How a Baltimore Chef Built a Timeless Home Studio Kitchen


Renovating your kitchen is a fun and rewarding experience, but it also comes with its fair share of stress. Unfortunately, few projects get executed as smoothly as an HGTV show.

For me, it did feel a bit like planning for an HGTV show. I’m a food writer and photographer, television host, and demo chef, and my home kitchen often serves as my professional set. My redesigned space needed to look camera ready. It needed to be beautiful, yes, but that also meant I couldn’t use any distracting colors or finishes and needed to plan the layout carefully. But I also wanted it to feel like my kitchen. After all, it’s in my home. It needed some personality.

When the kitchen (and the other little projects it led to) were complete, about a year after we started, I was only left with one regret. Keep reading to find out what it was and get all the other details.

All photographs courtesy of Jessica Formicola, shot by Rick Fensch

Choosing the Appliances

The Centerpiece: A BlueStar Range

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Have you ever seen a kitchen that just seemed like a mish mosh of items thrown together? When I do, I feel like it must have been planned by a person who didn’t choose a central focal point or item. It can be a section of tile, the sink, the hardware, or, in my case, an appliance.

The first thing I ordered and nearly the last item that got installed was my BlueStar range. In case you aren’t familiar with the brand, BlueStar is an American company based in Pennsylvania that specializes in high-end, custom-built appliances—most notably gas ranges. These bad boys are durably constructed using commercial-grade materials that offer power and precision for home chefs.

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What really sealed the deal for me was BlueStar’s color selection. Not just stainless or black stainless. Not even as simple as a choice of metallic finishes. Nope, I had over a thousand colors and metals to create the ultimate eye-catching range. My own truly unique piece of equipment.

I chose a 48-inch range with six cast-iron burners, a griddle, two ovens, and professional broiler. I still have to pinch myself that it lives in my kitchen. Here are some of my favorite features:

  • 22,000 BTU UltraNova open burners. Note: They’re super powerful and it took me some time to adjust to them
  • 15,000 BTU integrated griddle—the ultimate smash burger and grilled cheese maker
  • Precise 130 degree simmer burner, great for braising and stocks
  • Integrated wok cooking, I hadn’t had a wok in years, but I bought a new one!
  • Extra-large convection oven and smaller baker’s oven—the larger one fits 18-by-26-inch commercial baking sheet
  • 1,850 degree infrared broiler, which is the same temperature that high-end steakhouses use to char steaks

The remaining elements fell into place around it, since I was always mindful that no matter what, I wanted my eyes to settle back on the beautiful blue stove.

The Range Hood

A powerful range needs a powerful ventilation system, but again, I didn’t want anyone to look up and away from my stove. Bertch was able to make a simple custom range hood to house a commercial-grade vent that sounds like a jet engine.

The Beverage Cooler

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Our kitchen had one bare wall that used to be home to a lovely hutch built by my father. But since my main concern was having enough storage and counter space, we turned that wall into a beverage area.

Given my profession, I fill up the beverage cooler pretty fast, so having a dedicated space for soda, beer, wine, and juices frees up precious real estate.

Pro Tip: Before selecting a beverage fridge, be sure to check its depth, and the suggested clearance behind it for venting, and the hinge and door. Ours ended up not being 100 percent flush with the cabinets. At first, this drove me loony, but now I hardly notice.

The Dishwasher

The dishwasher was the only appliance I didn’t replace, since it was practically brand new. The previous owners had put it in right before we bought the house. However, now I regret that decision and would love to have a new one! That’s not my big regret, though.

The Refrigerator

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BlueStar does offer refrigeration solutions in the same fun customizations as the range, but they weren’t the size I needed. Originally, I wanted side-by-side columns, but given the time in which we were renovating (COVID), the ones we wanted weren’t going to be available for months.

We decided to go with a JennAir pro-style refrigerator to go with the dishwasher. I really wanted all the handles to match.

A very helpful JennAir rep was able to find us a 48-inch built-in side-by-side fridge with a water dispenser, which is serving us well. While I love the built-in appearance, it did take some creative customizations from our contractor to have it achieve this look without the required two inches of breathing room at the top (a requirement we weren’t aware of until installation day). While there’s still room at the top, they were able to use a small piece of molding to hide the open space.

The real showstopper is the fridge’s black interior, which JennAir calls Obsidian. It actually helps food stand out and avoid being forgotten. Blue backlights create a dramatic and unique appearance.

