Technology cooks up convenience for chefs of all tastes and skill levels.
By Jennifer Shapira
Jason Shanker knows smart homes. As owner of Arlington-based Clear Tech Advice, he is a firm believer “that technology should be heard, not seen.” Shanker streamlines homes so that they function smartly, and on a highly personal level, inside and out.
Today’s wired home can be tablet- or smartphone-controlled in concert with Android or Apple technology. The solution depends on the user’s needs, preferences and level of sophistication.
Lights can be programmed to come on at your expected arrival time. In winter, you can set the heated bathroom floor to switch on just before your alarm clock signals the start of your day. Downstairs, the coffee starts brewing, and music pipes throughout.
Or when you return home from work, Sam Latif, owner of Cellko Construction Group in Ashburn, has added this feature to a home’s convenience: the garage door knows to open when it senses your smartphone from the console of your car, 100 feet away.
“Controls tend to be ubiquitous now,” says Shanker, adding most tasks can be performed with the touch of a button on an iPhone, Android device, or old-school PC. And, quite often, none of those devices needs to be within reach. Even if they were deposited on the hall table to charge, Shanker says, the system he installed knows to pull the data from anywhere in the home.
At the front door, a custom button that might read “Welcome” cycles through a series of events: lights turn on inside and/or outside the house, the AC or heating clicks on, tunes from Pandora or a favorite playlist might waft throughout the home.
These are just some of the tasks local automation experts can put in motion to make your home function more efficiently while tailoring them to your specific tastes.
And speaking of tastes, how does today’s technology translate in the kitchen, the home’s ultimate command center?
Consider voice activation to ease daily household tasks. Speak into a device’s microphone if your hands are full: Thoughtful voice activation can even produce a much-needed cup of joe. Latif says any appliance that turns on or off—large or small, high-end or no—can be integrated into a home’s touchpad system docked on the granite countertop.
The kitchen remains the hub of all manner of activity. But whereas a kitchen used to require a dedicated workspace to pay bills, research recipes, or have the kids do their homework, as more homes operate wirelessly, and tablets and smartphones remain ever-present, there’s no longer a need to carve out a formal work area. In many homes, the kitchen phone jack, and its old standby, the landline, has assumed relic status.
“People put their iPad on the island or peninsula and that’s where they search for recipes on Epicurious,” says Bill Millholland, executive vice president at Case Design. “Because technology is mobile now, you don’t really need a dedicated work station.”
When it comes to the layout of a kitchen redo, the placement of professional-grade, high-tech appliances is at the forefront.
“The design of the kitchen, first and foremost, is flow,” says kitchen designer Sandra Brannock. “It’s about how people who live in it want it to function.” Appliances “help that happen without a hiccup,” she says. It’s easy to see why. Today’s dishwashers can perform so quietly, it’s almost hard to tell that they’re operating. Some can wash micro-loads if only the top rack is full of dirty dishes. And many of today’s high-tech refrigerators are tricked out with new features. Forget the days of plain old vegetable crisper drawers. Today’s fridges are zoned with exact humidity and temperature settings that keep food preserved depending on its needs. Some are smart enough to calculate the appropriate storage temperatures: Farmer’s market-fresh fruits and vegetables get placed in one zone; deli meats have different requirements. Efficient LEDs shed light on hard-to-find items.
And where once, a box of baking soda might have been a low-tech cure for a clean-smelling refrigerator, many of today’s fridges offer sophisticated air filtration that prevents one food’s odor (think fish or bacon) from polluting everything else. Freezers don’t just freeze—they have fast-freeze controls. Bring home a specific item and drop the temperature for a couple hours; the fast setting won’t affect other items.
Brannock insists that one of the most important must-haves in many new Northern Virginia kitchens is two dishwashers with distinct designations: one for clean dishes, one for dirty dishes. In many homes, she says, half-jokingly, dishes rarely make it back to their cabinet shelves.
