Blogger Athena Calderone discusses her current kitchen renovation, how to plate dishes beautifully, and her tips to remodel for maximum inspiration.
Like most people embarking on a kitchen renovation, Athena Calderone had a couple of specific considerations in mind. But one was pretty specific.
“Natural light is really important to me,” Athena muses. “Not only because I spend so much time in the kitchen but because I photograph my food in the kitchen.”
The lifestyle maven’s kitchen is nearly as famous as she is—her Instagram, EyeSwoon, clocks over 100k followers, with her combined interior design and culinary skills leading to sumptuous images and recipes on her blog that could make even the most-takeout-reliant of us want to cook.
So her desire for natural light meant orienting her kitchen so that light came in from the side for optimal image purpose. Also on her list of needs: surfaces that didn’t just look great in pictures, but also felt true to her aesthetic. She’s a fan of honed materials like marble—and used the stone as a jumping off point for her recent remodel.
“I recommend going the stone yards,” Athena says. “It’s a really special process to look through the slabs. Something might inspire you or capture your attention that otherwise you might not have been moved by.”
Athena also found design inspo in the Instagram-beloved kitchen of architect Joseph Dirand and in the less fussy spaces of our European counterparts.
“I have been very inspired by Scandinavian design and European kitchens,” she explains. “It’s less tricky than the way us Americans live. They need less. They don’t usually have upper cabinets, just a shelf or nothing at all. That kind of pared down sensibility was something I really wanted to embrace.”
THE KITCHEN It holds such deeply emotional and heartfelt significance for me. It was where I found both creative expression and purpose — nourishing myself and my family in more ways than one. I am almost at the place where I will embark upon a new kitchen to explore the next phase of my culinary journey. With all of the spaces I’ve designed, I can always trace back to the singular image, the initial spark, that informed the rest of the design journey. For my soon to be completed townhouse kitchen, it was this very image of the Parisian kitchen of #JosephDirand. It is both minimal and layered, sleek and warm. The journey of creation is one that fascinates me and I am forever grateful to all the visual inspiration out there that continues to make my eyes swoon. #sundaydesignswoon
It also lends itself to choosing materials with patina and history. Athena urges stylish chefs to reach for textures and materials that feel a little undone, like unlacquered brass and weathered wood. A few select pieces are all you need to whip up a delicious (and divinely good looking) dish.
“You can make an amazing meal with just a few great things,” Athena explains. “Have a great cast iron pan, have some great knives, have a good cutting board. You don’t need as much stuff as you think you need.”
Choosing beautiful and functional tools means you’ll actually want to be in your kitchen, which she thinks is half the battle.
“I think that if you aren’t comfortable in your space, if it doesn’t feel clean and inspiring, you aren’t going to want to spend time in there,” Athena says.
It’s no wonder she went all out fixing up her previous rental kitchen. Before this renovation, she chronicled another makeover process on her blog.
“I moved into a temporary apartment with really ugly, old kitchen cabinets that were a cherry wood with linoleum on the floor,” Athena groans. “For less than $1000 I got IKEA butcher block and just changed the top.”
The nearly charcoal gray and warm wood worked—she developed all the recipes for her new book Cook Beautiful in her previous rental kitchen. But you don’t have to buy all new countertops. She believes small tweaks can also spark culinary desires.
“I feel like people don’t use their countertop as a moment to show your personality,” Athena moans. “Of course your kitchen needs to be functional, but why not stop outside of the box? Why not put a piece of art or a table lamp in the kitchen, or a beautiful basket with a little lemon or a kumquat tree. Choose something that represents functionality and remains culinary in some way, like a tall vessel of olive branches.”
That eye for detail and height comes out in how she plates her dishes as well.
“I’m always thinking about the composition,” Athena says. “It’s likes styling a credenza or a coffee table—thinking of where to add height, where to pull back and have some negative spaces, when to have something more curvaceous because the other elements have sharp lines. Food is the same way.”
Athena’s brain churns a mile-a-minute with ideas of how to make your food more attractive. Leave room for negative space when plating. Skip pre-grated cheese “it melts into the pasta” and opt for shaved to add “interesting shapes.” Leave romaine lettuce leaves long and serve your salad on a platter.