The Double Wall Ovens

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Again, I went with JennAir Pro-Style ovens to match my other appliances’ handles. I was able to find a double unit with microwave convection oven on top and a standard electric oven on the bottom.

Planning the Design

The kitchen itself was actually the simplest part. Reconfiguring the adjoining areas to flow more naturally from it and give us more storage was the tricky part. I hope our solutions spark ideas for you.

The Kitchen

We were lucky to escape any major layout redesigns or demolition of walls in the kitchen. Its basic footprint stayed the same: a U-shape with an island in the center. We also simply updated the adjoining pantry.

However, people often came into our home through a door off the kitchen. It led from the garage through the laundry room and into the kitchen. Nothing says “welcome” like someone’s undies! This also meant it had virtually no storage or place to sort or fold any clothes. We also only had one narrow closet big enough to fit two adult size jackets, so coats piled on the small counter and shoes just mountained. So we turned it into a mud room/drop zone—a much nicer area to greet guests and a much nicer view from the kitchen.

As for the other elements, here’s how they came together:

Cabinets
Next to the appliances, kitchen cabinets are the biggest expense. To my surprise, the appliances needed to be picked out first and then the cabinets designed around them.

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The price options range greatly, but so do finishes, quality, and interior bells and whistles. My goal was to install as much storage in every area that we renovated, but that ended up meaning a lot of cabinets.

To balance what I wanted with our budget and style, I used two different cabinet makers: Bertch, a higher-end cabinet, in the kitchen, and the more budget friendly Echelon in the mudroom, pantry, and laundry room. I’m very pleased with all of them.

One kitchen wall previously featured a built-in desk, which we transformed into more useable counter space and storage.

I also opted to extend the cabinets to the ceiling. Previously, they’d been about eight inches lower.

Since it’s a kitchen set, my space is white. It provides me with a blank canvas to spruce up with complementary colors or holiday themes. Cabinet doors with frosted glass panels turned backward break up the monotony without creating a glare, and the oversize island complements the white cabinets with a dark gray stain. Staining the wood versus painting it allows subtle personality shine through.

Pro Tip: If you like the look of glass cabinets but don’t like the glare or interior organization they require, consider frosted glass panes and do as Jessica did: turn them backward for a matte look.

The specialty cabinet insert I chose included a double-stacked cutlery drawer, concealed drawers inside larger drawers, upright dividers for baking sheets and cutting boards, hidden trash and recycle bins, pull-out knife blocks, a lemans cabinet for a blind corner, and the only must-have from my hubby: a charging station drawer to keep all those cords, phones, and tablets out of sight. There are also hidden cabinets under the island for additional storage.

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The Hardware
Starting out on this journey, I had no clue that hardware would be such a big-ticket item. Why shouldn’t a knob cost a few dollars? I was all wrong. I spent many hours trolling the Internet for sales, looking for something that would look interesting—but so interesting as to be distracting—for the white cabinets in my kitchen set. I also wanted knobs and pulls in standard sizes so that I could swap them out in the future when another trend comes along.

Amerock ended up being the manufacturer that offered several lines that gave me the ability to have matching pulls and knobs in the kitchen and elevated marble finishes in the smaller areas of the pantry and mudroom. Those were a little more expensive but so pretty.

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The finish I picked for the kitchen is called Golden Champagne, and it was just enough to jump on the gold bandwagon without being flashy. The cabinets have the Oberon 1 3/8-inch mushroom knob with a pearly white center, and the drawers have 12-inch long pull. In the mudroom and pantry I used 2 1/2-inch marble cabinet knobs and 5-inch marble cabinet pulls.

The Sink
I know this sounds strange, but I agonized over the sink for a good long while. It was the only element I hadn’t dreamed about for an embarassingly long time. I knew I wanted a farmhouse-style sink, and I knew I wanted it to be big—large enough for my massive roasting pans and Sunday sauce kettle—but the material was still undecided.

Ceramic chips and stainless steel look blah to me, so I opted for fireclay. It’s molded in ceramic materials then covered in porcelain enamel, and it’s extremely durable and scratch resistant. The only other realistic option for my level of wear-and-tear was granite composite.

I opted for a single large basin from Kraus USA and purchased a plastic commercial kitchen prep bucket to use as a soaking sink, should I need one.

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I also went for the highest horsepower garbage disposal I could find and an air button. Why in the world folks would have a switch located several feet from the actual sink is beyond me. It’s powerful (the box says it will grind a whole chicken, bones and all, but hubby won’t let me try it) and is so quiet that sometimes you don’t even know it’s on.

