This is pretty much what a scullery is supposed to be…a place for washing dirty dishes, storing cleaning supplies, keeping the stinky trash bin, mops, brooms, laundry… But there is a problem here… I have acres of counter-top space in the kitchen and a table that seats eight. On either side of that scullery sink is barely a 2-foot by 2-foot piece of counter space…hardly space to put all of the dishes before and after washing and certainly no space to hide the aftermath of a cooking orgy from the view of my dinner guests seated at the dining table in the open plan space that combines kitchen and dining room. Also, the trash bin is in a cupboard in the scullery, meaning I have to hike there and back to dispose of eggshells or packaging…actually, I toss it in that silly prep sink, which is useless for draining potatoes or pasta (awkward location splashes boiling water all over the counter top) and impossible to reach for peeling anything.

As inadequate as my scullery is, some of the ones I have seen in houses for sale were downright flabbergasting. In two houses in the last ten days I have seen kitchens that contained nothing more than a breakfast table/bar and a stovetop. I am not kidding! Oh, a few cupboards and some countertop space, but no refrigerator, no microwave oven, no sink (not even a prep sink)…nothing but a stove and a place to eat. I tried to imagine myself cooking breakfast in one of those kitchens…eggs burning on the stove, toast burning in the toaster in the scullery while I’m digging around in the refrigerator out in the hallway looking for the cream for Hubby’s coffee. The major “stations” of the golden triangle were in different rooms…and this was a remodelled kitchen!! I shudder to think what it must have looked like before!

In another house with a remodelled kitchen, the scullery was literally twice the size of the actual kitchen and was, in fact, the kitchen minus the stove. In a long narrow space adjacent to the scullery there was some countertop space with a stovetop fitted into the centre. If you were standing there cooking, your back would be to another countertop that was supposed to be the breakfast bar, and beyond that bar was the family room. Unfortunately, the chairs for the breakfast bar completely blocked the walkway space from the front of the house to the bedrooms, so if anyone wanted to travel from the front door or living room to the bedroom, those sitting at the breakfast bar would have to move to allow access. This kitchen had no prep sink, no appliances, nothing except the stove…the rest of the kitchen was in another room.

South African kitchens tend to have the washing machine plumbing in them. I consider this kinda gross. Even if the washer is in the scullery, I don’t exactly relish the thought of my soiled undies and Hubby’s dirty socks sharing space with the drinking glasses and forks…ew! And what if a basket of laundry is sitting on the scullery floor and you trip and spill a plate of leftover spaghetti onto a basket of whites? I like the idea of a laundry space, but my kitchen…or scullery…just doesn’t do it for me.

Kitchens in this country don’t have garbage disposals and most of them have insufficient drawer space as well. For as large as my present kitchen is, there are only four drawers. Base cabinets here do not have a drawer above the doors, as is the norm in American kitchens. I have a single bank of four drawers which is next to the stove and more than 15 paces from the dining room table. So, forks, spoons and other table ware are now kept in the drawer of the china cabinet in the dining room…that one piece of furniture has five drawers in it, one more than my entire kitchen and scullery combined.

The lack of a garbage disposal is not that big a problem in terms of food preparation, but I live in a country that has aggressive flies. You know those TV ads soliciting money for starving children in other countries, the ones that show big-eyed little black children with flies crawling all over their faces? Yup…those flies. Nasty buggers that will fly under your glasses, up your nose, and even try to enter your mouth as you open to put a forkful of food in it. They have never heard of window screens in this country, so the flies are everywhere, and I’ll bet you can just imagine what a kitchen bin smells like in 90°F heat…and how difficult it is to keep the flies away from it. A garbage disposal would be nice…

One of the things I do like about South African kitchens is that they all seem to have ceramic tile floors, which are pretty easy to clean. They’re awfully hard on dropped crockery, though, but seem to clean up easier than the vinyl floors that are the norm in American kitchens.

But the bottom line is, the average South African kitchen is a dismal affair. Poorly designed and badly laid out, unimaginative (no kitchen islands, no pot racks, no gas ranges or microwave shelves) and wholly dysfunctional, the kitchens here are, at best, bleak.

We’re still house hunting but have come to the conclusion that as far as the kitchens go, we are just going to have to take one that has sufficient floor space so I can tear it all out and do it right…and that means a complete redesign using the golden triangle concept.

**sigh** So much for finding our dream house…


  1. Hey SV! Sorry to hear of your house challenges. Les would really relate to what you wrote about kitchen design. He's a stickler himself. So interesting to read about your experiences in SA.


  2. I was hoping for some photos. Darn :)

  3. I have a Bermuda triangle kitchen too... utensils are never where I left them and everything gets lost in it. ha ha.

  4. Good grief! I have no idea why you are battling so much. Perhaps because I grew up in Joburg I understand it. I live in an old, not so fashionable suburb on the East Rand. The houses were built in the 1950s. They are spacious, the unrenovated ones don't have open plan kitchens.

    So, if you are looking in the northern suburbs, you will be hard pressed to find something that has not been built with complete pretentiousness in mind.

    P.S. I have NEVER had a fly problem such as the one you mention, and I cannot imagine what is causing yours. Your friends back home must think we are complete savages after your last 2 blogs.


  5. You're dead on about the houses in the Northern Suburbs, Liz...they are poorly designed, too costly, pretentious, and those that have been added onto, suffer from what my husband calls the "glommed on effect." Unfortunately, however, Hubby works in Sunninghill, so to keep him from having to spend two hours each way in his car (which is a sports car with a heavy clutch that he will NOT give up), we are limiting our search to places with reduced commute problems.

