what I learned cooking in Denmark

by Helen Yu

A Kitchen design for Hell

I’ve been in a lot of different kitchens, all over the world. In China, where I’m from, I have, of course, seen many kitchens. When I moved to America, one of the first things I looked for was the kitchen. Strangely, Chinese kitchens and American kitchens are not that different -- they’re made for mess and fast cooking. It wasn’t until I moved to Denmark that for the first time in my young life that the kitchen, or should I say, the design of the kitchen, made perfect and total sense.

Whether we know it or not, we are deeply attuned to space and the tremendous effect it has on how we move and behave. In Denmark, the culture has thought in a deep manner how we maneuver through a kitchen: the quality of light, the texture on the floor; the placement of cups, bowls, soap case, eggbeater, chopsticks; the relationship between chairs and tables.In Denmark, I had one fantastic kitchen experience after another. And I began to think of Danish kitchen design as something akin to music. It complements people’s daily lives and even anticipates our moods and needs.

Danish Perfection

Danish locals get up early and go to work and I do the same. In the morning, I stop by the coffee machine next to the kitchen door. Make a fresh cup and some toast. Danish bread tastes pretty sour, but the coffee is refreshing. Soon, I cross the kitchen and go straight to the backyard. I unlock my bike, and ride away. One of the best aspects of the Danish kitchen is you can just pass it by for quick snacks.

But I wanted to test it for more rugged use and so I had the first of many dinner parties. As I was cooking and waiting for my guests, I was nervous, though the Danish kitchen anticipates the nervous cook. I checked the fire for cooking rice and turned back to the cutting mat and kept chopping vegetables. Everything in the kitchen was so well placed that even though I was hurried and disorganized, it guided me through the process of making a dinner.

If you look at the design, it helps you identify and complete the kind of work you need to do. There’s an easy relationship between where you chop and dice and where the cooking takes place. It’s as if you can see it all happening in a glance. You can’t be in two places at once, formerly only possible in science fiction movies, but in the Danish kitchen it feels as if you are.

Can the Danish Kitchen contain the Chinese Cook?

When the doorbell rang, I wasn’t ready but I was relaxed. My friends arrived. I had laid out the ingredients for making a salad, but hadn’t even begun to make it yet. One of my guests asked if I needed help—young Chinese guys are always ready to help the host. Yan moved spoons, forks and napkins from the shelf above the washing machine while I was preparing the last dish. It was an easy to work together, even though we were right next to each other.

Then Yan started to cut lettuce, honeydew melon, cucumber and garden asparagus. He cut them all in square pieces, because that’s what architects do – make square objects. Soon, the deep bowl was filled up with all the uniform pieces while everyone else sat at the table and waited for him to finish. In the Danish kitchen anyone can take over. Suffice to say, the rest of the dinner went off without a hitch.

As we were all cleaning up the kitchen together, I realized my identity as a Chinese national who grew up in a huge country with a reputation for making great food had changed by being in Denmark. Like a character in a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale, I had been transformed without knowing it, the little mermaid of the kitchen.

©Helen Yu and the CCA Arts Review

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