Designed for a pro: chef Shelley Young, at ease in a kitchen that really cooks
To say that Shelley Young loves to cook is an understatement. Founder of The Chopping Block, the popular cooking school and kitchenware shop with locations on the North Side and in the Merchandise Mart, she lives for it. “You know how most people are like, ‘Oh, dinner, what a pain—let’s go out!’?” she asks. “I’m always thinking, ‘Oh, going out, what a pain—let’s stay in!’”
She says this while standing at the long, deep island in the newly remodeled kitchen of her house in Lincoln Square, taking a bite of the homemade pasta with sautéed morel mushrooms and peas that she has just whipped up for the two of us. She is used to standing and eating, facing friends who sit across from her on cushioned stools at the island and devour her creations. It’s clear that Young’s kitchen is set up to meet two main objectives: her own comfort while cooking and the comfort of her guests while watching, talking, and eating.
Young’s kitchen was designed by Susan Fredman (a friend, for whom Young has cooked many a meal over the years) and Aimee Nemeckay of Susan Fredman Design Group. Having run a culinary business and retail store for 14 years—and having had the opportunity to test many kitchen layouts and products—Young knew exactly what she wanted at home: Wood-Mode cabinets, Sub-Zero and Wolf appliances, butcher-block and concrete countertops, a trash receptacle near her island prep area (as opposed to by the sink, as many designers prefer), and a host of other specific requirements of a seasoned chef.
But she also had aesthetic requests. “I wanted the kitchen to feel like this pair of mid-century living room chairs my partner and I picked up in Michigan a few years ago—modern, warm, clean, and comfortable,” she says. The chairs, which sit in a cozy area by the fireplace on the other side of the open kitchen’s island, are distinctive high-backed numbers with chestnut-stained wood legs; Young and her partner, Sarah Myers, had them reupholstered in a soft chenille with a geometric pattern of cream, caramel, and mocha colors.
Fredman and Nemeckay picked up on the tones in the chairs, choosing three shades of light brown paint for the walls on the first level of the house (creating a cocooning effect throughout the interconnected living, dining, and kitchen areas). In the kitchen, the simple contemporary Wood-Mode cabinets are of rift-cut oak stained a slightly darker coffee color. The countertops are done in two hues and materials: putty-colored concrete for the counter around the sink and for the raised bar portion of the island and maple butcher block for its prepping and cooking part. The warmth of the wood’s natural color and the depth of its grain nicely complement the caramel tones in the chairs and generally lighten up the space.
The visual design is just part of the picture. For a chef who entertains often, space organization is key. “People naturally congregate in the kitchen, and I wanted them to, but I didn’t want it to be like, ‘Excuse me, excuse me,’ while I cook,” says Young. So she and Fredman designed a zone for the cook, with everything she needs to complete a meal—cabinets and drawers full of key utensils, along with the oven, the fridge, the sink, and the stovetop—close at hand. Guests can mingle and chat on the other side of the island and at the storage-oriented end of the kitchen— home to mixing bowls and some pans, as well as dry ingredients and snacks—while she does her thing.
“This way, people don’t really come to the side where I cook,” she explains. And yet they always feel welcome in her kitchen. Talk about tricks of the trade.
Photograph: Bob Coscarelli
1. Location, location
Young’s cooktop is intentionally off center on the island, giving her abundant room to work on one side of it rather than two symmetrical but smaller surfaces. She also had a trash receptacle installed in the island, instead of by the sink, for easier access while prepping.
2. Kindest cuts
Young asked her butcher-block fabricator to cut an extra piece to serve as an oversize cutting board to stack over her maple countertop. The Shun knife shown is a recent model that Young is testing for a year before she deems it worthy of selling at her shop (she does this with all her merchandise).
3. In sync
A deep stainless steel sink is mounted beneath a concrete countertop; Young likes the clean border this creates, particularly on the right side, where she can stack dirty dishes in a contained way. Custom sink inserts, including a colander and cutting board, make this a convenient alternative prep station when others are helping Young in the kitchen.
4. Raising the bar
Adjacent to the island is a bar, where Young serves meals for one or two or spreads out appetizers for parties. Beyond it, a cozy seating area includes one of the mid-century modern accent chairs whose chenille upholstery inspired the kitchen’s color scheme.
5. Smart stash
Deep drawers are Young’s preferred storage choice. She keeps the lids on her Le Creuset cookware, making for an always-neat look inside.
6. Fresh is best
Homemade noodles are the only way to go, says Young. She makes hers using duck eggs and her favorite electric pasta machine, which recently passed muster and made it to the shelves of The Chopping Block shops.
Photography: Bob Coscarelli