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John Ota at the Hermann-Grima House, New Orleans (1830).

Courtesy John Ota

“Oh my god!” shouted John Ota, as he sat back, closed his eyes, and chewed, very slowly. “This is the best cutlet I have ever tasted!”

I suspect there is some exaggeration, or perhaps gratitude, flavouring that statement. Who wouldn’t want someone to come over, don the chef’s hat and cook them a three-course dinner?

While I enjoy the company of Mr. Ota and his wife, Frances Rowe, I was on a mission: Is the Ota/Rowe kitchen really as bad as described in Mr. Ota’s new book, The Kitchen: A Journey Through History in Search of the Perfect Design (Random House, 2020)?

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Courtesy Appetite/Random House

Before embarking on an archetypal hero’s journey to better understand, be inspired by, and cook in some of the United States and Canada’s most historically accurate kitchens from the 17th century to the current day, Mr. Ota states that his own kitchen – built in 2005 in Toronto’s Riverdale neighbourhood – is a “cramped and crowded space for two people.” And while he’s “grown accustomed to its inadequacies,” his wife, who has only recently started to take over some of the cooking duties, “hates the kitchen” [italics are Mr. Ota’s].

Clearly Mr. Ota has never cooked in my tiny, vintage 1964 kitchen.

But before I get to why my cutlets were so tasty, let’s open Mr. Ota’s very readable book. Fittingly, his journey begins in a Pilgrim kitchen in Plymouth, Mass., but not before his architect’s eye analyzes the house, a simple, built-by-hand frame cottage covered with clapboard and a thatched bulrush roof. “This is an architecture that reflects a Puritan culture of work and devotion,” he writes. The kitchen within this one-room house is just as simple – an open fire in a pit – and within minutes, the self-described “city boy” is choking on smoke.

Mr. Ota grinds spices in a mortar and pestle in the Pilgrim kitchen in Plymouth, Mass.

Courtesy John Ota

Eventually, Mr. Ota will assist the docent in preparing a meal of duck, quail and vegetables such as turnip and pumpkin. Using a historically accurate knife on the “rock hard” vegetables proves difficult, however, and after “about fifteen minutes” he is “grunting and sweating.” The same goes for when Mr. Ota is handed a mortar and pestle to grind spices; his arms turn to “limp spaghetti” after a half hour that produces only a few teaspoons.

Interestingly, one can trace the evolution of time- and effort-saving innovations through Mr. Ota’s journey. At Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello (which features a separate kitchen building), the author marvels at the French “stew stove,” a long, charcoal-powered appliance that allowed cooks to better control heat under the pans, which was necessary for the fine French sauces that Jefferson loved.

The Pilgrim kitchen is a one-room house with an open fire pit.

Courtesy John Ota

When our hero reaches the 1890 Point Ellice house in Victoria, we learn about massive iron stoves and how they were “a cook’s new best friend.” In an “astoundingly beautiful” 1909 arts and crafts house in Pasadena, Calif., he is confronted by a gas stove from 1908 with six burners that have “temperature-control knobs, an oven and warming compartments.” Soon, Mr. Ota is placing a California walnut pie he’s made into it, which will crown the picnic lunch he is creating.

At the end of each kitchen tour, Mr. Ota writes a (very sweet) letter to his wife to inform her of what he’s learned and how the couple might incorporate some of that knowledge into their upcoming kitchen renovation; after his experiences at the arts and crafts house, he suggests that they consider natural wood cupboards “to express warmth” and perhaps an art glass window to “brighten up our days.”

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In painter Georgia O’Keeffe’s bright, 1949 New Mexico kitchen, Mr. Ota is delighted by how the curving adobe walls contrast with the “clean, modernist aesthetic” of the work surfaces and appliances. “There is no art on the walls. But maybe that’s no surprise,” he quips. “O’Keeffe let the kitchen itself be the art.” Also from the postwar period is a 1956 Frank Lloyd Wright kitchen at Kentuck Knob with its “disappearing stove,” and Julia Child’s 1961 kitchen at the Smithsonian in Washington (where he doesn’t cook, obviously), which is “mass confusion” at first but, upon further analysis, makes perfect sense for “a person who loves to cook.”

Mr. Ota with his Baked Alaska in the kitchen of Frank Lloyd Wright's 1956 Kentuck Knob home, with its 'disappearing stove.'

Courtesy John Ota

Mr. Ota, of course, loves to cook. And, as he toured me around his own kitchen before taking on simple sous-chef tasks such as chopping garlic or boiling water, he and Ms. Rowe pointed out some of the things that bother them: The most-used utensil drawer is directly underneath the most-used preparation surface, which means a lot of interruptions; no thought was put into the kitchen triangle; the cupboards – not natural wood – are chipping badly after only 15 years; and many cupboards are inaccessible without a stool.

And while it is surprisingly inefficient for such a recent kitchen, I acclimatize myself quickly and am soon plating a simple salad of bocconcini, tomato and basil. As Mr. Ota characteristically oohs-and-ahs his delight, I keep one eye on the stove as my quick-yet-zesty tomato sauce reduces. After we eat the pasta, I excuse myself and prep the aforementioned cutlets, which I cannot take credit for (the recipe is from my Montreal friend John Trivisonno’s mother, Carmen; see sidebar). We finish with single malt, decaf and cannoli from Francesca Italian Bakery in Scarborough.

Equal parts travelogue, architectural history, culinary history, social history and personal memoir, The Kitchen: A Journey Through History in Search of the Perfect Design is a literary feast and our hero, Mr. Ota, through his breezy writing style, oozes charm and likability. But, I wonder, has his quest resulted in the ultimate plan for his new kitchen?

“It’s a work in progress,” he said, smiling. “We’re getting there, slowly.”

The Best Chicken Cutlets John Ota Has Ever Tasted

Ingredients

  • Chicken breasts, butchered into quarter- to half-inch thick cutlets
  • Egg
  • White flour
  • Bread crumbs
  • Dried oregano, dried basil, salt, pepper, chili flakes
  • Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Lay out a plate of flour, a bowl with beaten egg, a plate with generous bread crumbs seasoned with oregano, basil, lots of salt, pepper, a sprinkle of chili flakes and some finely-grated Parmigiano. Pound cutlets with a tenderizer, both sides. As your inch of vegetable (or safflower) oil is heating, dip each cutlet in this order: flour, shake off excess; then fully cover with egg; finally, press down into breadcrumb mixture, both sides. Throw a little piece into oil: if it sizzles and bubbles, it is ready. Drop cutlets into hot oil; as they cook, reduce heat a little so they don’t burn. Flip when golden brown on one side. Remove and pat dry with paper towels. Finish by adding a dollop of tomato sauce and either Parmigiano or mozzarella on top, put under broiler or into a 250-F stove for a few minutes.

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