Millholland has seen an increase in popularity of warming, refrigerator and dishwashing drawers, a trend that fits neatly into the point-of-use concept. Often integrated into the cabinetry, and placed below the countertops, these handy pull-out appliances can provide convenience in terms of function and location. Keep some of dinner warm and waiting adjacent to the oven; kids can grab juice boxes from a refrigerator drawer at their height; a well-placed dishwasher drawer might serve your most frequently used tableware. Or in a low-traffic area, a wine chiller with dual temperatures: one for red, one for white, a dishwasher drawer placed beside it specifically for stemware, the glasses in a cabinet above in easy reach.
By nature, drawers “are almost a universal design-type element that people of all ages [and mobility] find convenient,” says Millholland. “They’re not specifically built for an older person or a younger person. It works for both.”
Making a Statement
“Induction cooking is trendy now,” says Lindsey Farrell, showroom manager at Hadco in Chantilly. “That’s the new thing everybody wants. That cooking methodology is really up-and-coming. It’s very high-tech.”
Induction cooking creates a magnetic field, because the pan in use becomes the heat source. The heat is isolated, so it is a safer and more efficient way to cook, says Farrell. When the pan is removed, the panel returns to cool. In terms of design, she says, “the cooktop is very sleek and stylish, because it’s completely flat.”
Great Falls-based interior designer Cynthia Alsaif adds that in kitchen redos, homeowners are looking at creative ways to add cooking areas that perform specific tasks. As a result, she is putting in more combination cooktops, or modules, that might include induction burners, deep fat fryers and steamers, and locating them throughout the kitchen’s landscape, always at the cook’s convenience. Technology now allows for the distribution of appliances, which represents a move from the idea of the traditional centralized location, where everything needed to exist within easy reach. Now, if the primary cook wants a space for specific food prep tasks, like preparing meat then grilling it, or a designated countertop, to roll out dough and then turn to baking on convection, “You could have a cooking side and a baking side,” says Alsaif. “Those sound like they should be the same, but it’s actually about zoning the kitchen.”
Another change in today’s high-tech kitchens is the decreased popularity of stainless steel appliances. Five years ago, that’s what everyone wanted, says Alsaif, but now that’s not the case. “I think there’s been a reaction to that,” she says, adding, more homeowners like the total integration of appliances so that they flow seamlessly into the cabinetry, but she also points to the trend of enamel front appliances—Viking has added a number of colors with playful, foodie names like Wasabi and Dijon—that provide bright pops of color. Alsaif also sees an interest in the retro-style look with artisanal statement ovens from La Cornue or Aga.
Even the smallest details don’t go overlooked. For example, says Alsaif, many top-notch cooks or even those who just love the look of the professional-style, six-burner Wolf ranges and convection combo, aren’t big on their trademark red buttons. As a result, Wolf offers the special order requests for the less obtrusive black knobs.
Water When You Want It
Who among us hasn’t handled raw chicken and felt worry over proper food handling? Did I clean up the countertop? Did I wipe down the faucet after turning it on with raw chicken fingers? These are just some of the questions faucet experts at Moen and Delta started asking. After intense study of video-taped focus groups, both have developed electronic touch or motion sensing faucet technology that they say is a direct response to kitchen behavior.
Moen’s MotionSense battery-operated faucet is hands-free and has two different sensors, says product manager Laura Garland, a wave sensor and a ready sensor. The water (temperature is set by the homeowner on the valve beneath the counter) runs when you wave your hand above it, and turn off when you do the same. The ready sensor activates when the faucet is approached. It also has a manual handle so “if you have company over and they don’t feel comfortable or know how to use your faucet, they can use it just like any other,” says Garland.
Paul Patton, senior product development manager at Delta recalls watching videos of people turning their “faucets off with their elbows, or they’d walk up with dirty hands and touch the faucet and turn it on and wash their hands, then turn around and they’d have to wash the faucet.”
Through that research, Delta developed its Touch20 technology in which you touch or tap the faucet (using an elbow, or any body part) to activate the flow of water. Touch it again to turn it off.
Patton and Garland cite water conservation as an added benefit because the water is on only when the faucet is in use.
Cooking With … Steam?
Julie McCrary, a spokeswoman Miele appliances, has cooked a number of demos for interested buyers using the steam oven’s varied controls.
