Cooks, it seems, are all Aristotelians. An obsession with categorisation and order, of everything being in its right place, is the overriding characteristic of all kitchens. The Palaeolithic cave-chefs of 20,000BC laid out their utensils on long stone trays, arranged at varying heights on granite blocks; the celebrity food-heaters of our own time hang their copper saucepans according to size, the culinary equivalent of Russian dolls. Far more than such modern innovations as hygiene, it is these functional, ergonomic divisions and subdivisions of the space that are essential for the preparation of food, and therefore unite all kitchens.

Translated from French (and in what other tongue would a text on kitchens be shored up with citations from Baudrillard?), Anthony Rowley’s home-economics epic is a piquant deviation from the standard kitcen-book recipe. There is much more on the menu here than just a sprinkling of rustic and minimalist styles of décor for readers to envy and emulate. Rowley’s work is historical, erudite and far-reaching. It takes in the sweltering, Gormenghast-ly complexes of great estates and baronial halls, wherein huge teams of servants laboured over eight-course banquets. It tracks the rise of female cooks in the 19th century, when male chefs went off to construct elaborate architectonic pastry follies (Marie-Antoine Carême’s doughy constructions were even said to rival the Arc de Triomphe). It follows the Beeton track of the small domestic set-up and shows how the assembly-line methods of Frederick Winslow Taylor and Henry Ford were adapted for culinary use, with food being prepared under laboratory conditions in a bid to cut down on smoke and salmonella.

As well as all this history, Rowley also serves up a wealth of references in art and literature (everything but the kitchen-sink dramas of John Osborne, you might say). Paintings by Chardin, Tiepolo and various Flemish masters are used at least as much as photography to illustrate the changing shapes of utensils or the function of the hearth through the ages. And while Rowley does succumb to the temptation to include the kitchens of various notables, it is refreshing to see such chefs as US president Thomas Jefferson and trouser-sporting femme écrivain George Sand alongside the more predictable likes of “king of the wok” Ken Hom.

It’s tempting to say that all tastes will be catered for with this volume, but there are a few elements which stick in the throat. Rowley’s use of the “Inverted comma” is ceaseless and irritating, as is the transatlantic text – evidetly translated, with American spellings galore – and the inex is appalling. When one of the distinguishing elements of a book is the wealth of art on display, it would be useful to be able to look it up.


First published in World of Interiors issue 223. Reproduced with permission.


The Book of Kitchens

by Anthony Rowley  (Flammarion)

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