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Not Just for Cooking Anymore: Deconstructing the Twenty-First-Century Trophy Kitchen

This post contains an expanded abstract for “Not Just for Cooking Anymore: Deconstructing the Twenty-First-Century Trophy Kitchen,” which I presented in April 2012 at the Language of Food Conference at Cornell University, a thought-provoking event, directed by my now wonderful friend, Diana Garvin. This paper was then published in the Graduate Journal of Food Studies, Winter 2014. Download the PDF here

Presenting my paper at the Language of Food Conference | Photo by: Julia Hastings-Black

More than ever before, the American kitchen is center stage. A variety of converging factors explain its ascent within the home and the American consciousness. With the inception of the Food Network (1993), Home and Garden Television (1994), shows such as MTV Cribs (2000), and a deluge of magazines and websites, images of the dream kitchens used by famous chefs, owned by celebrities, and purchased by aspiring homebuyers bombard American viewers. The near constant barrage of ideal kitchen images is one factor that has contributed to the redefinition of the American kitchen.

Drawing from kitchen design history, popular culture, and current kitchen renewal trends, this paper shows that today’s ideal kitchen breaks the mold that defines the kitchen itself. In opposition to how the kitchen has been historically positioned and understood within the home—and despite predictions that technological innovations would render the kitchen obsolete—the ideal twenty-first-century kitchen is now considered the central hub of the home. While previously defined as a room for cooking, the ideal of the trophy kitchen takes on a new meaning that is often disassociated from cooking and food preparation.

This paper explores several themes that triumph over function in the twenty-first-century kitchen.

1. Kitchen as Status Symbol

As function has become secondary, status has become primary. Scholars have examined the emergence of the kitchen as a potent status symbol, often using the work of Pierre Bourdieu (Southerton 2001, Gram-Hanssen and Bech-Danielsen 2004, Shove and Hand 2005, Gdula 2008). With the rise of “foodie” culture, which has been growing steadily in the United States since at least the 1960s, dining and cooking have become leisure activities of the bourgeoisie, thus making the kitchen a site of their consumption.

One of 50 Cent’s six ktichens as featured on MTV Cribs

This section includes analysis of the 50 Cent Special Episode of MTV Cribs and the HGTV program, House Hunters.

2. Kitchen as Social Space

In her ethnographic research of home decoration in London, Alison Clarke (2001) concluded that “the house objectifies the vision the occupants have of themselves in the eyes of others and as such it becomes an entity and process to live up to, give time to, show off to” (quoted in Shove and Hand 2005). Thus, as the kitchen becomes a more public space meant for socializing, rather than cooking, status plays a larger role. The kitchen is thus elevated to a social space for entertaining that merges the public and private spheres, complete with professional appliances heretofore reserved for restaurant kitchens.

HGTV Dream Kitchen Giveaway 2012: “Continues from the great room…an 8-by-4-foot…island accommodates both food prep and entertaining.”

3. Kitchen as Site of Fantasy 

Shove and Hand’s research on kitchen consumption found that people made kitchen design decisions for a desired future state “in order to foster habits to which they aspire” (Shove and Hand 2005), revealing an orientation toward a future self, rather than the present. The kitchen is also a site for hopes, dreams, and fantasies with appliances and equipment representing a better future self promised by the kitchen consumer industry.

4. Kitchen as Performance Space…Especially for Men

As the focal point of the home, the kitchen also provides a performance center where culinary theater and leisure are played out in kitchen design, décor, and use. In addition, the trophy kitchen promotes male culinary performance specifically, fantastically termed the “dudification of cooking” by Helen Rosner, the online editor for Saveur (McArdle 2011)While a woman who cooks for her family is viewed as unexceptional, a man who cooks is viewed as a celebrity within his own home. Thus, men are theorized to be a key contributor to the growing trend of trophy kitchens (Koppel in Guzman 2002).

By exploring these themes, this paper elucidates the evolution, role, and meaning of the twenty-first-century trophy kitchen, especially in scenarios where it is not meant for cooking.


Featured Image Credit: Peter Rymwid & Peter Salerno


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