Those “thoughtful little things”—shape, texture, color—bring a plate to life. And you don’t need expensive dishes and serveware to plate like a pro. She recommends building a base with white plates and then mixing it up.
“IKEA and West Elm make black plates or options with nubby natural texture. Don’t feel beholden to buy a set of six or a set of 12, either,” Athena recommends. “Mix different shapes, different colors, different sizes on your table.”
Her book does some of the styling for you, She divides dishes into seasons, with a corresponding palettes for each. Right now, she’s loving her recipe for braised pork, which would look right at home on a table with autumnal linens and accents.
“We’re in fall and about to enter winter, and a lot of our food is darker and more muted,” Athena explains. “Braised pork is not attractive, but I thought what could I add to this dish that is going to elevate not only the flavor but also the presentation?”
Her answer: a jewel-toned gremolata, walnuts for texture, orange zest for color and “a magic sauce that is utterly delicious.” We couldn’t resist asking her where she’d be inspired to cook such a thing. She chose the kitchen below for its balance of fall feelings, natural wood, leather, and rich ambery hues.
Get inspired and check out the recipe for One-Pot Pork below.
One-Pot Stewed Pork with Butternut Squash and Walnut Gremolata
FOR THE STEW:
6 cups (690 g) peeled and cubed butternut squash
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
1 tablespoon honey
2 teaspoons minced habanero chile, divided
Salt and freshly cracked pepper
2 teaspoons canola oil
4 pounds (1.8 kg) boneless pork shoulder
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 onions, chopped
4 carrots, peeled, halved lengthwise, and chopped
4 stalks celery, diced
2/3 cup (165 ml) dry sherry
2 bay leaves
1 bunch fresh sage (1 or 2 sprigs reserved for garnish, leaves chopped)
1 head garlic, halved
6 cups (1.4 L) low-sodium chicken stock
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
FOR THE GREMOLATA:
¾ cup (65 g) pomegranate seeds
¾ cup (75 g) walnuts, toasted and chopped
1/3 cup (17 g) fresh parsley
3 tablespoons fresh chopped chives
3 tablespoons finely diced shallot
1 orange, zested, plus 3 tablespoons juice
Salt and freshly cracked pepper
Make the stew: Preheat the oven to 425ºF (220˚C). Place the squash on a baking sheet and drizzle it with olive oil and honey. Sprinkle with squash with 1 teaspoon of the habanero, then season with salt and pepper. Toss to evenly coat the squash, then spread it in a single layer. Roast, tossing halfway through, until golden and crispy, about 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and let sit at room temperature until ready to use. Lower the oven to 325ºF (165˚C).
While the squash is roasting, heat the canola oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Trim any excess fat from the pork, pat it dry, and season it very generously with salt and pepper. Sear until it’s well browned on all sides, 20 to 25 minutes total. Transfer the pork to a plate and set aside.
Lower the heat and add 1 tablespoon olive oil, the chopped garlic, onion, and remaining 1 teaspoon habanero. Sauté until the onions are soft and translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the carrots and celery and sauté until they begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the sherry and use it to deglaze any browned bits that are sticking to the bottom of the pot. When the sherry has reduced by about half, add the bay leaves, sage, and halved garlic head. Add the stock and bring it to a simmer. Return the pork to the pot. Crumple and wet a piece of parchment paper and place it directly on top of the braise. Cover the pot with a tight-fitting lid and place it in the oven. Cook until the pork is very tender, about 4 hours.
Make the gremolata: Toss all of the ingredients together until well combined, then season with salt and pepper.
When the pork has finished cooking, remove and discard the parchment paper. Transfer the pork to a large plate. Remove and discard the sage, bay leaves, and halved garlic head. Return the pot to the stove top and simmer the cooking liquid for 5 minutes. Add the vinegar and simmer until the liquid has thickened slightly, about 5 minutes more. Remove from the heat, cover, and keep warm.
Break the pork into large pieces, discarding any large pieces of fat. Return the pork to the pot, then add the roasted squash and toss gently to combine. Taste for seasoning.
Serve the braised pork with a generous spoonful of gremolata and a pinch of chopped sage.