“People are always surprised by what you can cook in them,” she says, referring to the gee-whiz reaction she receives after demoing zucchini bread, fajitas and seafood cioppino.
“You’re cooking with the power of steam; using water to cook meat, rice, pasta. You can even bake,” she says. “You can even make spaghetti and meatballs in a steam oven. That always surprises people.”
Miele’s MasterChef line of appliances come with a sort of touch control tutorial; they walk the cook through a series of built-in questions or prompts, almost like an ATM, to serve better meals. The finest cook might disregard the pop-up tips; a less confident cook welcomes them.
McCrary offers this how-to example: If you bought a piece of fish, and want to prepare it, on the oven touchpad, select “fish.” It will ask: type of fish? Then it cycles through a list: salmon, halibut, mahi-mahi? If it’s salmon, push “salmon.” Is it a filet or steak? How thick is it? Scroll through the questions and it calculates the cooking time. McCrary adds, the steam oven can precisely cook courses from any food group, be it grains, fish, poultry, vegetables.
Vincent Sagart, owner of modern European studio, Poliform Washington, is a proponent. “In terms of cooking, I’m most excited about the steam oven because it’s such a healthy way of cooking,” he says. “I think it will become as popular and important to the kitchen, as the microwave has.”
Healthful cooking and safe food handling are two aspects he says have become more important in recent years.
Beyond hands-free faucets, he points to significant advances in synthetic countertops like Caesarstone and Quartz which he says are now engineered to more closely resemble natural stone. Less porous and more forgiving than stone, there’s no concern about staining from a drop of red wine, for example—a wise choice for young families concerned about wear and tear, he says.
“There’s a general shift in kitchens,” he says, “everybody is more conscientious of food, how fresh it is, how to prepare it.” People want to eliminate bad foods and preserve the healthful ones, he says, referring to humidity-controlled refrigerator zones.
Another added benefit of high-performance, high-tech appliances? No doubt “we’re surrounded by technology, but sometimes you just want to tune it out,” says Sagart. “There’s this incredible refinement of noise pollution at home. You can hear the conversation. You don’t hear the refrigerator. You don’t hear the dishwasher.”
Products That Say ‘Wow!’
Local experts have their favorite products, large or small, that they believe work to improve convenience in the kitchen, and, ultimately how today’s wired home functions more smoothly, sometimes so smoothly, you don’t even notice they’re operating. Here we serve up some of their absolute kitchen and home musts.
Dean Belcher, specialty assistant store manager for kitchen and bath at Home Depot in Alexandria, loves his year-old LG refrigerator for a number of reasons, but especially for its fresh air filter. In the past, where low-tech solutions such as a box of baking soda staved off stenches, the LG fridge goes far beyond that. Case-in-point, says Belcher, “If you put fish or bacon in theridge, it won’t smell like whatever you put in there.”
But what Belcher, a self-professed techie, says really sold him on it was the refrigerator’s Smart Diagnosis feature. If the appliance is not cool enough or making ice properly, for example, it will dial into LG’s centralized computer system and have a diagnostic performed on the fridge. If it’s fixable, LG technicians will send an update immediately. If not, it will schedule a service call.
Sandy Jones at M&M Appliances
Sophisticated built-in cooking directions are a popular and ever-present feature from high-end, high-tech appliance makers like Bosch or Miele, says Sandy Jones. It doesn’t matter what you’re preparing: you can remove the guesswork. For example, says Jones, select your meat type, “hit ‘bake’ or ‘roast;’ and “even if you don’t know a thing about cooking, you can use the directions.”
Alternatively, confident cooks can disregard the touch-panel option. Frigidaire ranges have easy-touch buttons for kid-friendly foods marked “pizza,” and “chicken nuggets,” says Jones, adding to a parent’s convenience. “If you know you’ll be home in 20 minutes, you can have your child hit the button so that [dinner] is ready when you get home.”