    I don't understand the fly problem either. I have friends in Four Ways, Randburg, and Bucchleuch and they don't have it. But I live on a boomed crescent in the pretentious part of Douglasdale...not in some sewage-strewn dump...and these flies are horrifying! I opened my fridge this morning and found one inside! I have to put a net over food I am preparing if I leave it for even a moment (like to get the salt out of the cupboard). I eat with my fork in one hand, waving the other hand to keep them away from my face as I eat. I have been in SA for six years and never seen anything like it!

    If you live in Joburg you have to be aware of the problems with the streets...we had dinner in Mandela Square this evening and the roads getting out of Sandton were like washboards! We literally lost our front license plate in a series of potholes in Paulshof...these are upmarket places where the roads SHOULD be good...they are as bad as any old rutted country road I have driven out by my Dad's farm.

    I've been in Joburg for six weeks and so far, nothing I've come across makes me want to stay. I really want to go back to Cape Town.

  6. OK, I get what you're saying. My hubby works in Sandton and travels 50km a day to get to work and back, so he leaves 6am and tries to leave work at about 3:30pm.

    We have considered moving closer to his work but it is just not practical for us for many reasons.

    Consider this: Our house is 3 bedroom and on a property of 800sq metres and we paid just under R400k for it 7 years ago (that was just before the prices shot up so drastically). Our rates and taxes are below R400 per month. Please be assured, though, that this is not a low class neighbourhood, just an old, middle class suburb that does not draw the yuppies. We have a fairly safe neigbhourhood where neighbours still wave to each other and know each others names. Where will we find something like this in the North?

    In essence, we weighed up the positives and negatives to both and decided to stay here. My hubby bought himself an automatic and finds his trip to work a little better now :)

    You will also find that there is not as much to do here in JHB as you could in CT. People just eat out a lot and if you feel like something different there are some lovely restaurants at Bedford Square (Bedford Centre) in Bedfordview. It does not get overwhelmingly busy. The botanical gardens in Roodepoort are quite lovely to visit. They have a restaurant. And then of course there is the Joburg zoo and the Pretoria zoo, both worth visiting.

    Change is difficult, but I can certainly understand why you would like to go back to CT. If a person does not grow up in Joey's it's hard to get used to. In the meantime, make the best of it and start making plans to go back to CT. A year will go by very quickly.

    If it wasn't for the wind I would also like to live in CT!

    Be well!

  7. Yah, the wind is pretty brisk down there, but I prefer it to daily thundershowers...I hate lightning and thunder!

    Please don't take me wrong...I LOVE South Africa and have absolutely no mind to leave. But it is different from America in ways Americans cannot imagine. Townships and maids are unknown to them...but many find the idea of a modern first world nation sharing the continent with the likes of Zim and Sudan inconceivable. I had to reassure people, when I told them I was planning to move here, that I was in no more danger from lions and elephants than they are from bears and cougar! Some of the things Americans think about South Africa are true...much, however, is not. But I have to say, living in Cape Town made it easy to forget I was half way around the continent...I really loved Cape Town.

    But I'm afraid we are stuck here indefinitely...the job my husband is being groomed for is not transferrable to another location, it is an HQ job. And because he has 15 years with the company and is diabetic and can't afford to take the chance of going to another company that might retrench him in a few years (the medical aid literally keeps him alive), he's pretty much stuck with his present employer.

    So, we continue to househunt...we think we may have found something in Bryanston... http://www.firztonline.co.za/Property-For-Sale/Gauteng/Sandton/Bryanston/7325.prop What do you think?

  8. Looks exquisite! I have a friend who lives in Bryanston and it seems to be one of the nicer areas!

    I like that you will have trellidor, electric fencing, etc. One cannot be too careful. Only 6km from Sandton City.

    All sounds good. May you get this property if it is right for you. I'm holding thumbs.


  9. sweet violet! it is sooo good to have you back blogging again. i've missed your posts.

    like liz, i also live away from the pretentious north, but if the work is there, then you are stuck.

    our roads are in a horrendous state, to say nothing about the standard of driving, so a long commute is not the ideal. my daughter-in-law lives in the east but works in the north (she also loves your blog) and i know the commute is more tiring for her than her work.

    we built our house when the kids finally left home, about 10 years ago. it is not huge, but very comfortable and we love it. i designed the house myself. all my rooms have doors that close - oh, yes, like you, i like to close a door on mess and cooking smells! the other advantage to my design is i have a dozen power points in my kitchen, AND the design is based around the working triangle. we installed garbage disposal about 2 years ago, and i wouldn't be without it!

    the flies this year have been worse than usual, but we haven't experienced anything like your inundation.
    have you seen a 'park town prawn' yet? you will NOT like those!

    also, be comforted, the weather on the highveld has been somewhat extreme this summer, too. storms are not unusual, but i don't remember them being quite so scary - and i love a good storm.

    good luck with your house hunting. i tried to load the address you gave liz but it doesn't want to go there for me. i'll try again tomorrow.

    i'm off to the kitchen now to cook up your 'Colcannon' for supper - only found your svcooks blog today!

  10. I haven't seen a Parktown prawn yet, but I've seen pics of them...they look a lot like the giant grasshoppers that used to live in my grandmother's fields...they spit "tobacco juice" if you molested them. So far, the biggest thing I have encountered was the cockroach that was busy with the toilet when I went in to use the loo in the middle of the night...not as big as my Cape Town kakkerlakke, but just as reluctant to give way to the bigger creature!

    Mmmmmm...that colcannon is yummy...it is on my menu for the weekend as I have leftover boiled potatoes in the fridge and some brussels sprouts that need to be eaten. Served with meatloaf (recipe on SV Cooks!)it is simply delicious!

  11. SV, I'm glad to see you blogging again. I was aware that you're a cook but I did not know that you know a lot about house designs. Amazing !

    Best Wishes!


  12. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.




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