The Kohler sink faucet is actually called bronze, but it’s clearly gold and matches the brushed gold pulls perfectly. Because I was feeling a little “extra,” I also went for a gold drain flange and stopper.

The Countertops
If you watch enough HGTV, you know that quartz countertops are all the rage right now. Well, quartz, also known as quartzite, is actually a manmade material. Why does it cost more than natural stone? The answer is durability and ease of care, and I wanted in! Quartz doesn’t require sealing and maintenance like granite, marble, or butchers block, and it’s extremely strong. If it does chip (we had two minor ones), they can be filled in, no problem.

Mine mimic the natural striations of marble with a wispy ribbon vein that flows through. I didn’t want to see any seams in the island, so it’s topped by one full slab of quartz—that actually dictated its size.

Pro Tip: One way to save a few dollars on quartz is to opt for your fabricator’s house-made stone. Just like other items, the ones that come with a brand name also come with a higher price.

I interviewed several fabricators and ultimately picked one that was slightly more expensive but did a better job at creating the patterns so there weren’t any visible lines or seams.

We also were able to cut corners by not cutting corners. Detailed edges cost more. I did a more ornate cut on the island but a standard cut on the rest of the counters.

The Backsplashes

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Because I had three very distinct places to tile (four including the laundry room), I was able to pick out a bunch of different tiles. Again, keeping the the “blank slate” concept, the majority is a white marble. Clearly marble cost a pretty penny, but not nearly as much as ornate ceramic and glass tiles.

The only exception to the white marble is the custom inlay above the range. I wanted it to bring even more attention to the range and highlight it. It has a rope pattern alternating gray and white with a pencil outline.

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Notice that there are no outlets on any of the walls. I hid them all underneath the cabinets. From these angles, you can clearly see them, but head on and in video, they disappear.

The Pantry

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I’m pretty sure my contractor was very angry at me when I decided mid-project that instead of basic wood shelves I wanted a butler’s pantry. But he mustered a smile and we ordered the cabinets right away, and I’m very pleased with the additional work space.

Adding counters and two more outlets allows me to use this space for small appliances like slow cookers or pressure cookers and keep them out of the main kitchen. The drawers provide easy-access storage. I kept the doors off so that I could always have a good view of all my items. The floor-to-ceiling cupboard houses all of my small appliances.

The Mud Room aka Drop Zone

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In the place of our former, small laundry room off the kitchen, we installed a full-length cabinet for storage and a drop zone with two hooks and a upper and lower cubby for each family member. Our contractor was able to custom build the whole piece and then paint it using paint provided by the cabinet maker to get the perfect match. All I needed was baskets, and we were all set!

The Laundry Room

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Now that I had my drop zone, we needed a functional laundry room. When I first pitched the idea of transforming the sitting room off our primary bedroom on the second floor into a laundry room, I think my husband nearly fainted, but the more it sunk in, the more we both realized it made sense. We don’t do much “sitting,” so the silly sitting room was being used as miscellaneous storage. It also would give us more storage—something we desperately needed in a house without a single formal linen closet.

So there we had it, but it came at a cost. We had to drywall in a wall with a weird angle and then cut a new doorway into the hallway, which of course ended up having a drainage pipe right in the center. After this and the venting was all rerouted, we landed a spacious and functional laundry room.

A second-floor laundry room also cuts oodles of time and steps out of my day. The only issue is (if you plan to move yours too) is that second-floor laundry rooms are often reinforced with additional beams to support the natural vibrations of the appliances. Since we didn’t open the whole ceiling, this wasn’t an option for us. We do have some slight shaking during the spin cycle. I’d still do it again in a heartbeat—it just freaks out guests sometimes.

Jessica’s Only Regret

About that one regret I mentioned: light fixtures. Oh, what I would have given for a set of wonderfully large and bright orbs hanging over my island, but I had to remember this was a set. Even small pendant lights would’ve gotten in the way of camera angles. Instead, I added new recessed lights.

I did have fun with a little gold fan in the sunroom and fixtures of the drop zone, pantry, and laundry room.

Jessica’s Advice to Remodelers

To find the right balance between the elements I needed for work and home, I hired a professional kitchen designer. That’s something I’d recommend every remodeler do, even if they’re planning to execute most of the work themselves. Consulting with a designer will help your vision come to life and also troubleshoot problems before they happen. Having my inspiration ready and a realistic budget helped too.



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