Ali El-Khatib might be a bit biased, but the owner of International Tile and Marble in Arlington loves exotic granite, no matter the finish. While most buyers still prefer polished, El-Khatib is a fan of more contemporary looks like honed or leather. “I recommend granite because it’s natural stone,” he says. “Granite is so exotic I want to put it on a wall, not a countertop—it’s so beautiful!”
If space and budget allows, El-Khatib also suggests juxtaposing materials. Consider two different countertops, granite and man-made, and mix cabinet finishes: Do an island in one look, the perimeter countertops and cabinets in another for a fresh, two-tone look. El-Khatib stresses that granite is not for everyone; some like the symmetry that synthetic stone provides. “With granite, you have to look deeper,” he says. “It’s like a piece of art; the way the water used to run in the rocks. You have to like imperfection.”
Joe Johnson, owner of ShelfGenie is a big proponent of increased storage space, in the kitchen and beyond. He likes helping homeowners realize new configurations, allowing them to take precise inventory of their pantry items, no matter the cabinet style. “Two of our most popular solutions are installing Glide-Outs in drywall pantries and blind corners,” he says. “To access items stored in the back of a blind corner you need to get on your hands and knees to empty the cabinet, get what you need, and then put everything back in the cabinet.” His solution includes a creative cabinet installation in the blind space, for easy pull-out access to those no longer hard-to-reach items.
Sam Latif, owner of Cellko Construction Group, has added a home automation spin to the traditional garage door opener. The remote control opener has been around for decades. But now, with the omnipresent smartphones, Latif has put them to another good use. “The garage door can sense your phone device from your car console,” he says, “from the number of feet that you’d like to program in.” Set it for 100 feet away, even 500 feet away, and the garage door will open up so you can drive right in. For the couple who has two cars, and two different arrival times; the door knows to sense both phones.
Another cool way to gain entry, says Latif, if security cameras are watching your front door, the doorbell rings and you welcome the visitor, if a loaded Android tablet or iPad is stationed in the kitchen command center, press a button to unlock: The visitor gains entry without the homeowner having to rush to the front door. For another cool automation feature, Latif has covered flat screen TVs with an automated piece of artwork (in whatever style suits the homeowner; a child’s work of art, a family photo, etc.) to conceal the TV in its powered-off mode.
Cellko Construction & Renovation, Sam Latif, 42608 Cochrans Lock Drive, Ashburn; 703-675-5446; cellko.com
Clear Tech Advice, Jason Shanker, Arlington; 703-462-1125; cleartechadvice.com
Audio Sound, 12418 Cedar Lakes Drive, Fairfax; 703-740-0543; audiosoundusa.com
Case Design/Remodeling, Bill Millholland, Vice President, Northern Virginia Office, 701 Park Ave., Falls Church; 703-241-2980
Case’s Northern Virginia Design Center, 111 Rowell Court, Falls Church; 703-803-2273 (Visits by appointment only); casedesign.com
Sandra Brannock, 847 Jonathan Road, Linden; 703-801-6402; expertkitchendesigns.com
Cynthia Alsaif, KCMS, Inc., Great Falls; 703-980-3049; firstname.lastname@example.org
Hadco, 45150 Business Court, Suite 420, Dulles; 703-478-9301; hadco.net
M&M Appliances, 6201 Blair Road, Washington DC; 202-882-7100; mandmappliance.com
Miele USA, 9 Independence Way, Princeton, NJ; 800-843-7231 / 609-419-9898; mieleusa.com
Bray & Scarff, Area Locations, brayandscarff.com
Poliform | sagartstudio, The Washington Design Center, 300 D St. SW, Suite 527, Washington, DC; 202-554-8658; poliformDC.com
Scavolini, 1005 Wisconsin Ave., NW, Washington, DC; 202-338-8090; scav-dc.com
Moen US, 25300 Al Moen Drive, North Olmsted, OH; 440-962-2000; moen.com
Delta Faucet Company, 55 East 111th St., Indianapolis, IN; 317-848-1812; deltafaucet.com
International Marble, Granite & Tile, 5719 Lee Highway, Arlington; 703-241-2705; imgtinc.com
ShelfGenie, 703-622-0019; shelfgenie.com